Thursday, April 22, 2010

How to Wuss Out

Angry celebrities, violent ginger kids, and Mecha Streisand are about to destroy South Park and all anyone wants to know is, "Who is Eric Cartman's father?" That's how Comedy Central hyped South Park's two-part 200th show celebration.

But when I tuned in last night to watch the conclusion of this monumental event, all I saw was a repeat of "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs."

Well, let's backup to last week's part one, which aired uncensored. The plot was truly aimed at the die-hard fans. Every celebrity who the people of South Park ever ridiculed over the last 14 seasons were coming together for a class action lawsuit (led by fudge-packer Tom Cruise).

Of course, any South Park retrospective has to incorporate The Super Best Friends, an episode which featured major religious figures including Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Joseph Smith, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Muhammad and Sea Man defending the world against evil. This cartoon alliance didn't cause a stir back when it originally aired in July 2001.

But sometime after the attacks on September 11, 2001, an era of media self-censorship began, and the myth of the prohibition on the pictorial representation of the Prophet Mohammad became an extremist rallying point:
Even a tradition as seemingly deeply set and unyielding as the one at the heart of the controversy over the Danish cartoons – the prohibition on the pictorial representation of the Prophet Mohammed – is in truth neither deeply set nor unyielding. Far from Islam having always forbidden representations of the Prophet, it was common to portray him until comparatively recently. The prohibition against such depictions only emerged in the 17th century. Even over the past 400 years, a number of Islamic, especially Shiite, traditions have accepted the pictorial representation of Muhammed. The Edinburgh University Library in Scotland, the Bibliotheque National in Paris, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, all contain dozens of Persian, Ottoman and Afghan manuscripts depicting the Prophet. His face can be seen in many mosques too – even in Iran. A seventeenth-century mural on the Iman Zahdah Chah Zaid Mosque in the Iranian town of Isfahan, for instance, shows a Mohammed whose facial features are clearly visible.

Even today, few Muslims have a problem in seeing the Prophet's face. Shortly after Jyllands Posten published the cartoons, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr reprinted them. They were accompanied by a critical commentary, but Al Fagr did not think it necessary to blank out Mohammad's face, and faced no opprobrium for not doing so. Egypt's religious and political authorities, even as they were demanding an apology from the Danish Prime Minister, raised no objections to Al Fagr's full frontal photos.
The Danish cartoons they're referring to are the 12 editorial cartoons, most depicting Mohammad, which resulted in widespread demonstrations, arson, and death threats in 2005.

So, rather predictably, a radical Islamic site issued threats (and denied they were threats) before last night's episode of South Park could air:
We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.
Theo Van Gogh was the Dutch film director who was murdered by an Islamic extremist for making a documentary critical of the treatment of women in Islam.

Now, Matt and Trey, the producers of South Park, are smart people, and clearly they planned for a bit more controversy than usual. They knew they could get away with showing Buddha snorting coke and Jesus viewing porn, but simply showing Mohammad would be the touchy issue. So part of episode 200 dealt with the South Park kids figuring out how to disguise Mohammad. One hilarious ruse involved Mohammad wearing a bear suit.

Keep in mind, they never even utilized the original cartoon version of Mohammad from 2001. Comedy Central and Viacom were probably too wussy for that, but Matt and Trey were making a larger point -- a point about fear and intimidation.

So what did Comedy Central and Viacom do? They succumbed to fear and intimidation. They bleeped out every mention of the prophet -- and then refused to repeat the episode anyway. That's the way to totally wuss out.

It's easy to think it was all some kind of meta-joke, but Matt and Trey issued a statement regarding this ridiculous censorship:
In the 14 years we've been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it.
Comedy Central airs some of my favorite shows, but I don't respect this bowing to Islamic extremists. Nobody wants a repeat of the 2005 violence, but this paranoia puts our art, our entertainment, and our culture in the hands of a few religious nuts. There's nothing funny about that.

If the media keeps wussing out like this, then (I hate to drag out this old line) "the terrorists have already won."


Trung said...

i was struggling about whether i wanted to write something about this issue. i'm glad you covered it though. i have to say i am disappointed on a couple of fronts. although i haven't seen either episodes, i'm disappointed comedy central succumbed to the pressure of censoring the second episode. second, i'm disappointed that some individuals would encourage harm to parker and stone. it's not as if they singled out muslims or mohammed. their satire was directed if not at all, most religions.

Kristen said...

Jon Stewart did a pretty good rant about the death threats. Watch it here. It's kind of ridiculous that the group making the threats resides in New York City... in a country that protects their freedom of expression.

He also made a good point that Comedy Central was trying to protect their employees, which I thought about as I wrote my blog post... but I still think they gave in to intimidation.