When most people hear about the animated television show South Park, they automatically think about the shock humor that has made this show one of the most popular, yet controversial animated programs on television today. Though the show does push comedic boundaries, South Park has surprisingly been a pioneer, in depicting special people in positive ways. This was pointed out to me, by John, my younger brother with autism.
John, who is a big fan of animation, noticed that there is scarce representation of developmental disabled people in animated television shows. Though there have been characters with developmental disabilities on television programs, such as Glee (Down’s Syndrome), Parenthood (autism), and Sesame Street (autism and Down’s Syndrome), it’s limited in animation.
John first discovered South Park through its video game, The Stick of Truth. Though some of the humor of South Park was too edgy for John, the disabled characters, Jimmy and Timmy, made a big impression on him. Jimmy has a stutter and walks with the assistance of forearm crutches, because of his Cerebral Palsy like disability. Timmy, can only repeat his name, and is in a wheelchair, due to his unknown genetic disorder.
South Park portrays Jimmy and Timmy, like any other typical character. They go through the same struggles, triumphs, heartbreaks, and misunderstandings, like the four main South Park characters (Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and Cartman). Though Jimmy’s and Timmy’s disabilities play a major part in their lives, their disabilities are not their greatest obstacle. Their greatest obstacle is just being guys in the modern world.
From the episodes of South Park that John and I have seen, there are no jokes made to solely make fun of Jimmy and Timmy for being disabled. Yes, their disabilities are used as a part of story lines. But, we haven’t seen any episode where they are mocked just for their disabilities. When the main characters speak to Jimmy and Timmy, there are not dumbing down their vocabulary, to talk to them. They speak to Jimmy and Timmy like any other classmate.
One of the South Park episodes that made the biggest impressions on John was “Up the Down Steroid”, 2004 (Season 08, Episode 03). “Up the Down Steroid”, is split into two stories. In story one, Jimmy and Timmy are going to compete in the Special Olympics. But, in order to get an edge in the competition, Jimmy turns to steroid use. Timmy does his best to get Jimmy to stop using steroids. In story two, Cartman learns that the Special Olympics are giving a cash prize of a thousand dollars. Believing that it would be easy to beat the Special Olympians, Cartman pretends to be disabled, to enter in the Special Olympics and win the money. But, Cartman gets a hard dose of reality, when he is severely beaten by the Special Olympians, in every competition he participates in. He learns that the Special Olympians are skilled athletes and should not be taken lightly.
With John being a Special Olympian, in swimming, he feels that some people, like Cartman don’t take the Special Olympics seriously. John and his swim team train hard and compete in multiple swim meets, just to be able to qualify for the Special Olympics. And yes, you can be disqualified in a Special Olympics competition, if you swim incorrectly.
Before South Park, in 2001, Family Guy, had an episode about steroids use in the Special Olympics, called, “Ready, Willing, and Disabled” (Season 3, Episode 15). John connected deeper with “Up the Down Steroid”, than “Ready, Willing, and Disabled”. Though Family Guy had funnier jokes about the Special Olympics, it didn’t focus on the Olympians themselves, like South Park did. The Olympians were taken seriously. With so much misinformation about Special Olympians, John felt that South Park had a more sincere depiction of the Special Olympics.
Another developmentally disabled character that stood out to John, in “Up the Down Steroid”, is Nathan. Nathan has Downs Syndrome. He like John, understand that people stereotype him as lower functioning, because of the lack of knowledge of their disabilities. But, unlike John, Nathan is a protagonist that takes advantage of this stereotype. Nathan plays up his disability among the adults, to make them believe he is lower function. This allows Nathan the cover he needs, so, he can plan and attempt to scam his peers. Yet, Nathan’s plans and scams usually comically backfire on him, making him a likeable protagonist.
Although South Park has a reputation of making fun of taboo subjects, like abortion and religion, in regards to the developmentally disabled, they are not made fun of for being disabled. They’re people, who just happen to be disabled. So, thank you, South Park, for portraying Jimmy and Timmy like any other boy. And for giving John, a positive depiction of developmentally disabled people, on television.