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South Park Tackles Trans Kids & Bathroom Rights

South Park Tackles Trans Kids & Bathroom Rights


Erica Cartman and Stan the 'Cissy' play with gender (with a little help from Lorde) in new episode of the equal-opportunity offensive comedy series

The animated equal-opportunity offender South Park is known for angering viewers on both the right and left. While the show has been generally supportive of the gay community since it started tackling the issue with protagonist Stan Marsh's gay dog Sparky and the over-the-top but sagely Big Gay Al, along with the formerly closeted grade school teacher Mr. Garrison, its treatment of the trans community has not been as well-received. Series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker seem to have taken on a more nuanced view beginning with Wednesday's episode. Titled "The Cissy," the comedy duo decided to approach the issue of trans folk again, this time touching on the hot-button issue of bathroom rights.

It's important to reiterate why the episode was a suprise. Although South Park has caught flak for its stereotypical depiction of gay men and its idea that certain slurs associated with the gay community can be repurposed to attack more deserving targets such as noisy Harley bikers, it has ultimately come down in support of gay people's right to live openly without facing discrimination, giving the issue its signature "it's no big deal" treatment. However, when the series started to cover trans issues in the 2005 episode "Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina," it seemed to be far less accepting. The episode features numerous inaccuracies, such as Mr. Garrison's off-the-cuff decision to get a "sex change," primarily due to his attraction to men, his ability to transition in one day, and the results of his transition taking on a deformed appearance. Transgender people are treated as if their goals are as ludicrous as a man wanting to become a dolphin, and for two years following the episode until he finally detransitioned in a future season, Mr. Garrison became a negative caricature of a trans woman.

Over nine years after Mr. Garrison became Mrs. Garrison, in "The Cissy" episode, viewers witnessed the notoriously selfish and sociopathic Eric Cartman don a pink bow and appropriate a transgender identity--which, due to his ignorance, he calls "transginger"--in order to be allowed to use the girl's bathroom at school, since the boy's bathroom is always full.

It's an embodiment of the transphobic fear that cis men may simply pretend to be trans in order to access women's spaces, but over the course of the episode, Cartman is taken to task for his manipulation, proving the fear unfounded. Eventually winning his own private "other" bathroom, his plan starts to fall apart when series feminist Wendy Testaburger uses his own tools against him and pretends to be a trans boy named Wendell in order to gain access to his space.

Meanwhile, Wendy's boyfriend Stan's own gender is brought into legitimate question when he sees two people close to him who are, for all he knows, going through gender issues themselves. Standing outside of the boy, girl, and other bathrooms, he's not sure which to pick, eventually securing a key to Cartman's private other bathroom as well and further disrupting Eric's plan. Eric ironically tries to brand Stan, who is having honest gender issues, as simply an insensitive cisgender person, or "Cissy," who is merely trying to take advantage of the trans struggle in order to gain special privileges, eventually leading Stan to speak to his dad about his gender, at which point he discovers his father's secret--that he is the musical mega-success Lorde.

Stan's dad shares with his son that it all started as a ploy to be allowed to use the women's restroom at work, during which he would sing to himself. However, when his Lorde identity took off as his bathroom songs became Top 40 hits, he started to legitimately enjoy his time as a woman. When co-workers try to banish him to his own transgender bathroom, he becomes upset and considers abandoning his second life as Lorde, causing his wife to give him a stirring speech to encourage him to be himself.

At the conclusion of the episode, stirred by Lorde's newest song, the South Park Elementary student body votes to allow any student to use whichever bathroom they feel most comfortable with and Lorde's workplace abolishes the segregationist transgender bathroom. The episode argues that not caring about sharing restrooms with trans people is what normal people do, and that those who are hung up on it are simply Cissies.

While some may find the episode to fall short of its accepting goals, it represents a major step forward for the show. Managing to lambast both transphobes and over-aggressive activists, the episode is classically South Park, but rather than condemning trans people as the show has in the past, it instead follows the general thesis of the series that people should be allowed to do what they want, so long as it doesn't hurt others. Finally, cultural touchstone South Park has looked at trans people and stated: "It's no big deal"--encouraging its fans to do the same.

Watch the episode now on Hulu.

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Michelle Ehrhardt