South Park and Beauty Standards


When I watched the finale to South Park’s seventeenth season (“The Hobbit”), I thought it was a really great note to end an otherwise spotty season.  Looking at other critics’ reaction to it, the big thing that seemed to stand out is the ending.  This kind of messed with my head because my initial reaction to the ending was one of disgust.

Because of the way the episode was framed, with the recurring joke about Wendy being “jelly” of the Photoshopped girls, the framing of her argument against Photoshopped images being so clear and sound, her righteous outrage falling more and more out of favor as the episode went on, Kanye West reading her that story of his poor untalented hobbit fiance aspiring to be pretty and successful as Beyonce, how easily Wendy relented to Kanye after having her hair on fire over the Photoshopped images in the prior scene, I interpreted the episode as saying “oh, just let Kim Kardashian pretend to be pretty, u stoopid jealous ugly feminists”.  So I thought the ending was a cop-out.  It didn’t make sense to me that Wendy would relent so easily when she spent the rest of the episode so fired up about it, especially when her argument (to quote one of the all-time worst South Park episodes) “makes too much sense”.

But letting the episode marinate a little longer and reading some of the other critics’ interpretations, I realize the ending doesn’t undermine the original stronger argument.  Wendy is the lone voice of reason in a world of people too stupid to understand that the beauty standards set by pictures of celebrities is an impossible one that the celebrities themselves don’t actually live up to in reality.  In this context, the constant “you’re just jelly” counter-argument reinforces the stupidity of the others (I don’t need to explain why it’s an idiotic rebuttal, do I?).  Therefore, Wendy’s capitulation at the end isn’t a cop-out; it’s the sad reality that Wendy just can’t win.  It’s common knowledge by now that images of celebrities are heavily Photoshopped (Wendy literally Photoshopping the image of Lisa in front of Butters’ face), but people still believe that is what they really look like and that impossible standard of beauty is attainable (Butters believing the Photoshopped image of Lisa is real despite seeing Wendy do it and everyone else believing it too), despite the ramifications of this skewered reality to women everywhere (Wendy in despair as she Photoshops the image of herself).  I’m still a little sore about my initial reaction to the ending because I see other critics comparing it the beautiful “You’re Getting Old” and I ruined such a powerful moment for myself.

P.S. I just want to say that Wendy Testaburger is and has always been one of the best characters on South Park.  From sending the substitute teacher to the sun to her audition for the Fingerbang boy band to her brief romance with Cartman to beating the hell out of him to flipping his “smurf genocide” argument back on him to this episode, Wendy is just incredible!  For a show that would sooner ridicule feminism than advocate it, it sure spawned a wonderful feminist character (Jessie from Saved By the Bell, take notes).

South Park and Beauty Standards

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