Audience interpretations, of pretty much anything, will vary greatly among different people. One’s race, class and gender, as well as past experiences and morals, will play an intricate role in his/her interpretation of something. South Park is no doubt a bold show, but whether someone interprets this boldness as humorous or vulgar depends on the individual.
When I watch South Park, I am watching it because my male friends turn it on. My interpretation is influenced by numerous factors, including the fact that I am a woman. Also, I have always had a strong opinion that the majority of the material on cable television is inappropriate and should be aired on stations that have to be ordered separately, such as HBO. By inappropriate, I mean the sexually explicit, violent, adult content that airs on stations such as Comedy Central; I include South Park in this category. Some would argue that the rise of parental controls available with cable packages eliminates this problem; however, children in situations where their care taker does not monitor what they watch are the ones being affected. My interpretation of South Park is double-sided; while it is an extremely creative, up-to-date show with intelligent writers, some of the material goes way too far. I do find certain scenes humorous, but the vulgar scenes are offensive and they are far too explicit for young viewers.
On the other hand, my male friends cannot get enough South Park. There are many inconsistencies between my interpretations and my male friends’ interpretations of the show. Their interpretation of the show lies in its entertainment factor. They are not concerned about who is seeing the content that possibly shouldn’t. They actually enjoy more, the extremely offensive material than the “toned down” scenes. My male friends, and probably most male South Park fans, have a very basic view of the show; it’s funny, witty and current. The only consistency present between these two interpretations is that it is, at least, entertaining.
To offer an example of these interpretations, watch episode #508, the “Towelie” episode (available at the bottom of this blog). The very beginning of the episode is the focus this example. To briefly describe the scene, Cartman finds a used tampon in the trash. When I saw this, I was immediately offended; however, my male friends immediately cracked up laughing. Some might attribute the differences in the interpretations of this scene to the difference in the gender of the interpreters. This possible rationale assumes that men can tolerate and even enjoy explicit material more so than women. This assumption is somewhat stereotypical of masculine and feminine characteristics. For example, in the extreme case of the media’s focus on the women torturers inside Abu Ghraib, as opposed to the male torturers, there is an underlying societal view that women are normally the victims of torture, not the inflictors. According to Cynthia Enloe, “Women were not – according to the conventional presumption – supposed to be the wielders of violence, certainly not the perpetrators of torture.” The intensity of the situation and analysis of Abu Ghraib can be greatly reduced in order to apply this concept to the reason why my, female, interpretation is different from my friends’ male interpretations. Basically, women shouldn’t be the wielders of violence or torture, and nor should they enjoy watching it on television.
The two interpretations that I have analyzed are not the only interpretations of the show; however, they do show that there is a discrepancy between male and female interpretations of South Park. It seems as though the show is intended for a male audience in light of the content. The stereotypes of masculinity and femininity show through the differences in the interpretations, and that is something to consider when analyzing audience interpretations and understandings of South Park.