Trey Parker and Matt Stone's television show South Park is a sociological show by nature. Every episode is imbued with the sociological imagination, and asks the viewer to think critically as well as comically about situational psychology and sociology. This is true for the Season 7 Episode 5, entitled "Fat Butt and Pancake Head." The theme of the episode is ethnic and linguistic stereotyping and issues related to diversity in America. "Fat Butt and Pancake Head" begins with a set of South Park Elementary School presentations on Latino contributions to American society. Most of the students give straightforward reports about contributions of Latinos to American society, but Eric Cartman's report is different. Instead of offering a dry explication of how Latinos are present in every sector of society, he paints a caricature of Latina superstar Jennifer Lopez on his hand. The caricature has an exaggerated accent and makes references to eating "tacos and burritos," even though Jennifer Lopez is Puerto Rican and not Mexican. The performance draws on every stereotype about Latino culture, and is overtly politically incorrect. Kyle, Cartman's friend, is infuriated because the hand puppet is a big hit with the Latino community leaders in the school auditorium. The Latinos in the crowd applaud Cartman's efforts and Cartman wins the prize for best presentation.
Cartman's hand puppet then becomes famous, out staging the real Jennifer Lopez and causing the record executives to fire her. Ben Affleck, Lopez's beau at the time, leaves the real Lopez for Eric's hand. The two are about to get married. However, the real Jennifer Lopez is upset and chases down Eric and the hand puppet. Cornered and prepared to end the ruse, Cartman reveals that the Jennifer Lopez on his hand is actually an alias of con artist Mitch Connor. He kills off both Lopez and Connor in front of a crowd of people. The episode ends with the real Jennifer Lopez working at a Mexican-themed fast food restaurant and complaining about her position.
This multi-layered South Park episode offers ample opportunity for sociological exploration and analysis. The most obvious issue that the episode raises is related to ethnic stereotyping. Cartman is an unapologetic bigot. His performance in "Fat Butt and Pancake Face" is very much true to character. In prior episodes, Cartman proves his bigotry against gays, Jews, women, and blacks. This time, Cartman's stereotyping against the Latino community works in his favor as he wins over the Latino community as well as the record industry managers.
Cartman's success is ironic and paradoxical, calling into question many of the issues extant in sociological inquiry. For example, Kyle represents the epitome of political correctness. From Kyle's perspective, Cartman's presentation is racist. Yet none of the members of the Latino community are angry. The real Jennifer Lopez's anger stems from the fact that Cartman is making fun of her personally, that he stole her boyfriend and ruined her career. Audiences find Cartman hilarious because he is the exaggerated representation of social bigotry and racism. If Cartman were a superme dictator, which he hopes to be, he would be like Hitler. In other episodes, Cartman dresses up like Hitler and acts like Hitler. His fascination with the murderous despot can be framed as more of a psychological than a sociological problem. However, Mills would have us perceive psychopathic bigotry as a sociological problem even more than it is a psychological one. Bigotry can be framed as a product of socialization; for Cartman could not have formed his prejudicial beliefs in a cultural vacuum. Exposure to Hitler, for example, would have fomented the character's hatred for Jews. Moreover, Cartman uses his prejudicial beliefs to presume superiority over others. He establishes an in-group status, however, small, and excludes all others from membership. Cartman does this in "Fat Butt and Pancake Head" in a different way: by objectifying the "Other" by painting it on his hand.
The sociological imagination as it is described by C. Wright Mills is helpful in understanding Fat Butt and Pancake Head." As Mills (1959) puts it, "The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals." If the viewer of South Park is the possessor of the sociological imagination, then the viewer is challenged to understand the "larger historical scene in terms of it meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals." The larger historical scene is plain: American society in the 21st century. At this point in American history, Latinos have become integrated into what had previously been an Anglo-dominant North American culture. This episode raises pertinent questions about the history of Latino culture in America, as well as the history of the treatment of Latinos. The current issue of immigration reform also plays into the debate, given that many view immigration policies as being essentially racist because they discriminate against persons from Central and South America -- Latinos.
The sociological imagination encourages critical thought about social and political issues, by placing those topics in their cultural and historical context. "Fat Butt and Pancake Face" takes place in an era in which stereotypes and prejudices against Latinos are considered taboo. This is why Cartman is the person to highlight lingering stereotypes and prejudices: Cartman never shies away from taboo. When he "goes down" on Ben Affleck in the limousine, "Fat Butt and Pancake Face" also raises questions about gender and sexuality. Gender and sexuality are not necessarily central topics in this episode, but viewed with a sociological imagination, they are.
Another issue that Mills raises when discussing the sociological imagination is the confluence of the personal and the political. Individual issues are group issues, and vice-versa. It is not possible to study sociology without understanding how the personal issues and experiences are a product of cultural context, and also without understanding how collective experiences are shaped by individual values and consciousness. Jennifer Lopez's reaction to being fired from the record company reflects the inherent inequities in social status and privilege. Lopez is not in control of her own career; the executives treat her as an means to an end rather than valuing her contributions to society.
The sociological imagination can be applied especially to the issues explored in the South Park episode "Fat Butt and Pancake Head." Racial and ethnic discrimination, diversity, and stereotyping are the core themes. However, this episode makes fun of political correctness, too. One of the reasons why Kyle's attitude differs from that of the Latino community is that Cartman's presentation is that Kyle represents all that he has been taught in terms of stereotyping. Kyle's perspective is that stereotyping is always bad, and that Cartman's hand puppet is racist.
Kyle's perspective is evolutionary, in that it does show how entrenched anti-racist values have become in American society. South Park Elementary has been teaching its students how to appreciate diversity and cease making stereotypes. The school needs to take that extra step towards encouraging the sociological imagination. South Park Elementary needs to encourage students to make "a move from color blindness into racial consciousness and a shift from individual prejudice into institutional privilege when understanding both diversity issues and their own personal biographies," (Burke & Banks, 2012, p. 21).
Cheney (2009) claims that Mills' concept of the sociological imagination "gives us a framework for understanding our social world that far surpasses any common sense notion we might derive from our limited social experiences." This framework helps us to understand the various levels of humor and social commentary in the South Park episode. Kyle's attitude reflects the prevailing social norms of political correctness. The norm of political correctness is in turn shaped by the understanding that racism has created unequal power structures and institutionalized racism. Kyle's attitude might not even be his own, as he is not Latino, but it is an attitude that reveals the close connection between public norms and his internalized moral compass.
With a characteristic twist of irony at the end of the episode, Parker and Stone are sure to show Lopez and a Latino colleague in the fast food taco restaurant. The placement here makes fun of the fact that Cartman had been unfairly lumping together all Latinos as Mexican, when in fact Lopez is Puerto Rican. In spite of her protestations, no one would listen to her, and she finds herself working in the taco restaurant after being put on probation. When she complains about her many Grammies and gold records to her colleague, the colleague responds, "Me too." The bond between the two members of the Latino community is formed in opposition to the prevailing institutionalized racism that has led to their now working in the taco restaurant. Latinos have made great strides, the episode suggests, but stereotypes prevail.
Stereotypes are often embraced by the target culture, though. Viewed through the lens of sociological imagination, it is clear that many members of the Latino community…