Friday, February 28, 2014

"Fist Bump, Bro!" - South Park, Race, and George Zimmerman

General - "We… need you to shoot a young African American for us."  
George Zimmerman - "I gave that up."  
"This summer, a former U.S. Marine must do one last jo-"
Oh wait...nope.  That's just George Zimmerman.
General - "You’re the best Zimmerman!"
(South Park "World War Zimmerman")

This may come as no surprise, but this excerpt from the South Park episode "World War Zimmerman" (October 9th, 2013) is hardly the only offensive material available in an episode entirely devoted to the Trayvon Martin verdict.  Since its inception, South Park has pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable on television through a combination of crude humor, satire, and current events.  Series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker constantly utilize their program to promote their own views, with many episodes feeling less like comedy and more like a straight shot of liberalism.  With its propensity for taking on current issues in this manner, how does an episode like "World War Zimmerman" negotiate racial issues in America? Perhaps more importantly, what views does South Park satirize in order to impart a lesson of value to modern audiences?


Given the extreme sensitivity of the Trayvon Martin case, leave it to South Park to address it through the eyes of its most racist and bigoted character.  

Cartman shares his heartfelt poem, "I Was Not the Bullet"
Eric Cartman (pictured left) represents the worst that South Park Elementary has to offer.  His constant use of profanity, antisemitism, and racism is disturbing for an 11 year old, and it is through him that the audience begins to negotiate racial issues.  The episode begins with Cartman attempting to cozy up to Token Black, (yes that is his name) fearing that in the wake of the Travyon Martin verdict that his black classmate will lash out against the predominately white populace of the school.  Cartman's racism thus allows him to buy into "the notion that black males, in particular, are inherently violent and dangerous" (Brown 258).

Cartman interweaves this fear with the plot of recent blockbuster World War Z, casting himself as Brad Pitt against an army of ravenous African-Americans (instead of zombies).  But before the real excitement of the episode begins, Stone and Parker first poke fun at the concept of white guilt.  Cartman's fears are interesting in that he uses them both to separate himself from his whiteness, while also clinging onto it for dear life. The concept of white guilt is best described as the story of how our "nation acknowledged its fallenness, its lack of racial innocence, and confronted the incriminating self-knowledge that it had rationalized for many years a flagrant injustice" (Steele 498).

Cartman acknowledges the lack of racial innocence that was prescribed to the Trayvon Martin case by his preoccupation with the matter.  He goes out of his way to make the issue one of race, constantly attempting to reconcile what he believes to be a racial struggle between himself and Token.  In this way Cartman is a perfect satire of white guilt, in that he personally takes on the responsibility of a racial injustice that he had nothing to do with.  However, he also seeks to distance himself from his whiteness through the use of an extremely racist rap number.

While Cartman is most definitely white, his song "I Was Not the Bullet" attempts to distance himself from the case that he seems determined to be involved in.  The entirety of the rap is centered around what he is not.  He was not the bullet, the gun, or even a member of the jury, so "don't blame me, son." (South Park "World War Zimmerman")  Cartman also attempts to distance himself from his own white guilt by cloaking himself in the predominately black musical form of rap.  Once again, Cartman attempts to appeal to Token the only way he knows how...racism.

Despite his best efforts, Cartman is finally called out on his white guilt when Token yells, "You think I should feel bad for YOU because of the Trayvon Martin verdict? What the hell is wrong with you?" (South Park "World War Zimmerman")  The humor of the situation is derived from how Cartman managed to stumble into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  His concern with making Token angry due to his whiteness only served to provoke that anger.  No sooner does Token have his outburst then Cartman flees for his life, telling everyone that the "outbreak" (referring to black anger) is starting.  Drawing once again upon World War Z, the adults of the world misunderstand Eric's meaning, inferring that it is a zombie outbreak that is occurring.  Which leads us to the true star of the episode...

Easily the most damning satirical element of "World War Zimmerman" is how George Zimmerman himself plays into the episode.  When the U.S. Army is fooled into believing that Token is "Patient Zero" for the zombie outbreak, they approach George Zimmerman with the task of killing him.  Meanwhile, Eric Cartman approaches Zimmerman's home in a dark hoodie and black face paint, with the intent of assassinating him.
 Perceiving Cartman to be black, Zimmerman shoots him immediately.  After discovering that Cartman is in fact white, we immediately cut to a courtroom, with a judge pronouncing George Zimmerman guilty.  This is followed by another quick cut to Zimmerman being executed in the electric chair.

"Hey wait a minute...this kid isn't black"
While the message here is extremely heavy handed, it is necessary to analyze what is being satirized.  Parker and Stone utilize two high level officials in order to convey a sense of institutionalized racism in the United States government.  By having them defer to George Zimmerman's skills as a killer, they elevate him to the status of a defender of the nation.  There is also the inherent criticism of the justice system, which is shown as prioritizing the lives of white citizens over those who are black.  By executing Zimmerman for Cartman's supposed death, the audience bears witness to what is perceived to be the hypocrisy of justice.  This is further satirized by the speed with which the climax of the episode occurs.  The long length of the real life trial of George Zimmerman is juxtaposed with a South Park trial that takes less than five seconds.  Stone and Parker imply a brevity of justice that would have supposedly been used had Trayvon Martin been white.

"You Know, I Learned Something Today"

"World War Zimmerman" is perhaps one of the most controversial South Park episode I've ever encountered, both for its portrayals of a sore subject and its racial themes.  Yet this is also one of South Park's greatest strengths, in that it refuses to pull any punches on who or what is up for satirizing.  By confronting the audience with their views, Matt Stone and Trey Parker effectively convey their opinions about racial injustice in America.  


Works Cited

Brown Jr., Owen. "The Legal Murder of Trayvon Martin And New York City Stop-And Frisk Law: America's War Against Black Males Rages On." Western Journal of Black Studies 37.4 (2013): 258-271. Academic Search Elite. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. 

Steele, Shelby. "White Guilt."  American Scholar 59.4 (1990): 497. Academic Search Elite. Web. 28. Feb. 2014.

OfficialDumpin. “South Park Cartman feat Butters I was not the bullet Explicit World War Zimmerman." Online video clip. YouTube.  YouTube, 9 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.  

"World War Zimmerman." South Park. Comedy Central. 9 Oct. 2013. Television.


HP Bloodshed. "WorldWarZimmerman00081.png" Screenshot. South Park Wiki, 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

HP Bloodshed. "WorldWarZimmerman00079.png" Screenshot. South Park Wiki, 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

HP bloodshed. "WorldWarZimmerman00029.png" Screenshot. South Park Wiki, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.


  1. As a fellow South Park fan I loved reading this post. I thought you had a good take away from "World War Zimmerman" and used good insight on your argument about the "I was not the bullet" rap. However, I would've liked to see more elaboration on the adults take on patient zero, and perhaps how their going along with Cartman's latest antics could represent how easy it is to shape a viewpoint.

  2. I think South Park as a show is a highly effective way to critique contemporary dilemmas especially via each character. Your post reminded me of the also controversial episode 'Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants,' in that the actions and dialogue that transpire can be passively interpreted as insensitive or slightly-obscene, but they really just serve as a means to evaluate domestic or international conflict from a distance.

    You mention, "the long length of the real life trial of George Zimmerman is juxtaposed with a South Park trial that takes less than five seconds..." which is something that I think is often overlooked and discarded in favor of the show's controversial nature and humor. This is a great point, and leads me to believe that the way the show itself often juxtaposes real life events with cartoon events is a more effective way of leading the viewer to consider the absurdities of the situation. Instead of watching a more serious program analyze and interpret the events for you, South Park seems to take the lack of nationalism already present throughout media, and make it more accessible and open to interpretation. If you were to write about South Park again I think it would be cool if you made some kind of comparison or distinction between a couple of their other controversial episodes, and maybe how the show itself uses the kinds of devices that you described to critique current events. Nicely done.

  3. I really liked your post and how you explain how the creators convey their beliefs in race and how the Martin case was seen in their eyes. I watch southpark and I see how race is a big issue in many of their episodes. this post reminded me of the wheel of fortune episode that also dealt with race as an issue, and how it is still a big deal in many peoples eyes. I think you could have also talked about how people follow Cartman during the episode, and how that deals with some peoples fear of the African American community, and how that relates to the creators beliefs.

  4. I usually think I am pretty good at analyzing what producers are trying to accomplish with their characters and it may be because I really do not watch too much South Park and I feel like when I am I do not really pay attention as well as I do with other programs because the dumb humor I always got from it. However, I see now with your article and reflecting over the episodes I have watched that the programs always have a strong point they are making through satire. I enjoy how comedians do this and I will probably enjoy this television show in a much different way from now on. I like how you pulled out that Cartman battles with the white guilt while also trying to hold onto his whiteness very much, the song "I was not the bullet" definitely gets that point across very well. I also like how the show points out that the justice system is not blind to color and had Trayvon been white the trial could have very easily ended differently! Good choice in analyzing this!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post, partly because I enjoy Southpark, but also because it made me look at this episode in a new light. However, I did not think it was one of their more controversial episodes; I think the creators have touched on much more "sensitive" issues. To me, this episode was bound to happen, there was no way the creators passed up on this opportunity to start controversy. The episode is obviously racist, but you do a great job touching on all the different ways it can be seen as racist, instead of just the dominant forms the writers are trying to illustrate. Great episode to pick and great analysis of a very complex episode.

  6. Matt: I suppose it isn't as conventionally controversial in terms of receiving any media coverage. It certainly wasn't the Tom Cruise/Scientology, Naggers, or Muhammad episodes. But for me personally, it is definitely one of the diciest subjects they've tackled, certainly in recent memory.


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