Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Photoshop - South Park Vs. Female Body Image

It seems that South Park has no intention of slowing down in its satirical commentary of both current social issues and pop culture phenomena.  In the show's final episode of its 17th season ("The Hobbit") creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker once again utilize their particular brand of comedy in order to tackle the increasingly important issue of media portrayals of the female body.  However, the criticism contained within "The Hobbit" is delivered in a more subversive manner which almost seems to condone the Photoshop era that we reside in.  This episode thus requires us to dig a little bit deeper to understand what lesson is being conveyed, so that we may either receive an oppositional reading to body acceptance...or a populist reading hidden among the satire.

"Boo Wendy Testaburger...Boo"

Glasses!  That makes her the ugly character!
(Lisa on the left, Wendy on the right)
"The Hobbit" opens with the South Park Elementary cheer squad practice, just as the girls are about to begin a roll call.  Things go awry when it is Lisa Burger's turn, as she awkwardly mumbles her name before stepping back into line.  Cheer squad captain and self-proclaimed feminist Wendy tries to get Lisa to exude more confidence, only to be shut down when Lisa replies, "But I'm the fat one.  Every cheerleading squad has the fat ugly cheerleader, and that's me" (South Park).  Dismayed by Lisa's poor self-image, Wendy encourages Lisa to ask a boy out, in the hopes that a nice date will make her realize that she is desirable for who she is.

Boobs! That makes her a hot character!
(Lisa's Photoshopped Image)
The recipient of Lisa's affections is Butters, who turns her down on the grounds that "You're too fat for me"  (South Park).  Wendy becomes enraged by Butters' insensitivity, and confronts him between classes about his insulting words.  She discovers that Butters holds himself to a supposedly higher standard, exemplified by the numerous pictures of Kim Kardashian hanging in his locker.  Wendy decides to take matters into her own hands and decides to use Photoshop to show how the media can mislead by digitally altering a picture of Lisa.  Wendy should be commended here, as a recent study found that  "informing is more effective than warning in counteracting the undesired effects of the thin-body ideal promoted by the media" (Velduis et. al).  By guiding Butters through the process, Wendy hoped to detail exactly how the process works so that Butters could be a better informed media consumer.  Her lesson in media deception fails, however.  Butters is infatuated by the image, which soon makes its way to the internet. Lisa becomes an object of desire for every boy in the school, and shortly thereafter every girl in school has a photoshopped version of herself available.  Their labors are rewarded as they all gain new boyfriends.

The main narrative of the story ends with Wendy, who has been accused of being "jelly" (jealous) by everyone in school, tearfully photoshopping herself in defeat.

"Get out of here you Hobbit trivia bitch!  Who the fuck asked you?"

The hottest girl in school...there's an app for that.
South Park's major assumption with "The Hobbit" is that photo retouching is indeed having an effect on the body images of young girls, and the research backs them up.  Indeed "Most studies of ideal-body media effects on body image focus on the extreme thinness of the models, not their idealness. In modern media, this idealness is often created or maximized via digital image editing" (Harrison & Hefner).  They found after exposure to these image "Objectified body consciousness increased and physical self-esteem decreased among male and female adolescents" (Harrison & Hefner).  This is certainly exemplified by the girls of South Park Elementary as they attempt to catch up with Lisa's success.

Yet it seems that male viewers receive the brunt of the criticism throughout "The Hobbit."  This can be best exemplified in the visual of Clyde (pictured above right) holding hands with Lisa as they walk down the hall.  His attention is not on her, but on the false image that is pulled up on his phone.  As he introduces everyone to his girlfriend, he presents the screen for their approval, choosing to ignore the physical human being that he is in contact with.  Soon every male student in the school is following Clyde's example.  This presents an interesting view of how men engage with these falsified images, in that it makes them complicit in their dissemination to the point of delusion.  Even though they have the evidence that what they have obtained isn't real, they continue to bask in the glory of their triumph.  

However, it is not just the misguided 4th grade boys of South Park Elementary that are swept up with the craze.  Even the adults of the show are complicit with conforming and propping up these standards of beauty, while demonizing Wendy as a hater for telling the truth.  Mr. Mackey, the school's hilariously voiced guidance counselor, confronts Wendy about her recent Photoshop protests by telling her, "There is a very fine line Wendy, between being a feminist, and being a hater"  (South Park).  After Wendy goes public with her anti-Photoshop campaign, even the local news team accuses her of being jelly, with their reasoning being that she is merely a less popular girl who is lashing out at those who are prettier than her.

With the adults, we see a condemnation of the status quo that allows these hurtful media images to spread.  The news team is a stand-in for the media as a whole.  While we may have things like the Dove Real Beauty campaign, the industry still relies on these accepted standards of beauty to sell products, which means that they have a vested interest in shutting down naysayers like Wendy.  The fact that they are accusing a little girl of simply hating also implies that they will literally stop at nothing to protect their interests.

Kanye shares Kim's story with Wendy
The most difficult, and therefore perhaps the most important, satirical moment is the episode's ending.  Throughout the narrative, Kanye West (recovering gay fish) has been attempting to prove that his then-fiance Kim Kardashian is not a hobbit.  After Wendy makes the argument that Kim's image is another manipulated Photoshop wonder (and calling her a hobbit), West begins to notice that Kardashian does in fact have a striking amount of similarity to a hobbit.  For example, Keeping Up with Kardashians is described as, "A show about short, loud, little people living in a fantasy world" (South Park).  Unable to deny the truth any longer, West sneaks into Wendy's home and tearfully reads to her (presumably from The Hobbit), telling her about an ugly little hobbit whose dream was to be beautiful.  The hobbit's wishes only came true with the invention of Photoshop.  After he shares this heartbreaking tale, Wendy apologizes and performs her own self-corrective Photoshop to close out the episode.

An episode of South Park ending on both a cliffhanger and a downer is an extremely rare occurrence, and there will be no closure until the next season begins.  So what can we as an audience take away from this ending while "The Hobbit" still stands on its own?  Wendy's acceptance can be read in one of two drastically different ways.  The first is that institutionalized female body images are so deeply ingrained within the culture of America, that the pressure upon even the most critical women will eventually force them to concede.  Wendy cannot continue to fight when the male populace of her school, the adults in her life, and the media portray her as jelly for trying to enact a change.  So she must concede rather than keep fighting a battle that is much larger than one 4th grade girl.

A second message that could be gleaned from the episode is that Photoshop does serve a positive purpose.  Since Kanye's story seems to have such a profound impact on Wendy, it makes us as an audience wonder if perhaps Wendy's self-confidence is lower than she would have us believe.  Kim's desire to be pretty may have resonated with Wendy, allowing her to see Photoshop as not a tool of manipulation but as one of wish fulfillment.  It's powers can be used to make people happy with themselves, and perhaps that's OK.

So perhaps the lesson of "The Hobbit" is this:  While tools like Photoshop can be wonderful for making a woman feel better about herself as an individual, the societal effects of everyone using this technology leads to a degradation of female self-image as a whole.  

"You know, I learned something today"

"The Hobbit" may not be a standout episode of South Park, but it is one whose meaning is complex enough to warrant further analysis beyond the scope of this blog post.  Without the show's familiar "I learned something today" to close the episode, the plot's meaning must be constructed by audience members themselves, particularly while this episode still stands on its own.  (And I certainly hope that Season 18 will resolve this conflict)  By both criticizing and uplifting Photoshop, South Park negotiates both the positives and negatives that both technology and the media can have on female body image.  


Works Cited

Veldhuis, Jolanda, Elly A. Konijn, and Jacob C. Seidell. "Counteracting Media's Thin-Body Ideal For Adolescent Girls: Informing Is More Effective Than Warning." Media Psychology 17.2 (2014): 154-184. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 3 May 2014.

Harrison, Kristen, and Veronica Hefner. "Virtually Perfect: Image Retouching And Adolescent Body Image." Media Psychology 17.2 (2014): 134-153. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 3 May 2014.

"The Hobbit." South Park. Comedy Central. 11 Dec. 2013. Television.


Nightquest. "TheHobbit00051.png" Screenshot. South Park Wiki. 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 3 May. 2014.

Nightquest. "TheHobbit00003.png" Screenshot. South Park Wiki. 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Nightquest. "TheHobbit00018.png" Screenshot. South Park Wiki. 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Nightquest. "TheHobbit00021.png" Screenshot. South Park Wiki. 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.


  1. As an avid South Park fan, I thoroughly enjoy reading any sort of posts pertaining to the show. Having seen this episode I think it is yet another great example of an appropriate topic. By shedding light on photo shop and all the tools and enhancers technology and society has to create "perfection" that really isn't there, we can see there are definite flaws to our system. However, the end of this episode in particular results in Wendy caving into the demands, and making herself into something she is not. It'd be interesting to see where you thought this episode was going as a whole, even though it is only halfway done.

  2. I really like that you analyzed two perspectives on this episode. I agree most with the message that female body image is so deeply fixed in American culture that it ultimately pressures women to give in. I have not yet seen this episode, but it surprised me that it ended on a negative with Wendy giving in. If anything, I feel that this ending leaves a stronger impression on viewers by showing that this problem is not resolved.

  3. AHP,

    Great post. This was really interesting to read and I don't watch South Park so good job with that! This issue is definitely a popular one today (I see articles everywhere about photoshop and women's body image in regards to media/celebrities/models,etc and everyday women) so possibly including a deeper reflection on what is going on in reality with this issue placed next to the television view would have been nice. It's kind of sad to me that Wendy gave up in the end because to me that is a total defeat for the perspective that's against photo-shop and for privileging positive body-image types and more of a win for the other more materialistic hegemonic perspective. This post made me question: What does it tell us that South Park didn't conclude with a "I learned something today" lesson? Is it because female body image/feminism is still a controversial topic? Is this a way to not offend viewers? Like what Parks & Rec and All in the Family did? These are not questions I feel that your post had to answer but rather your post inspired these reflections on society today. Props and ...rock on.



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