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The Peculiarity of South Park’s Mormons

April 18, 2010

John Dehlin’s excited about the Book of Mormon musical in production by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. His article made me think back to my feelings about many of Stone and Parker’s previous works…especially South Park itself.

South Park Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith never looked more approachable

I remember the first time I watched South Park…it was after we had “settled” down in the US (ok, it’s not as bad as it sounds…previously, my brother and I had been in other countries because of my dad’s military assignments, so for us, Oklahoma and the US was new and different). My mom heard about this cool show that was a little risque, but since it was a cartoon, she thought we should watch it.

Yeah, my mom’s a cool mom like that.

I didn’t like it all that much. Not saying that I was against little paper…clay…animated kids using bad language and making fun of various people, but honestly, I didn’t get the deal with Barbara Streisand.

But over time, I watched a few more episodes…and found that I liked some of the later South park episodes I watched much more than some other shows (cough, Family Guy) I watched. South Park more often seemed to make points. Family Guy was just “haha insert obscure reference in flashback.”

But I will say that the one time I really appreciated South Park was when I saw their episode All About the Mormons.

You can watch that one here via the South Park site.

I had not been keeping up with the show when the episode originally aired, but I remember seeing it on one of the first reruns during the same week, because I had some friends at school just buzzing about the South Park episode. And of course, they would go to their Mormon friends (like me), and ask what I thought of it.

Way back then, even when I was naive and uneducated about the church’s actual history, I saw that the basic framework of the story was fair, even if told from an incredulous aspect. I mean, rather than poking at things like the multiple first vision accounts (which is something that would have turned me away quickly at the time), Stone and Parker used a relatively familiar account. (The only thing I wasn’t quite sure about then was the seer stone thing. But that wasn’t major.)

As John wrote in his Mormon Matters article, one of the good things about the South Park episode was that it was relatively candid and fair (although I’m sure the church doesn’t want to admit that their retelling is more accurate than a lot of tellings of the tale), and Mormons win in the end.

…Nevertheless…I often found something “off” about the portrayal of the Mormons in that episode…and it wasn’t for the same reasons that perhaps the church itself might suppose.

The South Park Mormons are surprisingly unreal.

I’m not talking about their Disney-esque, everything-is-happy-go-pukey nature. That is just a clear satire on the way Mormons often try to present ourselves. It is flattering. It is something to be proud of (whereas, if Stone and Parker had shown that LDS families aren’t always such sunshine and daisies…then that would’ve also lowered my opinion of the episode in general.)

But rather, the nature of their unreality and peculiarity didn’t strike me until I had watched the episode again after being linked from John’s article.

The South Park Mormons are surprisingly new order Mormon-ish.

Throughout the episode, Stone and Parker portray the family as being unwaveringly friendly and accommodating. Now, this is just to fit into the Mormon stereotype. However, the things that the family says as a result of this stereotype seem peculiar — even for Mormons. Specifically, the Mormon mother, Karen, says to Stan’s father Randy:

Randy, the last thing we want is for people to think we’re pushing our religion. We know there are a lot of beliefs out there and ours just works for us.

Now, really. Really? Mormonism is has a central evangelistic zeal to it. And even though Mormons recognize “there are a lot of beliefs out there,” and that there may even be some truths within other religions and beliefs…the more common idea, I would imagine, is that the church is deemed to have the *entire* truth, or the *complete* priesthood, etc.,

So, the phrase, “ours just works for us” set of a NOMish signal…all of a sudden, it is about working vs. not working…rather than “true or false, right or wrong, black or white.”

To be honest, this response sounds better. I would like it if most Mormons responded in such ways. But I recognize that this more desirable response is probably not the realistic response.

And later on, when Stan finds out Joseph Smith’s reactions to Martin Harris’s loss of the translation and announces his incredulity at it all, the Mormon Gary and his father Gary Sr. say unlikely things there as well.

Gary: Hey, that’s only cool, guys. You can believe whatever you want!
Gary Sr.: Yeah, it’s great you have your own beliefs.

“You can believe whatever you want”? I am certain that I can find at least one talk from each conference session for the past…who knows how many sessions…that denounces relativism.

Gary’s final speech (and his most edgiest [especially in terms of language], in South Park fashion) really ties the bow of the NOMishness of the South Park Mormons:

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.

This actually reminds me of John Dehlin’s interview on Mormon Stories with Brian Johnston of StayLDS.com. It’s a long one (two sessions of about 50 minutes EACH), but Johnston starkly points out quite a few times that one reason people might leave the church is because it isn’t true. (He acknowledges this). But he notes that for some (especially him), it can give people a great life, meaningful symbols, allegories, and mythologies to apply to his life. He notes that there is stuff in the church’s sordid past that the church is terrible about apologizing for (if they ever do), but that as time passes, the church moves away from these things to more solid, helpful things (disregarding modern ideological differences…e.g., Prop 8 probably isn’t seen by many struggles as “helpful.”)

And so, I think that this sentiment matches a new order Mormon or liberal Mormon or cultural Mormon approach more than anything.

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16 Comments
  1. Yeah, I didn’t find that part too realistic either. I don’t know any active and committed Mormon family that would talk that way.

    I have to say though, I had to raise an eyebrow at John comparing this musical to Fiddler on the Roof for Jews.

    Fiddler on the Roof?

    Oh really?

    I also just want to declare that I’m getting really tired of reading “everything you need to know about Mormonism is in this South Park episode” on the Internet.

    Right, carry on.

  2. Yeah, I couldn’t accept John’s comparison with Fiddler on the Roof as anything more than part of the Mormon fetish with being a solid identity group like Jews. A tribe of our own, so to speak.

    From there, any analogy is possible and appropriate (despite obvious difference in the origins, perspectives, and goals of the respective works), I suppose?

    …but what else could you need to know about Mormonism than what is in the South Park episode? šŸ˜€

    just kidding!

  3. P.S. did you guys axe Nine-moons?

    • I emailed Rusty several weeks ago about it, and he said he was trying to fix it. Haven’t heard anything since.

      I’m currently trying to pull up Google archives of all my old posts in case I wind up needing to transplant them somewhere new.

  4. I love this episode of South Park. But my take on the supposed relativism is a bit different from yours.

    As soon as Karen made her statement, I thought — Yes!!! That’s exactly the kind of sneaky half-truth mormons are good at (without realizing it). It totally reminded me of my former self.

    They’re quick to affirm their belief in agency – theirs, and everyone else’s. The last thing they want is to be *perceived* as pushy. And yet…without anyone knowing how…they somehow find a way to bring up the LDS gospel and *modestly* sing its praises in such a way that the reluctant listener finds himself…listening.

    Obviously this family is caricaturized, but I don’t think they’re NOMish at all. I think they’re just an exaggeration of mainstream, and the mainstream works pretty hard at making the sales pitch subtle (Oh, I’m not preaching – I’m just answering your question!) and seem politically correct.

  5. (Although yes, Gary Jr is pretty NOMish as evidenced by his final words).

  6. Sarah,

    Interesting perspective. I actually will say that the ease in which they used their disarming position “Oh, we’re not trying to convert you~” to find a way to tell the LDS story also intrigued me.

    Nevertheless, it *did* depend on Randy asking for more information. “I’m just answering your question” (as is the case in this ep) is a situation that doesn’t happen as often, however.

    I guess we don’t know how the rest of the family would’ve responded, but I’m inclined to think that the entire family shared the son Gary’s mindset too.

  7. My experience is that the most quoted part of the episode is not usually the “enlightened” statements at the end, but rather the chorus “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.”

    Apparently it’s about on the intellectual level of the majority of Internet participants.

  8. ^Indeed, unfortunately.

  9. Yeah, that is sort of unrealistic. Also, Mormons don’t usually say things like “suck my balls,” either, at least in my experience. šŸ˜‰

  10. Chris, your nevermo-ness is showing.

    Deep within the crypts of an LDS boy scout troop, I’m sure you could find language like *that*.

    …or maybe my ward was just the bad ward?

  11. So true! I felt exactly the same when my co-workers came to me to ask “the Mormon girl” in the office what I thought of the episode. I said that, although the show was obviously presented in South Park’s own special messed-up way, they basically got the bits of history right. The abrasive cheerfulness was bang on, but the unfailing tolerance was not. I kept waiting for the family to cry persecution.

  12. I thought the family doing a skit was spot on.

    I agree with John Dehlin that it makes sense for the LDS church to be open and honest about its history, so watching an episode like the South Park episode doesn’t lead to feelings of confusion or betrayal.

    I’ll point out seer stones in hats as a good example of something I was not taught but was shown in the South Park episode.

  13. I went back and watched that episode again — I think it’s great!

    I especially love the way they capture the Mormon style with silly stuff like face-painting (“What the heck am I supposed to be? Haha!”) without resorting to obvious cliches like jello. šŸ˜‰

  14. Jeff Spector permalink

    As Mormons we can laugh about the goofy stereotypes, because we can relate it to someone (even us) who might do or say something like what those characters on South Park said. But, taken as a whole, while funny, was a snarky portrayal of Mormons meant to make us look and sound like fools. In that way, it was really no batter than the Godmakers taking basically true stuff and making it look and sound ridiculous.

    The comparison to Fiddler on the Roof is also ridiculous because FotR was a LOVING portrayal while South Park was anything but.

  15. While I think the comparison to FotR was pretty off the mark (for many reasons; yours is just one), I nevertheless do not think South Park is on the level of Godmakers.

    After all, South Park is snarky because it’s *always* snarky. It’s not snarky to destroy. It’s not snarky out of malice. It’s snarky because that’s how Parker and Stone get their laughs. To quote anonymous, it’s “for the lulz”

    In fact, I still think that the “final say” that Gary Jr has in that episode is candid…it establishes that, despite whatever foolishness or ridiculousness was sought through the portrayal (or is inherent from the story. Perhaps my DAMU is showing, but I honestly can’t really believe we are acting as if this stuff *doesn’t* sound ridiculous or foolish), there is apparently something within Mormonism valid.

    Personally, I think that is the message that people should be taking anyway (perhaps with a bit of a modification). So what if it sounds silly? So what if it is silly? My life and my family’s life is noticeably improved; meanwhile what’s with you and yours?

    And then, who will have the last laugh?

    (Of course, that depends on if the church — or any church — can instill such a track record. I maintain nevertheless that the SP episode did not show what lurks behind the facepaint, so to speak.)

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