Marcus Schulzke’s commentary essay Contentious Language: South Park and the Transformation of Meaning on the iconic TV show South Park’s episode titled “The F Word” confirms the principle “the result justifies the means.” According to Schulzke, the authors of this show is attempting to convey the idea that vocabulary is malleable and that the meaning of words can be subject to alteration (p. 24). He claims that the meaning of a word and the message as a whole is determined by both the speaker’s motivation and the listener’s interpretation. However, he continues to imply that the listener’s view is susceptible to change, and can always be altered to fall in line with the speaker’s intention. In this case, Schulzke relates his argument with the children’s understanding of the word fag as an annoying person such as the Harley bike riders, compared to the adult’s meaning of homosexuality, in “The F Word.” At the end of this episode, the residents of South Park accept the children’s meaning of this word, advocates for its change of meaning in the dictionary, and even the Harley bike riders accept themselves as fags. Schulzke’s opinions are valid, especially the aspect of the flexibility of language and the genealogy of words, but his arguments are not convincing enough to adopt this as the deeper meaning of “The F Word.” The essay supports the aspect of genealogy change of meanings, but continues to argue that the meaning of a word solely depends on the listener’s perception and that this can only change if the listener is ready and open to adapt to new uses. Additionally, it continues to explain that Schulzke support this idea because it involves the pejorative use of words along with the topic’s sensitivity, with the show only seeking to maintain its theme of indirect support of controversial social issues. Finally, the essay argues that the end does not justify the means and that words have a real effect on people.
The idea that a word’s meaning depends on both the speaker’s intentions and the listener’s perception originates from the children’s use of the word fag and the already existing meaning. As the children present their case to the mayor, there is a misunderstanding, primarily because of the differences in meaning between the two groups. Schulzke believes that the different references of this word affirms that both groups determine its meaning. However, in communication, the speaker relays a message in the hope that the listener understands it similar to what is meant. If the listener refers to various words used in a contrasting manner to that of the speaker, then the whole conversation becomes useless, and the intended message is not passed. Additionally, in case of such a difference in the comprehension of the words, more often than less, the speaker resorts to using the listener’s perception, to relay the intended message. The article only seems to focus on one side of falling in line with the speaker’s meaning of a word and using it to possess a different meaning than that of listener. By making such an argument, the author abandons the possibility of dropping the new reference of a word and sticking with the old because, after all, human beings are likely to resist change. In relation to “The F Word,” the word fag represents both a controversial and sensitive topic and, therefore, suggesting that people move on from its old use and adopt a new meaning seems almost impossible.
Schulzke’s arguments and “The F Word” as a whole follow this seemingly deeper meaning of the episode because it involves sensitive topics and the pejorative use of words. To support his opinion, the author provides the example of other intellectuals such as Herbert Marcuse who in An Essay on Liberation suggests the adoption of new meanings for words such as obscenity and cease from defining them with their relation to sexuality. (p 25) Both of these words are sensitive and represent controversial issues in the society. Therefore, in suggesting that people drop false neutrality and adopt new uses of such words, it would only seem as if they concentrate on their pejorative use, or even to avoid talking about certain issues. Additionally, Schulzke established that South Park has a recurring theme of supporting contentious issues in an indirect way (p 26). Therefore, this episode can be viewed only as a way of expanding on the theme without the idea of advocating for change in use of derogatory words.
Finally, Schulzke’s conclusion that the impact of “The F Word” justifies the means (p. 30) used is partially incorrect because unlike his arguments, words have a real effect on people. The mention of the word fag and its relation to something different did not deter people from saying it, but in the context of the old meaning, because a distinct reference was a new idea, one only adopted in the show. While the author’s perception of the show’s impacts is valid, they still do not change the fact that a higher number of people, upon the mention of it in and after the show, related it with homosexuality. Additionally, at the end of “The F Word,” the leader of the Harley bike riders accepts the word fags to refer to them, but continues to say that at least they accept themselves (20:47). This seems like a sarcastic way of referring to the community’s denial of the old meaning of the word fag.
Schulzke’s article expounds on the meaning-as-use aspect of the word fag in this episode, but leaves out a variety of discussions that deems his argument insufficient. The reference of a word highly depends on a listener because they are the intended recipient of a message, unlike the article’s arguments. Additionally, an interpretation similar to that of the author only seems as a way of avoiding pejorative and sensitive words that relate to some of the societal controversial issues. Finally, the impact of this episode on the overall issue of homosexuality does not justify the means used because words affect people depending on their understanding. Therefore, more scholars should interpret this episode to tackle the above discussion.
Schulzke, M. (2012). Contentious language: South Park and the transformation of meaning. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 40(1), 22-31.
Parker, T (Writer & Director). (2009). The F Word. South Park. Culver City, CA: South Park Digital Studios.