South Park has always courted controversy. From celebrity parodies like Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise to broad generalisations about people on the margins, its use of stereotypes and caricatures has caused outrage since it first aired in 1997 on Comedy Central. Some of its content is so outrageous, that it’s easy to completely forget that it is a statire, and its stereotypes don’t reflect the cruel spirit of its creators, but our society. Everything is equally fair game, whether its religion and consumerism or sexuality and racism, it inspects society’s ills through a comedic lens.
One of the most controversial episodes aired in the eleventh episode of season nine entitled ‘Ginger Kids’, which sees Cartman make a presentation about ‘Gingervitis’, a disease that he proposes is responsible for red headed people. True to his abrasive and bullying nature, Cartman’s presentation is crass and insulting, which he delivers with the same kind of inflammatory rhetoric you might expect from hysterical news segments on crime epidemics: “We’ve all seen them – on the playgrounds, at the store, walking on the streets. They creep us out and make us feel sick to our stomach.” His presentation is, for all intents and purposes, a hate speech.
To teach him a lesson, Kyle, Stan and Keny bleach his skin and tattoo his face with freckles while he sleeps. Forced to embody all the qualities that he proposed to despise teaches Cartman not to focus on people’s differences, not to discriminate based on appearance and to have more empathy... or it should, because in true Cartman style, his anger gets the better of him and he creates a red hair uprising and establishes the Ginger Separatist Movement. During one of their rallies, Cartman is looking for examples of ‘great’ redheads throughout history. All he can think is “Ron Howard... aaaaaaand.... others”.
The drawn out ‘and’ is a small respite from the growing militancy of Cartman’s movement, which by this point has descended into Nazi-esque vitriol and declarations that the gingers are the “great race”. Taking this moment to bring the audience back to one of the show’s main stomping grounds, pop culture, undercuts the allusions to hate groups with humour but still treads a fine line between satire and insult. But the lack of further examples of ‘great’ redheads, subtly takes aim at the delusions of Hitler and his belief in white supremacy – if anyone was asked to paint the Aryan poster child, it would look nothing like Hitler.
It’s believed that the episode inspired the infamous Kick a Ginger Day in 2008, which resulted in real-world violence against a student in Calgary. The judge in the case squarely levelled the blame at South Park, but perhaps didn’t know that creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, according to the DVD commentary, were inspired by a billboard that they’d seen in England that read: "Only you can prevent ginger". The episode takes their typically outrageous approach to a real-world issue.
YouTuber CopperCab used the episode’s controversy to make a comedic response and helped establish their YouTube channel, and subsequent reality TV show. The video has been viewed over 46 million times. South Park even recreated CopperCab's video, demonstrating the eco-system of internet outrage can be beneficial to those willing to see the satirical side of South Park.