After looking through my Twitter feed last night I wasn’t going to write about this. This episode seemed cover the middle part of a perfectly tailored venn-diagram of the people I interact with on Twitter: sports fans, fans of cartoons, and other Natives. I also figure that because South Park has long since developed , to the annoyance of hipster fans, into an institution of social commentary, I figure that there are already scores of reviews and think pieces on last night’s episode and Keith Olbermann is probably planning to incorporate the highlights into his intro tonight (unless he decides to go at Jeter for a third straight day, which I would totally support).
I reconsidered because I don’t know how many Native American voices will be among those reviews and think pieces. I’m not sure how insightful this will be for this particular episode, but it may help to just act as a endorsement for people who weren’t quite sure if it was OK to laugh.
I say I’m not sure if I will add any culturally specific insight because the important act of this episode, on a satirical level, was placing the Redskins name controversy entirely in the realm of white people. Native Americans are absent because they don’t register into the awareness or history of mainstream Euro-American society, as demonstrated by the lack of historical self-awareness by the protesters at the end of episode who want the name changed to honor the football team. This enacts the fantasy of Daniel Snyder: that the team name has become tradition, a proud tradition, that is somehow more important than the opinion and traditions of the people it was supposedly (but wasn’t) created to honor (it doesn’t).
A quick episode recap: The boys want to create a Kickstarter start-up that does absolutely nothing so they can, well here’s how Cartman put it:
The problem is every name is taken, even the admirably gross-out, Bowie-esque streams of conscious names we open the episode with (I’d pay to see the brainstorming session that came up with these); they finally get to use Furry Balls Plopped Menacingly on the Table, which is probably the cleanest name they come up with and made me curious as to how many companies have adverbs in their name. Once Cartman happily discovers that Washington’s trademark has been struck down, he decides to use the name: The Washington Redskins.
The whole start-up subplot didn’t really work for me, in large part because Silicon Valley did the whole thing better. And the star of this episode is Dan Snyder. After his appeals to Cartman’s to change the name fail, he then goes to the NFL office where he encounters Roger Goodell who, in the South Park universe is a robot (who in the funniest moment of the episode speaks the direct audio from Goodell’s terrible news conference from last week). There’s a lot happening in this episode, and I’m not sure there was room to adequately take on the NFL, Dan Snyder, and start-ups. However, Cartman’s business model of rigidly doing nothing but telling customers to”F-ck You,” does make a nice parallel to the way Washington has handled the whole team name controversy, and in large part the NFL in general treats anyone who questions its handling of any of its increasing number of controversies.
Subject confusion is a favorite trope on South Park. And it’s used quite brilliantly here as the announcers have to differentiate between the team name and the startup company, demonstrating what it’s like to hear Native team names, and demonstrating that most of the time there is no clarification made between the created image, the stereotype, of those team names and the people who might be confused with them in real life.
For some reason ISIS picks up on the name. I’m not sure why, and it’s the weakest joke in the episode. Like a number of South Park season premieres it felt more like, “hey, let’s stuff as much stuff into this as we can that we’ve missed the last year.” South Parks quick turnaround time is exploited here in a number of ways, from replacing an injured RG3 with Kirk Cousins, to including last week’s Washington/Eagles score.
The most powerful aspect of this episode is the way it’s able to strip bare the deepest and fundamental problem with “playing Indian.” There are two excellent books on the topic, Deloria’s Playing Indian and Huhndorf’s Going Native, and both are studies of the pathological extent that Europeans and Americans have gone to attempt to claim Native American culture as their own, largely built upon the ideal that the Euro-American was the better Indian who would redeem the best parts of the original Americans’ culture while letting the “primitives” die out (a concept that shows up from The Boston Tea Party to Dances with Wolves, has found its way into centuries of legislation, and continues today; the problem being it has gone from explicit to implicit). Here, Dan Snyder dies trying to protect an imagined version of a tradition; a tradition that he believes as his never recognizing the people he imagined it from. His delusion is almost admirable as he stands up against the Dallas Cowboy’s defensive line (My dad, a Cowboy fan, probably wishes the could only tackle this well in real life).
Related to this image, earlier in the episode there is a moment that I’m not sure Stone and Parker intended to be as inspired as it is. After his appeal to Cartman’s decency fails , Snyder wanders around seeing his “people” largely forgotten, mistaken for the new startup company. This evolves into a parody of the “Keep America Beautiful” ad campaign (aka the crying Indian) that I think most of us are aware of by now only through parody. What Stone and Parker may not have known (alongside the Village People it seems like a go-to comedic beat for anything Indian related, and I think that’s why they included it) was the actor in those ads, Iron Eyes Cody, was not Native American. His name was Espera Oscar de Corti, and as the name suggests he was Italian. I think Cody’s story is far more tragic and complex than it’s often related and he did provide help to some Native causes, but by the end of his life Cody had convinced himself that he really was the Native American he had acted as in film and TV. The story is told that his house was filled with TV sets that would play only his movies and that is the level of delusion that Dan Snyder seems to embody by the end of this episode, a delusion that doesn’t seem to be that far from his actual stance.
Going into the episode I was a bit worried, or rather was preparing to be offended as much as I relished seeing Dan Snyder being ridiculed. South Park, a show that has made its name being an equal opportunity offender, seems like they would have had more problems with people being offended by the team name than the team itself. But Dan Snyder is squarely in the crosshairs. I think the reason why is that there are three unforgivable sins in the South Park moral universe: a lack of a sense of humor, being a phony, and having an uncompromisable rigidity in ideology. In his lack of self-awareness and religious devotion to a fake tradition, Snyder embodies all of those sins. And Snyder isn’t alone in this rigid delusion. Just this week a supporter of keeping the name who participated in a Daily Show panel about the name with the Indigenous comedy collective 1491s, called the police because she felt threatened after the taping. The idea that she would feel threatened because of her beliefs and traditions, by the very people who those beliefs and traditions were bastardized from, is a South Park moment that happened in real life. For South Park, the name shouldn’t be changed because it’s offensive. But it should be changed because it represents a fundamentally illogical, anachronistic, holding onto of a fake tradition. The problem Stone/Parker seem to have isn’t that offensive to people, but offense being made because of the fundamental systems of belief that are leading to that offense. And while this didn’t quite work as a complete episode, it did do an exceptional job bringing hose beliefs, the important and damaging assumptions behind the controversy, to light.