I confess: I think the TV show South Park is amazing social commentary and satire. Though I also confess that when I watch it--which is not that often--I feel mildly guilty. The language and some of the situations are over the top. Funny, but as a friend puts it, "just wrong."
Having said that, the last episode I watched made me want to cry.
At the start of the episode, Wendy, captain of the cheerleaders, defends Lisa Berger as the rest of the squad criticizes her for being insufficiently peppy and "sassy." Lisa tells Wendy that she's resigned to the truth: "Every cheerleader squad has a fat, ugly cheerleader and that's me."
Undeterred, Wendy encourages Lisa to build her self-confidence. Why not ask Butters (a meek, mild, kind boy) out to a movie? So she does, but Butters cheerfully declines, "I really appreciate the offer, but you're too fat for me."
When Wendy hears, she confronts Butters. But he is adamant and shows Wendy the glamor shots of Kim Kardashian he has taped inside the locker. "I'm sorry, Wendy," he explains mooning at the images, "but I have a different standard when it comes to my women. I want a women who takes care of herself and knows how to look good. Who has perfect skin and no splotches on her legs and perfect everything."
Wendy is nearly speechless, but manages to say, "This is a fantasy, you moron! Have you ever heard of Photoshop? Kim Kardashian is a short, overweight woman who manipulates her image and makes average girls feel horrible about themselves." Then she adds, "In real life, Kim Kardashian has the body of a hobbit!"
It turns out that Lisa doesn't know about Photoshop either so Wendy demonstrates with a photo of the overweight fourth-grader. She gives Lisa better hair, lengthens her neck, cleans up her complexion, and improves her figure. Suddenly Lisa looks great and about twenty-three years old. Or at least the image of Lisa looks great. Lisa still looks like Lisa.
The edited photo goes viral. When Butters sees it he's shocked. "That's who asked me to the movies?" He rushes to find this beautiful girl, but it's too late. Another boy walks onto the playground holding Lisa with one hand and his smart phone with the other. "Want to see my hot girlfriend?" he asks everyone showing them not Lisa the human being, but Lisa the Photoshopped image.
Lisa Berger is still overweight and lacking in pep and sass, but suddenly she's the most popular cheerleader. The other girls are furious and insist that Wendy do for them what she did for Lisa. But Wendy, quite sure the world is crazy, refuses.
The girls get their images Photoshopped anyway and the South Park Cows cheerleaders suddenly look like the Denver Broncos cheerleaders--or at least their photos do. All except Wendy's.
Why not? everyone wonders. What's wrong with Wendy? Even her boyfriend pleads for a picture of her looking like a gorgeous twenty-three year old.
In the final analysis, all anyone cares about is image. Take a look at this video showing before and after Photoshop images of celebrities. And note the accompanying statistics:
Eight to eighteen year-olds engage with one media or another for an average of seven and a half hours per day and media use Photoshop constantly. Small wonder eighty-one percent of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Among elementary school girls who read magazines (that we presume are more like Elle and People than First Things and Smithsonian), sixty-nine percent say that the pictures influence how they view ideal bodies and forty-nine percent say the pictures make them want to lose weight. In fact, a third of girls who are not overweight report dieting.
Beyond that, social media--be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn (maybe LinkedIn more than them all)--encourage all of us who use them to craft an image that is younger, prettier, thinner, smarter, more accomplished, and much more interesting than we are.
At the end of the South Park episode, Wendy sits down at a computer, pulls up a photo of herself, and goes to work. Better hair, improved complexion, longer neck, longer legs, and curves that no fourth grader ever had. With tears in her eyes, she clicks "Sent to All." And the triumph of image over reality is complete.
Kind of makes you want to cry. My hope is that it also makes us want to be honest too.
Publication Date: January 16, 2014.