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It’s worth noting that in “Stunning and Brave,” the expectedly refreshing, self-reflexive premiere of South Park Season 19, Caitlyn Jenner is not the subject of creator-writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s merciless skepticism. For a show notorious for its reflection of popular culture and treatment of celebrities and public figures in general, the fact that Jenner does not appear, in any form, in the episode says a lot about what exactly Parker and Stone are getting at. The duo have never quite blamed celebrities for the strange personal choices or outbursts that can come with the curated public image they need to maintain, but rather the false righteousness that the cult of celebrity can engender in the cynical, the self-important, and the ignorant alike.
Self-important would be the great indulgence of P.C. Principal, the musclebound, frat-house-ruling new head of South Park Elementary, following the off-screen dismissal of Principal Victoria, who could very well be right back in her old seat next week. He’s sent into the school to try to reform the students and, eventually, the denizens of the titular town, largely by policing everyone’s language to make sure no group or gender feels marginalized. Jenner just happens to be P.C. Principal’s hot-button issue, and when Kyle admits that he doesn’t think that the transgender icon is a hero, he goes nuclear, tossing his desk and treatening to pummel Kyle and Gerald. Later on, P.C. Principal goes as far as to put Cartman in the hospital for saying “spokesman” instead of “spokesperson.”
The disrespect and critical suspicion that the creators show P.C. Principal, and the nameless cadre of aggressively left-wing bros that follow him, is rooted in a resistance to easy categorization, of being shamed into uniformity, even if the reasons make for a better society on the whole and convincing. In a telling, hysterical early scene, Parker and Stone openly criticize Tom Brady, Roger Goodell, and Bill Belichick as power-hungry and self-obsessed but also cite them as the inspiration for Cartman’s war against the self-righteousness that often comes with strict belief in political correctness. And they also show a jovial, quasi-sardonic empathy for those who join up with the so-called “P.C. police” for fraternal acceptance and, well, partying in Randy’s storyline.
The episode ends with Kyle begrudgingly agreeing that Jenner is a hero and is, indeed, “stunning and brave,” in the hopes of squashing Cartman’s last-ditch effort to scare P.C. Principal with an army of pregnant Mexican women, Syrian refugees, and taco launchers. In the last exchange of the episode, Cartman urges Kyle to have his cake and eat it too, which is essentially what the episode pulls off in its own routinely complex and absurd way. Parker and Stone can see why Jenner is perceived as a hero, and why her actions are arguably brave, but they insist in also remaining attentive to the grayer opinions. It’s as important to notice the positive social awareness that Jenner’s announcement and publicity have at least a partial hand in as it is to be skeptical of the fact that Jenner has always been addicted to life as a celebrity and this public openness, at base, simply extends her popularity for a few more months.
South Park is currently available in full on Hulu.