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CITIZEN POP

Why 'South Park's' depiction of Caitlyn Jenner was one of the show's most despicable moments

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'South Park'

Caitlyn Jenner made her first appearance on "South Park" Wednesday.

I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

I love "South Park."

I love the show so much that when it returned for its 19th season this month with "Stunning and Brave," an A-game assault on the modern social justice movement, I was fine with being in the blast radius. Sure, I'm one of those very people who calls out others for racism, or transphobia, or reinforcing the patriarchy. But I still laughed.

That's because I recognized the truth in creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's premise: For every person preoccupied with doing right, there's another person like new character PC Principal preoccupied with being right.

"South Park" wasn't saying those people are wrong, just that they're assholes. Parker and Stone didn't even need their usual hyperbole to show how they go from zero to outraged at even the most grazing, unintentional slights. The clever choice to cast PC Principal and his social justice mob as frat bros also harshly — but fairly — laid bare the one-upsmanship and us vs. them forces that make the former social ecosystem every bit as toxic as the latter.

I was just as fine with the episode's treatment of the person at the center of many recent social justice firestorms, including its own: Caitlyn Jenner. When Kyle said he doesn't consider her a hero because he didn't like Bruce Jenner on "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," it wasn't transphobic. It was about her character, not her gender. It was fair.

So, too, were the swings "South Park" took at Jenner in the following week's episode for her alleged role in a February car crash that resulted in a fatality. It happened, and that's pretty damn troubling, so it was fair.

What wasn't fair, however, was how Jenner looked. 

Her left eye stretched almost shut, her tongue dangling out of a tilted mouth, "South Park's" Jenner looked more like post-op Lucille Bluth than the, yes, stunning cover of the July 2015 Vanity Fair.

Demeaning? Certainly. Transphobic? Probably. But "South Park" has been both those and many more shades of offensive before. What makes Jenner's image so freshly mean, though, is the appearance of truth in it despite having absolutely none.

Jenner simply looks nothing like that. If you were seeing her for the first time, with no knowledge of who she is, would you really suspect she'd undergone that much plastic surgery? This wasn't caricature, it was conjuring out of thin air. Nor was Jenner's image so far in the other direction, like Mecha-Streisand or bridge troll Snooki, that it could be comfortably dismissed as over-the-top nonsense.

And so, in that middle ground, we have a lazy, unfunny sight gag with no other apparent goal than to suggest that Caitlyn Jenner really looks like a monster.

Even that might be ignorable most of the time. Again, it is "South Park." But the show's depiction of Jenner goes from a minor swipe to a downward sucker punch when you consider its impact on the people to whom her, yes, bravery means the most.

After she appeared in Vanity Fair this summer, an important point was raised by the same social justice advocates "South Park" just skewered: That Jenner's transition set an unrealistic standard for transgender people who are less wealthy, or otherwise less capable. It was that seamless.

Now, because Parker and Stone went so cruelly far out of their way to draw those seams, transgender people have been reminded of an ugly truth about the way some people will continue to see them.

Hint: It's not fairly.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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