South Park and PC Culture Essay

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South Park and Communication Theory: Symbolic Interactionism


In the first episode (“Stunning and Brave”) of the 19th season of South Park, a new principal has come to the town of South Park named PC Principal. PC Principal’s primary objective is to clean up the town of its bigotry, sexism and hateful speech. Halfway through the episode, other PC characters show up in a bar where the tired residents of South Park are attempting to relax away from all the stress of having to be PC all the time. PC Principal realizes there are others like him and they decide to “hang out” and start a PC frat house. The scene in the bar in which the PC characters come to meet one another is full of gestures and words that can be analyzed using the theory of Symbolic Interactionism.

The scene contains relevance as PC culture and social justice are very popular today (Poniewozik, 2015) and it shows how people of two different cultures coming together can clash over misperceptions of words and gestures. The entire 19th season in fact was “sketching something like a grand — if messy — unified theory of anger, inequality and disillusionment in 2015 America” (Poniewozik, 2015). To better understand how all that anger is expressed and often misinterpreted with people being stigmatized inappropriately, this paper will analyze the “You PC, Bro?!” scene (South Park Studios, 2015). The research question this paper asks is: Can too much focus on what others think create stigmas that are over-communicated?

Literature Review

Mead (1934) asserted that gestures are symbols that exist in the mind and that its relationship to an attitude is what has to be considered. Words are “arbitrary terms” that have some attachment to a designated stimulus (Mead, 1934, p. 224). The word is used a signal with an expected reaction that should accompany it. However, when there is non-conformity among persons as to what the gestures, symbols or words should mean, dissonance arises (Festinger, 1957). According to Festinger (1957), people aim for harmony with their environment and if they experience cognitive dissonance, they will change their behavior, change their perception, or change their beliefs in order to obtain harmony. For example, a person wants to smoke but smoking is an unacceptable social gesture. The person will either stop smoking in order to be in conformity and harmony with his environment, smoke anyway and justify it by arguing that smoking is not bad for one’s health and those who condemn smoking are wrong; or tell oneself that it simply does not matter what others think as they cannot hurt one. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance could not have been expressed without the theory of symbolic interactionism, which stipulates that gestures have meaning because of the response.

The problem of taboo in society occurs when individuals are faced with gestures and symbols that they cannot cope with or do not understand how to respond to appropriately. Mead (1982) stated that “the individual mind can exist only in relation to other minds with shared meanings” (p. 5). So when two minds that do not relate to one another share the same space, conflict arises and dissonance occurs.
This leads to one group associating negativity with the other and vice versa. It can also lead to negativity being reinforced through communication.

Chambliss (1973) explained this concept with the problem of the saints and roughnecks. As Chambliss pointed out, the label of deviance can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Or it can be explained as the issue of primary and secondary deviance, with primary deviance being largely accepted and unpunished while secondary deviance leads more to punishment and the feeling of being an outcast (Liberman, Kirk & Kim, 2014). What Chambliss (1973) showed was that the accepted group, the Saints, were not punished for their deviance because society shared the same mind as they and viewed them as good boys overall who came from good families and who would go on to do good things. And as a result they went on to have successful lives and never felt the need to lash out. The Roughnecks on the other hand were punished for their deviance because society did not view them as like-minded and so they did not share the same idea of gesture-response relationships and deemed that they came from bad families and had nothing to offer society and would most likely lead bad lives in the future unless they were punished now. As a result, only a third of the Roughnecks went on to succeed (Chambliss, 1973). The other two-thirds lapsed into the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of deviance. Their secondary deviance pushed them into a feeling of social strain, wherein they sought to gain social control through deviance.

Thus, from the Symbolic Interactionist perspective one can see that social behavior is a product of everyday interactions. People have an effect on people that goes down deep, alters their psychology and impacts the way they live and think and behave. The evidence of the Saints and Roughnecks study shows that when people are treated like saints and respected as saints, they tend to go on to live better lives. When people are treated like deviants, like Roughnecks, they tend to go on to feel like deviants and to embrace a life of deviancy since that is what society is pushing them towards. However, identifying saints and roughnecks depends on the idea of the generalized other—i.e., the ability to identify like-mindedness as opposed to unlike-mindedness: as Mead (1934) states, “one takes his attitude over against one’s self” (p. 230). The other gives meaning to the self: “to have self-consciousness one must have the attitude of the other in one’s own organism as controlling the thing that he is going to do” (Mead, 1934, p. 230). Thus, one’s sense of self is communicated as a response to the experience of the other.

Chambliss (1973) emphasize this point in the study on Saints and Roughnecks and showed that what drove a community of others to be at odds with one another was their sense of self as being defined by the other who was different. Those who were from a lower income background and had a….....

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Chambliss, W. J. (1973). The saints and the roughnecks. Society, 11(1), 24-31.

Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, IL: Row, Peterson.

Liberman, Akiva M., David S. Kirk, and Kideuk Kim. "Labeling effects of first juvenile arrests: Secondary deviance and secondary sanctioning." Criminology 52.3 (2014): 345-370.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self and society (Vol. 111). University of Chicago Press.: Chicago.

Mead, G. H. (1982). The Individual and the Social Self: Unpublished Essays by G. H.  Mead. Ed. by David L. Miller. University of Chicago Press

Poniewozik, J. (2015). How ‘South Park’ Perfectly Captures Our Era of Outrage. Retrieved from

South Park Studios. (2015). You PC, Bro?! Retrieved from

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