Last week marked the beginning of South Park’s fourteenth season with a brilliant rip on Tiger Woods and celebrity “transgressions.” Last Wednesday we got another taste with an episode that deals with different ways people pull politics out of meaningless art. The new South Park parallels something the current generation of students in college deals with regularly: professors stretching their texts to support their own worldview. The political angle is not always the right way to read a book or film. (See my article about people misreading The Hurt Locker).
In this latest episode, the kids are given a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which was recently taken off the banned list. This sparked interest from the children (it has been cited as inspiration in several high profile shootings). After reading and not being able to figure out why it was suppressed in the first place, they write their own book to show everyone what should actually get banned. It was titled “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs.”
Once people began to read this “novel” they started to look into it too deeply, pulling meaning from the over-the-top obscenity. (They also began projectile vomiting at the shock of the boys’ pornographic writings.) Those of us who have studied the arts academically know what it is like to try and pull some deep meaning when it doesn’t appear to be there. Sometime professors also try and push a political reading from something where it doesn’t fit. They may even have us read into shallow material expecting us to pull substantial intellectual thoughts out of it.
There is a great deal of merit to studying film and literature, but we have all felt that some books and movies should not be analyzed and just left for escapist purposes. You won’t see any professors asking us to write an essay deconstructing any deep semiotic argument from a Michael Bay film anytime soon.
I recently took a graduate course where we had to write a 1,000 word response to the racial issues raised in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. (I’m not making this up!) Of course, the film does deal with race but in a shallow and lighthearted manner. It is certainly not worth deconstructing on any level. The problem here is that there is no shortage of films that highlight racial issues that are actually worth discussing. This film should not be taken seriously enough for study by grad students.
In South Park, readers of “McBoogerballs” got into heated arguments over the book’s stance on abortion as well as health care reform. It was written with no intention other than being gross, however, that didn’t stop people from pulling from it what they wanted. Readers were arguing that the book is either a metaphor for Right or Left wing causes they support. At one point Stan responds by yelling “it is not about liberals or conservatives!” While politics can be a large part of the arts, many times the political angle is not the correct way to read a film or a novel.
Professors can and will try to pull politics from unworthy sources. As an undergraduate, I took an English class on Chaucer in which we had to read The Canterbury Tales. My professor would go on and on about how The Wife of Bath character is like Sarah Palin. He said that her “cockamamie” way of talking lines up perfectly with Palin. While he was at it, he also asserted that Palin was likely a whore.
It was a wasted lecture and a prime example of the type of indoctrination professors get away with today. Shortly after that lecture he began wearing “Obama ‘08” pins and constantly reminded us to vote in the upcoming election. Before class he engaged in political discussions with another student referring to Palin as “Sarah Stalin,” which makes absolutely no sense. To his credit, most of the semester was great but there is no excuse to spilling his own politics into The Canterbury Tales.
This is exactly what South Park is poking fun at — people who pull misguided views from material that doesn’t properly support their assertions. Now, more than ever, it is important that students make up their own opinions about the material which they are exposed to in college courses (especially in the liberal arts). We cannot take professors at their word because they may be pushing a political agenda. Therefore, it is good to get in the healthy habit of reanalyzing what you are presented on your own after class. Heeding this advice may allow you to graduate with a balanced education.