When we found out South Park was doing an entire episode about gender identity this season, a few of my trans friends were worried we were about to become the joke of the week. After all, the show has mishandled the issue in the past. Most famously, gay man Mr. Garrison, the kids' teacher, went through a two-year stint as a trans woman only to de-transition back to malehood, and that entire storyline was played for laughs based on disrespectful stereotypes.
However, I was cautiously optimistic this time: Matt Stone and Trey Parker, South Park's creators, have come a long way in their maturity over the many seasons the show has aired, and that growth really shows in Wednesday's episode “The Cissy” (Season 18, Episode 3). Trans was most definitely the focus of both the A and B plots, but throughout the entire episode, I never once felt that the jokes were at my expense. There were certainly moments that made me uncomfortable, but only because of emotional resonance with my own life experience.
The only actual transphobic characters, and there were remarkably few, are presented in a negative light in scenes where the audience is encouraged to sympathize with the suffering those people cause us, rather than laugh along with the bully as we're mocked. Cissexists and transphobes are the butts of the episode’s jokes, as well they should be. When it comes to trans in mainstream media, it seems the tables have finally begun to turn.
Let’s look more closely at how carefully South Park dealt with these issues. Cartman, fed up with sharing the school's bathroom at recess, dons a pink bow, enters a stall in the girls' bathroom and, amid a flurry of defecatory sound effects, declares that he is trans. He proceeds to explain this to the school staff, in the process demonstrating an impressive knowledge of social justice dialogue. The point he makes to Principal Victoria about gender identity versus sexual orientation is spot-on—his mispronunciation “transginger” notwithstanding.
Never, in real life, would I question the self-declared gender identity of any person, for any reason (and nor should you). That being said, Eric “Erica” Cartman is not transgender. The character, pure unadulterated evil in 10-year-old boy form, is well-established as regularly going to cartoonishly offensive lengths to obtain privilege or wealth at the expense of marginalized groups. Case in point: “I'm transginger, I looked it up: That means I can use the girls' shitter.”
Here, Cartman makes (fictional) truth of the threats made by nasty conservative pundits who fight against human rights for trans people: A cis male, falsely claiming trans status, takes advantage of legal accommodations to access a women's restroom for nefarious deeds. And in the process, Parker and Stone hilariously deconstruct that ridiculous fear-mongering argument, and toss it in the toilet, where it belongs.
When the staff discuss the problem, they don't seem upset about the need to provide accommodations for trans kids—in fact, they seem to take as given the appropriateness of doing so—their only issue is with the harm of accommodating Eric Cartman, and rightly so. Mr. Garrison even takes a tongue-in-cheek shot at cis-normativity: “Saying 'normal' is extremely offensive to people who aren't in that group.” In the end, they offer Cartman a separate private bathroom (which they sell him as “executive”).
Wendy comes to school the next day as "Wendell," in a plot to un-seat Cartman from his private throne. And then, something very interesting begins to happen: Stan has trouble choosing a bathroom. “Two people close to me are having gender identity issues,” he explains to the principal, “and I'm ... I'm confused,” he says. This is another huge conservative fear made real: Teach kids that non-cis identities exist, and they'll turn trans. You know, just like how all kids are automatically gay now, because same-sex marriage is a thing?
It's awesome that even the children in South Park know that having a non-cis identity is not a “sex thing.” When Stan goes to his father for guidance, the question he asks is: “Dad, is it possible for someone to be one way on the outside, but totally different on the inside? I mean, can somebody identify as one sex, but be something else, but still have it be nothing about sex?” (The real answer, for anyone wondering, is “Ya ya ya.”)
Anyway, all the right-wing bloggers already hate my guts for daring to suggest that infants are too young to have gender, so I'm just going to go ahead and say this: I love the idea of 10-year-olds questioning their gender. Here's the thing about questioning your gender: It doesn't actually change the way you feel inside, it just helps you look deep enough to know yourself best. The only reason we associate questioning with transition is because society punishes, so brutally, any variance from cis, that most people would avoid publicly revealing that they're questioning themselves. At least until and unless it became so painfully obvious that they are likely trans, that for them they just couldn't avoid it any more. Stan may be questioning his gender because he's been exposed to trans ideas, but that isn't going to make him trans, unless he was already destined to be that way—in which case, it would only help him get there faster, earlier, and much less painfully. Questioning is good.
This bears out, for it seems at the end of the episode that Stan has returned comfortably to a cis male identity. And apart from some very temporary confusion brought on by information overload through the upsetting experience Cartman and Wendy put them all through, Stan is none the worse for wear. In fact, he knows himself a little better than before. Questioning is harmless.
On a more mundane level, “Cissy” handles bathrooms brilliantly: All-gender restrooms are necessary, because they're the only safe and dignified place for many non-binary and genderqueer trans people to do their bathroom stuff. But a scene from Randy's subplot aptly demonstrates the problem when people expect—or worse, force—binary male- and female-identified trans people (like myself) to use them: All-gender restrooms aren't “the transgender bathroom,” they are bathrooms for everyone. Men's is still just for men, and women's is still just for women; but since most trans people are men or women, you can see why it's wrong to assume someone should have to use the third option just because they're trans. The episode subtly salutes this misconception by labeling the third door in the school as “Other.”
I think Principal Victoria puts it best, when in her announcement to the school after explaining why they've eliminated “the transgender bathroom,” she says:
Anyone who has a problem sharing a bathroom with people who might be transgender will have to use the special designated bathroom designed to keep them away from the normal people who don't care.
Well done, South Park.