This week’s episode of South Park begins with a misdiagnosis and builds outward from that false premise, progressing in the wrong direction like an ingrown hair. Like any sane human being in the year 2018, Eric Cartman has been feeling uneasy as of late. The continuing grotesquerie of public violence, technology’s rapid rate of unchecked expansion, and our Earth’s assured death in the foreseeable future have a way of stressing a guy out, and it’s all taken a toll on Cartman’s volatile psyche. The in-school counselor hears him describe the difficulty he’s had attaining baseline happiness as of late, and concludes that the boy suffers from an anxiety disorder.
When this opening scene describes anxiety as “an excuse to be lazy and lame to everyone around you,” one gets the sense this may not be the empathetic, nuanced take that the charged topic of mental health deserves.
If anything, Cartman’s behavioral traits — pathological self-absorption, proneness to delusions of grandeur and episodes of mania, a liability to turn angry or spiteful seemingly without provocation — suggest a mood disorder along the lines of Bipolar II or borderline personality disorder, not anxiety. This may seem like a ridiculous hair to split, but if Trey Parker and Matt Stone want to have a conversation about being neuro-atypical, they ought to be held to a certain standard. Because their main gripe — that those affected by mental disorders use them as a free pass to act inconsiderately to those around them — falls apart when subjected to any scrutiny whatsoever.
Over on the CW, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has spent the past four years painstakingly building the complicated, patient thesis on self-care and instability that South Park tries to write off in 20 minutes flat. One of the big issues addressed in seasons three and four of the former show has been the patient’s bad habit of using her condition to absolve herself of culpability. Accepting responsibility for her own behaviors without pinning her whole identity on them has been a cornerstone of the Rebecca Bunch character’s journey to wellness, because shifting blame to external operators and factors is another hallmark of her borderline personality disorder.
Cartman’s diagnosis and its subsequent treatment don’t jive with his reaction to it. The counselor recommends a Zen Buddhism app to help center his mind, a suggestion Cartman gleefully latches onto as carte blanche to spend every waking minute on his phone, eventually shutting everyone around him out via a cardboard box. If anyone has the temerity to suggest he should engage with the world around him for even a moment, he lashes out and screams them into submission. Anxious people, as a matter of course, do not do this. Among the most challenging aspects of living with an anxiety disorder is the feeling that asking for help and asserting the need for that help will make one seem needy, annoying, or overly delicate.
Which is exactly how Parker and Stone seem to see it. The B-plot (in which a gaggle of screeching “P.C. Babies” raises a racket over improper viaduct financing and someone’s describing a Cosmo as a “pussy drink”) reinforces the show’s contempt for everything beyond its nihilist bubble. Parker and Stone use Stan and Kyle as mouthpieces for their frustrations, finally telling Cartman off with the defiant, “Everyone has anxiety, but they get over it! They stop being a piece of shit!” Like many people shouldering a shoulder-able amount of anxiety, they assume that everyone’s on their same level, and so why should anyone get special treatment?
The easily identified flaw in this argument is that not every anxious person wrestles with the same degree of debilitation, and some people need more help than others. Some people benefit greatly from the kind of center-the-mind apps that so irk Parker and Stone, and what’s more, anyone who really needs them wouldn’t be as impolite about it as the writers clearly fear. By the final scene, Cartman has attained enlightenment with his new mantra that “namaste” means “fuck you, I have anxiety.” He’s constructed an impenetrable shell, fully insulating himself from all criticism by hiding behind his disorder.
Contrary to popular belief, I am a human being, too. I find it annoying when someone brings their emotional support dog to a restaurant, both because now there’s a dog at the restaurant and because, if we’re letting dogs in restaurants, where’s mine? But I keep my mouth shut because I know the decent thing to do is to give people the room they need in order to care for themselves. It’s not healthy to indulge in the bad-faith assumption that anyone treating themselves for anxiety is testing what they can get away with at the expense of the actually unwell.
A take as cynical as the one in “Buddha Box” speaks to a worldview with rot at the root. It implies that anyone not getting everything they can from an understanding society is a sucker, or worse, a virtue-signaler. This worldview doesn’t allow for goodness, and presumes self-interest as the basis of our natures. South Park assumes that everyone else is just pretending, and that deep down, we’re all assholes.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
• I have to imagine that many South Park viewers would have gone their whole lives without hearing the Brad Paisley song “Today” if not for this episode. Whatever faults “Buddha Box” may have, Parker and Stone can take that much straight to the bank.
• The zippy “P.C. Babies” theme song sounds specific enough to be a reference to something, though I’m not sure to what. Perhaps someone who has actually done the work of sitting through the movie Baby Geniuses (even I have my limits) can shed some light on the situation?
• The glib, offhanded comment about P.C. Babies congregating at liberal arts colleges — easy shot, but sure — and the Mexican border filled me with dread for any theoretical future episodes tackling the “caravan” crisis.