Marcus Schulzke’s commentary article “Contentious Language: South Park and the Transformation of Meaning” on the popular TV show South Park’s episode titled “The F Word” is an affirmation of the maxim ‘the end justifies the means.’ Schulzke argues that the writers of this show were trying to pass along a message that language is malleable, and the meaning of words should be susceptible to change (2012, p. 24). He contends that the reference of a word and the message as a whole depends on both the speaker’s intention and the listener’s perception. However, he continues to imply that the listener’s view is susceptible to change, and it can always be altered to fall in line with the speaker’s intention. In this case, Schulzke (2012) relates his argument to the children’s understanding of the word ‘fag’ as an annoying person, such as the Harley riders, compared to the adult’s relation of the word to homosexuals. At the end of the discussed episode, the residents of South Park accept the children’s meaning of this word and advocate its change of meaning in the dictionary. Even the Harley bike riders accept themselves as fags.
Schulzke’s (2012) opinions are valid, especially the aspect of the flexibility of language and the genealogy of words, but his arguments are not convincing enough to adopt this as the deeper meaning of “The F Word.” The essay supports the aspect of genealogy change of meanings but continues to argue that the meaning of a word solely depends on the listener’s perception and that this can only change if the listener is ready to adapt to new uses. Additionally, it explains that Schulzke (2012) elaborates on this idea because it involves the pejorative use of words along with the topic’s sensitivity, with the show only seeking to maintain its theme of indirect support of controversial social issues. Finally, the essay argues that the end does not justify the means and that words have a real effect on people.
The idea that a word’s meaning depends on both the speaker’s intentions and the listener’s perception originates from the children’s use of the word ‘fag’ and the already existing meaning. As the children present their case to the mayor, there is a misunderstanding, primarily because of the differences in meaning between the two groups. Schulzke (2012) believes that the different references to this word affirm that both groups determine its meaning on their own. However, in communication, the speaker relays a message in the hope that the listener understands it similar to what is meant. If the listener refers to various words used in a contrasting manner to that of the speaker, the whole conversation becomes useless, and the intended message is not passed. In cases of such a difference in the comprehension of the words, the speaker tends to resort to using the listener’s perception to convey the intended message. The article only seems to focus on one side of falling in line with the speaker’s meaning of a word and using it to possess a different meaning than that of the listener. By making such an argument, the author abandons the possibility of dropping the new reference to a word and sticking with the old because, after all, human beings are likely to resist change. In relation to “The F Word,” the word ‘fag’ represents both a controversial and sensitive topic, therefore, suggesting that moving on from its old use and adopting a new meaning seems almost impossible.
Schulzke’s (2012) arguments and “The F Word” as a whole follow this seemingly deeper meaning of the episode because it involves sensitive topics and the pejorative use of words. To support his opinion, the author provides the example of other intellectuals, such as Herbert Marcuse, who, in An Essay on Liberation, suggests the adoption of new meanings for such words as ‘obscenity’ to cease from defining them based on their relation to sexuality (Schulzke, 2012, p. 25). Both words are sensitive and represent thought-provoking issues in society. Therefore, considering that people drop false neutrality and adopt new uses of such words, it would only seem as if they concentrate on their pejorative use or even avoid talking about certain issues. Additionally, Schulzke (2012) established that South Park has a recurring theme of supporting contentious issues in an indirect way. Therefore, this episode can be viewed only as a way of expounding on the theme without the idea of advocating for change in the use of derogatory words.
Finally, Schulzke’s (2012) conclusion that the impact of “The F Word” justifies the means used (p. 30) is partially incorrect because unlike his arguments, words have a real effect on people. The mention of the word ‘fag’ and its relation to something different did not deter people from saying it in the context of the old meaning because a distinct reference was a new idea only adopted in the show. While the author’s perception of the show’s impacts is valid, it still does not change the fact that a considerable number of people, upon the mention of it in and after the show, related it to homosexuality. Additionally, at the end of “The F Word,” the leader of the Harley bike riders accepts the word ‘fag’ but continues to say that at least they accept themselves (Parker, 2009, 20:47). This seems like a sarcastic way of referring to the community’s denial of the old meaning of the word ‘fag.’
Schulzke’s (2012) article elaborates on the meaning-as-use aspect of the word ‘fag’ in this episode but leaves out a variety of discussions, which deems his argument insufficient. The word reference highly depends on listeners because they are the intended recipient of a message. An interpretation similar to that of the author only seems to be a way of avoiding pejorative and sensitive words that relate to some of the controversial societal issues. The effect of this episode on the overall issue of homosexuality does not justify the means used because words affect people based on their understanding. Therefore, more scholars should interpret this episode to tackle the above issue.
Parker, T. (2009). South Park: The F word. IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1539447/
Schulzke, M. (2012). Contentious language: South Park and the transformation of meaning. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 40(1), 22-31.