Behind the incredible success and longevity of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s show looms the father of psychoanalysis and his framework for explaining the mind.
If South Park is an analysis of the American cultural psyche, its cast are the different protagonists of Freud’s composite view of the human mind. And while the opening theme ascertains that South Park, CO is a town for “humble folk without temptation,” Freud determined that temptation is – in all of us – the result of repressed instinct…
Cartman – The Id
The “Id” – or “the it” as it is referred to by Freud in the original German – is a title that fits Cartman like a glove. In Freud’s account, not only is the id driven only by pleasure it also lives in denial of any form of self-restraint. Like Cartman, the id is envious, glutinous, prone to addiction and dictatorial in its demands. It violently refuses any control over its actions and denies any responsibility for its actions – “I’m not fat, I’m big-boned!”
The id’s demands are beyond morality. This doesn’t mean that the id is systematically evil, for Freud the id simply doesn’t take into account whether a particular desire is good or bad – all it does is demand that its urges be satisfied. The id’s desires are unpredictable and chaotic, but their realization can be completely orderly. All that the id asks is that its authority be respected. And when it goes too far, the id like Cartman is quick to make amends with a mock-repentance speech. Particularly when it comes to his mom.
The Oedipus complex, first put forward by Freud, is driven by the id. The figure of the father, in Freud’s account, is seen at this early stage as an obstacle to realizing the little boy’s wishes. For Cartman, it is as though the primal wish of the id to kill the father has been fulfilled. Living alone with his mother, he can claim all of her attention and affection – which she generously gives – and repent if she threatens to withdraw it. Freud speculates that the answer to the complex in the normal development of the boy is the internalization of the father figure in the little boy’s developping mind as what he terms “the ego.”
Stan – The Ego
For Freud, the ego is the part of the mind that is most aware of its the world as it stands and the rules that govern it. As such, it is most able to act decisively on the world around it. Like Stan, it is the part of the tryptich that acts and that exists at one with the world around it – owing it the name “the I” in Freud’s original account. However, simply because the ego and Stan are first in line in dealing with the real world doesn’t mean they are the leaders of the band. Far from it.
Between the extremes of Cartman, Kyle, and the real world of their parents – Stan is the mid-way point. He will attempt to quell the demands incoming from each of these three points, develop strategies to reconcile diverging views and desires, put these plans in motion. He will exhaust himself to keep the peace, even though there can be no durable peace between the forces at hand. He will refuse the responsibility each of his masters claims he has, yet still endorse the blame from all of them.
Kyle – The Super-Ego
The super-ego in the Freudian framework is the internalization of the father figure. It is severly critical, and imposes morality on the ego. Just like Kyle, the super-ego is the moral barometer of the group: his reflective character, and the fact he is Jewish as he is constantly reminded by his pals, reinforce his position as the one that makes others feel his guilt.
This guilt, Kyle shares most with Stan as a way to spurn him into action. Stan may seem in charge, but only until Kyle’s guilt persuades him to act otherwise. Kyle has little to no expectation of decency from Cartman. He knows him in an intimate way that no other character does: he understands his underlying motives and the reasons for his at times chaotic and capricious behavior. As an internalized father-figure the super-ego, like Kyle, holds a close connection to his parents, his demands for moral behaviour sometimes exceeding the standard they apply to themselves.
South Park’s Narrative Recipe
Based on Freud’s id-ego-super-ego tryptich, the Cartman-Stan-Kyle trio operates in much the same way. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker create a scenario, picking a hot issue of the day and implanting it in the fictive town of South Park, Colorado, and let the antagonisms between the forces in the group play it out.
Much like an exercise in cultural psycho-analysis, many common reflexes and positions developped in reaction to the hot topic of the episode are then ascribed to either Cartman, Stan or Kyle. Transposing the political landscape along the lines of the Freudian framework, the creators of the show then prescribe Freud’s “talking cure,” letting the different forces at play discuss, fight and, ultimately, neutralize one another.
In recent series, Stan has taken a less prominent role. Markedly tired from being constantly at the intersection of the contradictory forces that are Cartman, Kyle, and the real world – he is more withdrawn and less able to create compromise. Pointing at the incrisingly divisive nature of American politics (conspiracy theories being another symptom this), Stone and Parker are also perhaps letting their perceived selves – the ego in the Freudian framework – show their own fatigue with pointing the ridicule that is modern-day American politics and with trying to build bridges between increasingly divergent sides.