As a disability & culture corespondent on Accessibility Media Inc, I was asked last week to come on their talk show, Live from Studio 5 (the segment begins at the 53:40 minute mark), to discuss my love for South Park and why I believe Timmy and Jimmy may just be the best (physically) disabled characters on television. While I’ve written about this before, I thought now would be a good time to revisit the series in this companion piece.
Timmy and Jimmy: Disability as inspiration
One thing that South Park tackles extraordinarily well with their brutal dark satire is the ways disability has become the lynchpin of inspiration for characters in mainstream media. Take for example Jimmy Valmer, the disabled comedian. Everything we need to know about Jimmy’s character comes from his introduction to the show by Big Gay Al in season 5’s episode “Cripple Fight”:
I want to introduce you to someone very special here tonight. He’s a brave little boy with disabilities who proves just by being here that Scouts are for everyone. So let’s all give a big round of applause to little Jimmy” (Cripple Fight, 0:01:45)
Like Timmy, presumably named after the Easter Seals poster child designation (Timmy/Tammy), within Jimmy we find a stereotypical disabled ‘poster boy,’ a plucky overcomer who uses humour to disarm people’s discomfort about his physical disability and inspire people with his optimism. Jimmy uses his standup comedy throughout the series to disarm and normalize himself, joking about his disability while assuring us we’re a ‘terrific audience.’ Jimmy’s arrival doesn’t sit well with Timmy at first, leading to a street brawl in a grocery store parking lot, but eventually they come to terms with the reality that there is room for more than one disabled person in Scouts. This is actually quite reflective of the reaction some disabled youth have when encountering other disabled youth — they are no longer ‘special’ because they’re not the only ‘inspiring’ one. So much of our cultural capital as kids with disabilities is built by our uniqueness and the pity it elicits from adults. So many of us, myself included, built our entire identities around being disabled. The result is when we encountered other disabled kids, we lost the one thing that separated us from the rest, threatening to render us embarrassingly average.
Being unique…or not
South Park takes direct aim at the “inspirational disabled boy” archetype in their 7th season episode “Krazy Kripples,” which features Christopher Reeve using stem cell research to not just regain his physical abilities but to become a super villain bent on world domination–all the while constantly being called “a brave fighter” and “such an inspiration” by the local news reporters. The joke, quite clearly, is that we are so eager to see the ‘inspiration’ the disabled can provide us that we don’t stop to actually evaluate who these people are or what they’re doing.
The Reeve episode of South Park also engages with an interesting question around diagnosis and labels. Within this episode, Timmy and Jimmy become distraught that Christopher Reeve is being heralded as a disabled inspiration despite only acquiring a disability rather than being born with one like Timmy and Jimmy. As Jimmy questions, “Why is a celebrity who became cripple more important than us that were born this way?” (Krazy Kripples, 0:02:45) This leads to a parody on LA street gangs, with the ‘Bloods’ serving to represent those acquiring disabilities and the ‘Cripz’ representing those who were born with a disability. This line is important for Timmy and Jimmy and becomes a source of pride — in this episode, Timmy and Jimmy stop attempting to be like the other kids and form their own gang, which only those born with disabilities can join. For Timmy and Jimmy, these are the real disabled people and the others, like Reeve, are fakes. Jimmy and Timmy go on to taunt the nondisabled characters, asking how many able bodied people it takes to screw in a light bulb (one) and what you call an able-bodied man standing on your porch (whatever his name is). This is a brilliant moment because Jimmy is excluding the nondisabled in the exact way that they so often exclude us — they are the normals, but in this case the nondisabled are the mundane and we, the disabled, are in on the joke.
A caveat: Camp Tardicaca
While South Park does an exceptional job of lampooning typical representations of physical disability, the same cannot be said of all representations of disability. Whether it be Phil Collins stating it’s not appropriate to laugh at people with disabilities, only to be pointed and laughed at, to Cartman studying Kid Rock to learn how to act like he has a developmental disability, too often South Park relies on intellectual disability as a deficit subject identity to mock or ridicule celebrities. Rather than attacking the ways we represent developmental disabilities, South Park seems to conform to ableist intellectual value judgements and the belief that those with lowered cognitive abilities are somehow worth less.
In recent years, South Park has attempted to correct this (with limited success in my opinion) through the characters Nathan and Mimsy, Jimmy’s newly formed disabled nemeses. Although first introduced in “Up the Down Steroid,” Nathan (and his lackey Mimsy) are most prominently featured at Camp Tardicaca, a camp for kids with disabilities. Offensive name aside, Nathan and Mimsy seem to walk the line between mocking developmental disability and presenting an honest critique of the “Looney Tunes” cartoons of old. Despite this evolution, too often intellectual disability becomes the butt of the joke on South Park rather than being a complex interrogation with the ways it is represented in the mainstream media.
Ultimately, South Park matters because they try
In some ways, Matt and Trey have managed to do something that too few shows have even attempted — to integrate disabled characters within the plots of their show without only encountering disabled characters if a storyline focuses exclusively on disability. Timmy and Jimmy are just a part of the gang, two boys who hang out with their friends and get into mischief. This really should be the objective of all representations of disabilities–sure, tell stories about life with a disability but, more than that, just tell stories and allow disability to exist within the universe you’ve created. That is how disability should be functioning within the real world, so why not start doing it within our imagined ones too?