Offensive humour is on the rise. Things that once were considered taboo are now a laughing stock in television shows such as the hugely successful animated series South Park and The Simpsons. The humour is so dark that even death becomes a laughing matter. In South Park, one of the children, named Kenny, dies in a horrible accident in every single episode. In fact, Kenny’s death has become a joke viewers anticipate with amusement every week. Older generations not used to today’s less-than-holy humour are often taken aback by the issues that evoke laughter from young audiences. The above-mentioned TV programs are frowned upon for setting a bad example for children, leading to protests. In Britain, authorities of the King’s School at Ely encouraged parents to ban their children from watching South Park, for example. However, it needs to be pointed out that this type of violent satire is far from being a new phenomenon. As a matter of fact, it was perfected in our very own treasured Icelandic sagas.
It seems the authors of the Viking tales were thinking along the same lines as the modern South Park viewer. For example, Snorri Sturluson, one of our most famous and respected writers of medieval Icelandic literature, wasn’t ashamed to poke fun at morbid matters. In his saga Gylfaginning (written in the 1220s), a man named Týr is tricked into putting his hand in the mouth of a vicious wolf, who bites his hand off. The tale tells that “everyone laughed except for Týr. He lost his hand.”(Gylfaginning, chapter 34)
Those who protest South Park and similar shows argue that they normalize violent behaviour. If that is true, then a good chunk of history does so too. Malicious humour goes way back, beyond the Viking era. In Roman times, gladiator fights were the emperor’s finest source of entertainment. Seeing a slave torn to pieces by hungry lions humoured the high class for centuries. In comparison to the actual bloodshed and loss of human lives, South Park with its crass animation seems harmless and innocent. Why such a fuss now? It is important to bear in mind that the lack of sentimentality in today’s entertainment is, in fact, history repeating itself.
The normalization of violence should be considered a serious matter. However, the above-mentioned television series, no matter how insensitive they may seem at a glance, do not encourage violent behaviour. On the contrary, The Simpsons comments on violent TV material with its “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon, which Bart and Lisa love to watch. “Itchy and Scratchy” is an utterly ironic feature of The Simpsons, in which a cat and a mouse find horrible methods to torture and kill each other in every episode, causing Bart and Lisa to roar with laughter. These sketches cleverly deliver the message that there is an alarming amount of violence on TV, even in children’s programs.
Nevertheless, the South Park generation does not have a lower regard for human life than the Romans or the Vikings did. Ultimately, the values instilled in us as children are the most instrumental in shaping our respect for life and other human beings. The messages in modern cartoons, no matter how cleverly put forward, can never replace a good upbringing. Those who hold that opinion are the ones we should truly be worrying about.