Monday, August 24, 2009

Killing Kenny: Butters and the Bridge

[It seems odd that, while I continue to use Kenny as the title for these posts, it is Butters I use as examples. Because while Kenny represents the idea of individuality, Butters continually struggles with it. He changes, is not as stagnant a symbol as Kenny is.]

In Season 11, episode "Cartman Sucks," Butters is sent to a "camp" where he is trained not to be gay (the argument of whether or not Butters actually is "bi-curious" as he says, is another matter.) His "accountabilibuddy" is a blond-haired kid named Bradley, who, after bonding with Butters, becomes horrified that he might have "like like" feelings towards him. His conclusion, that they both must kill themselves. Now, the multitude of issues that come up in this scene is well worth investigating.... but not right now. The next scene takes place at a nearby bridge, where the adults are trying to get Bradley from jumping into the cold river below. [I want to try and clip this scene and make it available here, since it would be only a few seconds, and would fall under fair use laws] Butters comes up and realizes that, while Bradley continues to mutter "I'm not normal, I'm not normal," they only believe they are "not normal" because the adults say they aren't. The main preacher says to Butters, "Shut up kid, you're just as confused as he is." To which Butters loses his temper and tells them all that he's only been confused by their mumbo-jumbo, and not because of whatever feelings he has inside. (again, that's for another time...). The scene at the bridge is probably one of the cornerstones of what South Park is all about. It counters individual feelings and thoughts with what society claims is true. On the bridge, Bradley stands alone, fighting with his emotions, fighting with what the world is telling him, and what his own individual mind is telling him. He cannot resolve the feelings of the friendship he has with Butters from the idea that any feelings toward the same sex is immoral. Therefore his battle is made there, on that bridge, and it takes Butters, who has resolved the feelings already, to help him win.

The bridge, here, and in other pieces of literature and film, stands for man's struggle for individuality in a sea of masses. Take, for instance, T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, "The Waste Land:"

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Of all the images in "The Waste Land," this one stood out amongst the others in my mind. It seemed as if a crowd of people, walking towards the big city, were trudging their way, as if a herd of cattle, the empty gray faces, marching towards a great symbol of human society. Towards factories and jobs where they become but a cog in a machine, but a number and a statistic. No one cares about them. They were a great mass of people, and they made London function and flourish, but as individuals, they were as meaningless as the rats that scurried under the streets. When one person stands, alone on the bridge, the battle rages... society against the individual. And the individual may lose, and become one more piece of flotsam upon the river. But they can win. If, however, a mass of individuals stand upon a bridge, the battle is lost already.

Another example of this... the masses of people fleeing Manhattan as the monster destroys NYC in Abrams movie Cloverfield. The sea of 20-somethings were herded out of the condominiums and away from the self-indulgent parties and rushed toward the bridge, and safety on the other side. As the main characters reached the beginning of the bridge, we see the Godzilla-type monster destroy the Brooklyn bridge, sending the masses of people to their deaths. And as I have talked about in my review of that movie (See Here), we simply do not care about their deaths. We see them not as individuals, but as a section of society that is best shown in The Gossip Girls or in the form of Paris Hilton. The potential for these people is nothing, so therefore it doesn't matter to us. See my review for further thoughts on this.

And there are other examples, such as Edward Munch's The Scream, where the battle of individuality, of humanity, continues in the minds of the artists that made them. But let's look at something more personal.


I was at Georgia College in Milledgeville during the late 90's. It was 1998, I was a junior, living in Sanford Hall. I had taken to walking throughout the city, which is quite wonderful, as it's possible to go to anywhere (back then) just by walking. Walmart took 40 minutes, the Mall, an hour. I had heard about a rope swing underneath the railroad bridge that existed behind the dorms, and I wanted to go see what it looked like. So I walked toward the railroad tracks, and then down them, towards the bridge over Fishing Creek (it's actually bigger than the name implies). I saw no rope swing, but I had this insane urge to cross the bridge and keep going. So I took one step at a time, one track at a time, and slowly crossed the bridge. Knowing all the while that if a train came down that track, I would have to jump or be killed. And the river was far below me... I probably would have died either way. But as it was, the train never came. I realized, however, that I had done something dangerous...and exhilarating.

As I look back on that day, that evening when the sky turned various shades of amber and orange, it was one of those days when I really felt alive. And you wonder, as you grow older, if you never really lived out your youth, expending the abundance of energies given to you then. I never climbed a tree... I never really did all those things that college students do. And that's a good thing, to some extent. Sure, I think that there were some things I should have done, and didn't. Chances I could have taken, experiences I should have had. But it's not very productive thinking back with regret. The things that I did (and did not) do makes me an individual that I am proud of. Following the masses into the Brick (a bar in Milledgeville) or to Frat houses or into some passionate writhing with some person that I may or may not have liked... I didn't do any of that, and I think it made me a better person in the long run.

But for that one evening, as I walked on that bridge, I was doing something I shouldn't. Was that living life? Is living actually doing something that is wrong? Or is it taking risks, whether it be for a rush of adrenalin, or for the love of someone special? The battle on the bridge is one of identifying who we are, what we think is important to us. Because stepping off the bridge, to the rocks below, would be removing us as individuals from this Earth. It sounds a lot like It's a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart stands on the edge of his bridge. If he jumps, what would the world be like without him?

To bring this back to my original thought... the physical characteristics of a person, the look of someone, whether they are fat, skinny, have blue hair, piercings...etc... is, pardon the cliche, only skin deep. The true uniqueness of a person appears, when, on the bridge, or in the eyes of Jimmy Stewart's angel, you see what the world would be like without you. Individuality, uniqueness, is the set of circumstances that you, being on this Earth in this place and time, cause to happen. It is the relationships, the interactions, the reactions that take place because you are there. There is an old mathematician's theorem that says that if a butterfly flaps it's wings in the Sahara Desert, a hurricane forms in the Atlantic. That there is an unknown reaction that is caused by even the smallest of actions.

But ironically, that's not why the battle is won. It might be reasons for winning. When Butters loses his temper and says he is only confused because the adults say he is, he ends his speech by saying, "My name is Butters, I'm 8 years old, my blood type is O, and I'm Bi-Curious." He announces to the world his identity. The battle is won when he separates himself from the society that condemns him. He discovers his own moral standard, that it's okay to be who he is, and at that point, he becomes his own person.

The battle is won when the person becomes separated from the masses that Eliot or Abrams describes. We either step off the bridge as our own person, as a unique individual, or we lose our identity, to be swallowed up by the masses.

[After I walked over the bridge, in 1998, I wrote a poem about it, as I was apt to do during those days. I did change the name of the river to Oconee.]

"Walking Over the Oconee River"

One foot in front of the other,
never look down, but
always look back, listen
for the rumbling of wheels
and the howling of horns.
The tracks lie across the river
straight on forever boards
running parallel,
growing smaller and smaller
until, at a point on the horizon,
a shrill sound echoes through
the forest over the river and
into the brain. Vibrating
a steel drum into the
pit of the stomach, fear,
knowing the you can't outrun it,
and you wonder if the bone-breaking
jump into the river
would be better than
the race to shore, facing the headlights
of the oncoming train.

No comments:

Post a Comment