The humorous reproduction of religious prejudice: 'cults' and religious humour in The Simpsons, South Park, and King of the Hill.

Author:Feltmate, David
Position:Critical essay

New religious movements (NRMs) (often pejoratively labelled "cults") have long been feared and persecuted before becoming part of America's accepted religions--if they ever find such tolerance. Indeed, "cults" have been understood as dangerous, deceptive, depraved, and droll. Yes, humour is one way that people come to terms with the significance of "cults'" and this begs the question, if cults are supposedly so horrendous, why can we see them as humorous? Cowan demonstrates that pejorative humour in South Park resonates with anti-Mormon evangelicals, allowing them to claim the program as a co-conspirator in their prejudice (Cowan 2005). Similarly, Lowney and Best (1996) found that jokes circulating after the Branch Davidians' confrontation with the BATF and FBI from February 28 to April 19, 1993, in Waco, Texas, demonstrated a moral authority whereby those who laughed at the Branch Davidians' demise were seen as good and those who died in the conflagration were treated as deviant. Today, jokes about cults can be found online, in newspapers, and on television. This article analyzes three animated sitcom episodes, one each from The Simpsons ("The Joy of Sect" [S. Moore 1998]), South Park ("Super Best Friends" [Parker 2001]), and King of the Hill ("Fun with Jane and Jane" [Kuhlman 2002]) because they demonstrate how American concerns about cults, their dangers, and public morality are humorously conveyed and reinforced. These programs are important not only for their longevity (508 The Simpsons episodes over 23 seasons, 259 King of the Hill episodes spanning 13 seasons, and 230 South Park episodes in 16 seasons), but also because they have found their way into academic discourse about humour's and television's social importance. (2) This satire's cultural significance is illustrated by outlining a specific cult stereotype's history in American mass media since the 1970s, explaining how these three episodes replicate it, and analyzing the significance of the stereotype's reproduction through humour.

The Cult Stereotype

Springfield has been overrun by a strange and almost certainly evil sect calling themselves the Movementarians. In exchange for your home and all your money, the leader of this way out and wrong religion claims he'll take believers away on his spaceship to the planet Blisstonia. Excuse my editorial laugh: Ha, ha, ha.

--Kent Brockman, news anchor in "The Joy of Sect" (S. Moore 1998)

This editorial interpretation of the Movementarians--the NRM that arrives in the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield in "The Joy of Sect"--echoes any number of television news broadcasts negatively portraying NRMs, reflecting deeply rooted prejudices against new religious movements in the United States. In a special issue of Review of Religious Research dedicated to mass media and unconventional religion, Wright writes, "It would seem that, in most cases, the only story sufficiently 'newsworthy' about these religious groups must involve some diabolical plot to subvert the innocent, engineered of course by a crazed maniacal 'cult' leader who secretly schemes to amass limitless power" (1997, 110-1). Nine years earlier, van Driel and Richardson were able to identify the most common negative motifs used in cult reporting between 1972 and 1984: confining members or depriving them of personal freedoms; charismatic leadership; extreme authoritarianism and discipline; behavioural control using psychological manipulation or brainwashing; a preoccupation with the leaders' wealth and luxury; the group's portrayal of the outside world as evil and something to be feared; and apocalyptic beliefs (1988). This list contains the essential elements of a stereotype that is used as what Berger and Luckmann call "recipe knowledge" ("knowledge limited to pragmatic competence in routine performances" [1966, 42]) for explaining NRMs to media consumers who have little, if any, contact with these religious groups (see also Beckford 1994; Bromley 1994; Cowan and Hadden 2004; McCloud 2004; Neal 2011; Robbins and Anthony 1994).

The cult stereotype did not arise from nothing. There have always been religious groups that have drawn the ire and suspicion of their more prominent neighbours. Indeed, today's established and respected religions were once stigmatized. For example, the label "cult" has been applied to the Methodist and Catholic churches in other times. Throughout American history, marginal religious groups have been effectively attacked and stigmatized as cults, generating considerable fear and inspiring social retaliation. Jenkins's work references numerous newspaper stories and interested critics of non-mainstream religions that were highly critical of the claims that practitioners of such religious behaviours as spiritualism offered. As long there have been new religions, there have been critics (Jenkins 2000). Furthermore, as Cowan has shown, there is a tradition of counter-cult activity among Christians who sought to prove that cults were theologically incorrect and dangerous in their errors (2003). (3) While the United States has a history of fostering new religions, these groups are typically small, and if they attract attention it is often accompanied by vitriol, harassment, false accusations, and attempts to end the groups through theological and state means (Jenkins 2000; cf. R. L. Moore 1986).

The programs investigated here all contain stereotypes that became codified around assaults upon different religions that arose after the 1950s and became especially prominent from the 1970s through the 1990s. McCloud argues that while the concept of an exotic religious fringe existed prior to the 1970s, the contemporary concept of cult took shape during that decade and "by the late 1970s the connections between cults, brainwashing, and fraudulence had become naturalized. In other words, these associations became unquestioned truths--not just in magazine articles, but for many Americans" (2004, 128). That is, the stereotypical characteristics van Driel and Richardson identified had become recipe knowledge for interpreting NRMs and implicated numerous groups. By 1993's Branch Davidian standoff with the BATF and FBI, it was clear that journalistic reporting on cults contained an ideology that resonated favourably with the American public (Cowan and Hadden 2004; McCloud 2004; Wessinger 2000). These ideological narratives dialectically received legitimation from and endorsed the political actions of the secular anti-cult movement (ACM) which provided journalists with expert advice.

The ACM's roots developed during the late 1960s and formalized in the 1970s as family members tried to convince their loved ones to leave the new religions, which were appearing across the United States, while warning others of the dangers these groups posed. The first ACM group, FREECOG (Free the Children of God), was founded in 1971, and other groups arose across the country, forming networks in quick order. During the "cult wars" throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the ACM worked doggedly to advance its theory of conversion to NRMs by brainwashing and the dangers NRMs presented. Assuming that NRMs caused people to "snap" and become charismatic leaders' servants, journalists Conway and Siegelman gave an early account of what would later be known as brainwashing (1978). James and Marcia Rudin of the American Jewish Committee wrote that using highly successful techniques to manipulate thoughts and behaviours of new members were characteristic of new religions (1980). Psychologist Margaret Singer argued that cultists kept recruits unaware of their surroundings, controlling the situation so neophytes felt helpless; cultists replaced the convert's old worldview with a new one that focused on the group's charismatic leader, and constructed a closed system where criticizing the leader was unacceptable (1995, 63). Singer (1995, 11) and Conway and Siegelman argued that these groups' main purposes were recruitment and fundraising (1978, 46). Linking violence to the charismatic bond, Singer and the Rudins argue that devotion to a charismatic leader led to the infamous 918 murders/suicides at the Peoples Temple's settlement in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978 (Singer 1995; Rudin and Rudin 1980; cf. Chidester 1988; Hall [1987]2004). Singer, along with other anti-cultists such as deprogrammers Ted "Black Lightning" Patrick and Rick Ross, the Cult Awareness Network, and the American Family Foundation (later International Cultic Studies Association) were all prominent suppliers of information and acted as expert resources during the major cult controversies of the 1980s and 1990s (Shupe and Bromley 1980, 1985; Shupe and Darnell 2006).

When we compare the ACM's focus on fundraising, mind control, and charismatic leadership, which eventually leads to violence, with the characteristics of mass media's framework for reporting on NRMs, we see a direct correlation between anti-cult ideologies and media accounts of NRMs' beliefs and practices. This ideological spectrum legitimates certain religions as "authentic," "real," and/or "valid." How a religion is classified along certain cultural standards that editors, reporters, and audiences take for granted determines how it will be reported to the general populace and NRMs are disadvantaged from the start as stigma frames the public's initial exposure to them.

NRMs face another serious problem in terms of their "newsworthiness." Because NRMs are small and marginal, newsmakers tend to treat them as significant only in "crisis events" which are meaningful because they demand responses from a society's authoritative institutions whose legitimacy is challenged (Shupe and Hadden 1995). Hence, as Possamai and Lee (2004) assert, this tends to involve criminalizing narratives of NRM activity. Cowan and Hadden present a four-stage value-added model of NRM newsworthiness consisting of event negativity, the event's resonance with a...

To continue reading