About those South Park Underwear Gnomes…

There are some things I don’t mind overthinking, i.e. Xenophon or Yeats. I don’t want to give South Park the same sort of consideration, even though it can be brilliant at times. I just want to add one observation to a rather puzzling episode.

The “underwear gnomes” are famed for their business plan:

  1. Collect [steal] Underpants
  2.  ?
  3. Profit

The business plan is told to the boys after they make a presentation in defense of a local coffee shop worried about a national chain coming to town. The local coffee shop makes terrible stuff: the boys’ presentation touts the virtues of small business in general. It’s a hit and the town gets ready to ban the chain from moving in. The underwear gnomes encounter the boys when they are working on a revised presentation. The gnomes claim to be experts in business and seem to have a large operation. The boys make their next presentation in defense of big business. The wife of the small businessman touts the virtues of the chain’s coffee, and everyone agrees it is good. The national chain opens in South Park and hires the local businessman to run their shop.

So what have we learned about business? From Wikipedia:

Paul Cantor, a literary critic and economic theorist, who has taught college courses revolving around the “Gnomes” episode, has described it as “the most fully developed defense of capitalism” ever produced by the show.[3] Cantor said the episode challenges the stereotype that small businesses are public servants who truly care about their customers by portraying local business owner Mr. Tweek as greedier and having less scruples than that of the corporation he is challenging; Tweek knowingly takes advantage of American distrust for big businesses and nostalgia for simpler times in his fight to maintain his bottom line.[4][5] At the end of the episode, Kyle and Stan conclude big corporations are good due to the services they provide people, and uphold the notion that the businesses providing the best product deserve to succeed in the marketplace and grow to become larger.[2] However, in portraying the Harbucks business plan as seducing the youth of the town with high-caffeine and high-sugar “kid-dycinno” drinks, Harbucks is also portrayed as lacking scruples in its corporate expansionist agenda.[4]

The episode portrays the mainstream media as biased against capitalism during a news report in which the reporter openly speaks in favor of Harbucks’ opponents; Cantor said the use of children in the anti-Harbucks commercials demonstrate a liberal tendency to use young people to advance their positions. Economic protectionism, portrayed in the episode as Mr. Tweek seeking a law to ban Harbucks from South Park, is portrayed as a tool used by businessmen to restrict free entry into the marketplace to protect their own profits.[6] Cantor said the language used in school reports Mr. Tweek writes for the students, like “As the voluminous corporate automaton bulldozes its way…”, is a parody of rhetoric against large corporations.[7]

The gnome characters and their underpants collection represent the ordinary business activity of capitalism that takes place on a regular basis in front of everyone, but is seldom noticed, understood or appreciated by society. Cantor suggests the fact that the gnomes are accused of theft is symbolic of the way businesses are unfairly accused of sinister activities by those who do not understand them. He also said the fact that the gnomes themselves do not understand their own business plan or why they steal the underwear could represent the notion that businessmen themselves often lack the economic knowledge needed to explain their activity and profits to the public.

I do think Cantor is spending a lot of time belaboring the obvious, which is fine given how little people pay attention to others’ views. But I think he’s missing that the gnomes are mythical creatures, and that both big business and small business are mythical in the American imagination. We don’t know for sure whether the chain’s coffee is actually good in the episode. We only know Tweek’s coffee sucks. The chain hires Mr. Tweek: what does that tell us about their future product?

That the gnomes don’t understand their own plan makes perfect sense. The missing step has to be “create something of value from the underpants and sell” or “market what you’ve got and sell.” Given what I’ve pointed out above, I don’t think “create something of value” is part of the plan. And the episode makes me wonder if “big business” and “small business” are terms that by their very nature cater to types of marketing. The real plan is to be a business and automatically get praise for it one way or another. Business is good. It is busy-ness. The opening of the episode is a teacher getting hassled because he’s wasting time in class. The rest of the episode seems to ask: Did having the students produce the reports which totally contradicted each other and contributed nothing to anyone’s understanding use time productively?

I’m not saying the episode is anti-capitalist. Cantor’s arguments are about right. The central issue is whether we can evaluate things properly. If we can, we might get something out of school, not pass bad laws, maybe even make good coffee. But we’re going to have to ditch the myths that create knee-jerk reactions. Tweek’s wife recognizes her husband’s weakness (and maybe even his strengths) and acts accordingly.


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