This past season, South Park caused a stir, reaching out to their viewers in search of fanart—specifically fanart of the popular pairing of Tweek Tweak and Craig Tucker—to be featured in an upcoming episode. The result was “Tweek X Craig,” and in true South Park fashion, it combined an over-the-top scenario with thoughtful social commentary, parodying slash fandom and supporting the LGBTQ community all at once. The episode’s humor and heart speak to viewers bemused at the concept of yaoi and devoted “Creek” shippers alike, but it isn’t the child characters learning something by the show’s conclusion. Instead, it’s a father who learns a lesson about being a better parent to his son.
The episode begins at a school assembly to spotlight art from the new Asian-American students, which turns out to be yaoi fanart of their classmates Tweek and Craig. Convinced that they now have a young gay couple in town, the people of South Park continue season nineteen’s lampooning of political correctness by being so supportive that they don’t care when Tweek and Craig point out they’re not actually a couple.
In the midst of the town’s celebrating, Craig’s father Thomas hears from other parents that his son is gay. They congratulate him and say how good it is to hear that “Craig is finally happy,” but Thomas is horrified. Both boys lie awake at night, unsure of what to think or how to respond to what happened at school. Thomas is also too distraught to sleep.
There’s a lot to be said about how the episode treats its fans with respect (the girls drawing the pictures are never insulted or talked down to, and the fanart viewers submitted gets an affectionate montage), or how it addresses that problematic behavior can arise from good intentions. Yet Thomas Tucker’s subplot stands out as one more grounded in reality than overexaggeration. He struggles with accepting his son’s sexuality and can’t quite articulate why. In one scene, he drowns his sorrows at a bar and bemoans what he could have done wrong as a parent. At home with his wife, he muses that homosexuality might not be a bad thing, but that he doesn’t want his son to be gay. There’s never a reason given, and even Thomas realizes this, acknowledging more than once how everyone is happy for Craig and proud of him, but that Thomas can’t bring himself to join the town in its support.
His pick-and-choose acceptance is heightened by the fact that he barely interacts with Craig in the episode. Though Thomas talks to other men in the town and to his wife trying to make sense of the situation, he makes no effort to approach his son, even to let Craig know his dad is there for him. From the moment he hears Craig is gay, Thomas stops using his name, referring to him only as “my son” (i.e., “Why did this have to happen to my son?” or “What did I do to make my son like this?”). The one exception is his delighted response to a call from the principal that Craig got in a fight at school, though when the principal clarifies that it was a “lovers’ quarrel” with Tweek, Thomas sinks back into a bad mood. The distance is reciprocated; Craig doesn’t come to his father for advice or support, either.
Tweek’s parents get two full scenes in which they accept their son. Neither is entirely positive, as their reaction is in line with the town’s zeal to be supportive. Like Thomas, they also hear from an outside source the rumor that Tweek is gay, but they initiate conversation over dinner and assure Tweek they are proud of him. Tweek’s response is to bang his head on the table while his father talks over him and offers him money. When Craig visits Tweek, his parents fuss and coo over him more than necessary and remind him to “keep the door open” when he goes to find Tweek in his room, again undermining their support. Tweek and Craig only react to them with annoyance, and no time is spent looking at their thought process or what their son’s having a boyfriend means to them.
Craig suggests to Tweek that they stage a breakup at school to put an end to the fanart. Though initially convinced he can’t do it, Tweek proves to have superior acting skills, and his off-the-rails improv creates such a dramatic breakup that the town spirals into depression. Even Tweek and Craig find that splitting up hasn’t made them happier. Thomas alone reacts to the news with smug pleasure, though seeing Craig return home miserable shakes his relief.
Tweek visits the Tucker home soon after looking for Craig, and Thomas tries to shoo him out with an angry “Why can’t you quit him?” The timing of the Brokeback Mountain reference makes for a good laugh, cushioning how the line further proves Thomas’s poor understanding of sexuality. The memetic quotation has been referenced across media and by plenty of folks who never saw the movie. It’s unlikely that a homophobic character like Thomas would be familiar with the film outside of its most quoted line; irritated by the sight of his son’s “ex-boyfriend,” it was probably the only relevant insult that came to mind. Thomas attempts to shut the door in Tweek’s face until his wife intercedes, then barks out that Tweek can have five minutes to talk to Craig.
While Craig and Tweek clear the air in the backyard, Thomas watches from the window. Tweek thanks Craig for believing in him and apologizes for hurting him; without the rest of the episode’s context, Thomas overhears this snippet of the conversation and sobs. To his wife, he admits he can see the pain Craig, and even Tweek, is going through but that he just can’t bring himself to accept it.
His portrayal isn’t an unrealistic one; there are people of all ages and backgrounds who don’t accept sexuality outside of heterosexuality, or maybe do but can’t process when their own friends and family come out to them. Thomas points out that it wasn’t something people of his generation talked about or were okay with. Plenty of media have covered that angle, but to South Park‘s immense credit, Thomas isn’t played as a one-sided villain because of it. His conflict of embracing his son is treated with sympathy as he talks himself in circles trying to align his love for his child with his own homophobic upbringing and prejudices. With each of Thomas’s scenes over the course of the episode, it’s as if the show’s creators are saying, “You can do it, you can overcome it, you’re almost there” instead of “You hateful monster, you are the enemy, you aren’t even trying.” Not every loving, accepting parent started in that place, but that doesn’t mean they’ll never get there.
To reach that better place in time for the end of the episode, Thomas is struck with a Cupid’s arrow that clears his doubts. He announces that he won’t turn his back on his son and goes up to Craig’s room, where Craig sits sadly in the dark. Thomas joins his son and makes a speech that, barring a few references to subplots (removed in quotation), is one any parent should be able to give:
You can’t fight being gay. I used to think that being gay was a choice, but you don’t get to decide […] I don’t understand this stuff […] but I do know that if you try and resist it, you make yourself miserable your whole life. Everyone was so proud of you. I was just being selfish. I want to be proud of you too. I like gay Craig. I love you.
Craig reaches out to Tweek again and they “get back together,” though the episode intentionally keeps ambiguous whether there’s genuine interest or if the boys were peer pressured into a relationship from the overbearing support of the town. Craig goes the whole episode without talking to his father and doesn’t even speak or make eye contact when Thomas apologizes and accepts him. He fights the rumored relationship with Tweek up until the moment his father assures him that he loves him and will support whatever makes him happy. Let’s say for argument’s sake that Craig does want to be with Tweek; perhaps not having to fear his father’s rejection allowed him to embrace that. Alternatively, if Craig chose the relationship for the town and not himself, his father’s approval and care still took precedence. Faking a relationship wasn’t a risk Craig was willing to take without knowing his dad was on his side.
To call this episode a love letter to the South Park fandom would be true, but reading between the lines reveals an even greater message. “Tweek X Craig” doesn’t shy away from the fact that someone’s coming out isn’t about how it makes others feel. Yes, the episode acknowledges, it’s not always easy to take in that information, and some people do need a little time to process if that will help them get to a place of love and acceptance. What’s most important, though, is that people remember it’s not about them. It’s not about how “I” feel or how the situation affects “me.” Simply put, be there for someone else and let them know you’re in their corner.
Not only did South Park invite this discussion, it flipped its usual formula to accommodate a message to parents in a new generation that speaks and thinks more openly about gender and sexuality. A typical episode hyperbolizes current events or creates an absurd situation to parallel them to make its commentary. Many conclude with a child character saying, “You know, I learned something today,” and summarizing the episode’s purpose, bringing comedy into play in how the children are able to process information and interpret it often better than the adults.
Though “Tweek X Craig” started out according to formula with the assembly and South Park’s reaction to the fanart, the lesson laid out in the end avoids the scripted cue of what viewers were supposed to glean. The children don’t have to learn to be accepting of Tweek and Craig; even Cartman supports them. The extent of their confusion is the correlation between fanart and fact, and the only thing they learn in the episode is the definition of “yaoi” via Google.
The character who has something to learn in this situation is an adult, a parent. The point made isn’t subtle by any means; Thomas does the right thing after being shot with an arrow of love, after all. Still, in place of underpants gnomes or Cthulhu, South Park takes its stand in a quiet setting, the Tucker family’s home, and through a private conversation between father and son. The purpose is so clear it requires no “what we learned” recap, and the interpretation is so not up for debate that viewers were placed in a space of reality for it.
“Tweek X Craig” isn’t South Park‘s first display of awareness of its fandom or support for LGBTQ relationships. Nor is it the first episode to put the lesson learned on an adult character. Yet these elements combined created a shining moment for season nineteen: a father’s putting his love for his son above all else, even changing his viewpoint because of it. The episode encourages families to express their support for one another in difficult or confusing times, and argues that parents can and should be comfortable making the first move. Both the Tweaks and Thomas approach their children, and though neither conversation is perfect, both are a step in the right direction.
Anyone can start the conversation, and a great way to start is with “I love you.”