Lit scholar takes on Cartman, Bart and Captain Kirk

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Lit scholar takes on Cartman, Bart and Captain Kirk

“Maybe I’ll wear my shades,” says Paul Cantor. The UVA English professor flips a set of clip-on sunglasses down over his regular frames and leans back in a black metal chair on the Downtown Mall. “I lead a double life.”

While Cantor teaches on elitist seeming subjects like Homer and Shakespeare in a university setting, he has in recent years undertaken a defense of popular culture—TV specifically—as a pet cause.

“I’ve loved television since I was a little kid and look back with great fondness on the early days of Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, ‘Have Gun Will Travel,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ and all these great shows,” he says. “As a result, without trying to, I became a television scholar. That is, I ended up with a vast amount of knowledge about it.”

At first, he started doing things like giving a lecture on the 1960s show, “Gilligan’s Island,” “almost as a parody,” he says. “And then I discovered that students and some faculty were really interested in it. And in fact they could talk about it intelligently.”


Doh! Cantor is an expert on Homer and Homer.

“We could discuss really serious issues in terms of a show like ‘The Simpsons’—family values, the relation of politics in a small town setting,” he says. “At that point, I started to realize there is something valuable to do here.”

So he began to publish articles on shows like “The Simpsons” and then a book called Gilligan Unbound that discussed the philosophy of that sitcom and “Star Trek” in the context of the Cold War. Interesting, heady stuff, but told by Cantor in a layman’s fashion that reflects the libertarian motivations at the heart of much of his writing, whether he is discussing the philosopher Theodor Adorno or “Deadwood” creator David Milch.  

“Well, I am a libertarian, and yes it is weird being libertarian in today’s academic world,” he admits.

Recent essays speak to this old-school conservative lean. Published in September 2007, “Cartman Shrugged: ‘South Park’ and Libertarianism” is an analysis of various episodes of the ribald comedy written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, arguing that the creators consistently promote a free market system while poking fun at intellectual elitism, themes that obviously stir the professor.

“Intellectuals don’t want the masses to discover Cappuccino and they don’t want the masses to discover good burgundy,” he says, laughing. “There’s a strong element of snobbery connected with the French origins of a lot of this thinking. You want to keep yourself in this aesthetic bubble where you enjoy all the finer things in life and then look down upon the masses.”

From his vantage, that type of thinking has resulted in a culture of political correctness that shows like “The Simpsons” and “South Park” adroitly pick apart. By discussing them in academic terms, Cantor is trying to do the same, elevating supposed low culture into intellectual circles, up-ending them in the process.

“It’s my all-around orneriness and my contrarian intellectual impulses,” the rebel explains.

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