After 25 Years Of South Park, Liane Cartman Is Still The Best Character

Many of us millennials literally grew up with "South Park." When the show first shocked the masses with its unapologetically vile and juvenile hijinks back in 1997, I was nine years old — roughly the same age as the foul-mouthed youngsters who made up the main cast. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny were cultural phenomenons seemingly overnight; even my stiff, prim, and proper father struggled to hide his affection for the "respect my authoritah" moment (a cultural meme before memes were a thing). True, this may have just been a symptom of Dad's barely-contained disdain for his career in policing — he always did laugh a bit too hard at Chief Clancy Wiggum's incompetence on "The Simpsons" — but I like to think it speaks to the universal appeal of the show's sheer absurdist fun.

Like "The Simpsons," "South Park" peaked in the '90s, and its glory days of pop culture dominance and record-breaking ratings are over. Unlike "The Simpsons," however, the Comedy Central series is not running on the fumes of its former glory. Over the last 25 years, the show has continued to grow, mature, and evolve, and while the characters are relatively stuck in time in terms of their age, they've been allowed to develop alongside the series. With some, like Mr. (formerly Mrs.) Garrison, those changes are obvious. But for others, the character growth is more nuanced.

This brings us to Liane Cartman, Eric Cartman's mother. Kind, sex-positive, and loving to a fault, she's been a regular presence on the show since season 1, contrasting her bratty son's hateful, repulsive demeanor with her gentle, soft-spoken manner. "South Park" hasn't always been kind to her (she was a one-note punchline, initially) but she's grown to become the best character in the animated series.

From problematic to perservering

What started as a pretty mean-spirited and sexist gag in "South Park" has evolved into one of the rare fully-realized, relatable, and almost aspirational adult characters the show has to offer. With episode titles like "Cartman's Mom is a Dirty Slut," clearly early "South Park" was mocking female sexuality. (Chef also liked to "get busy" but his success with the ladies was painted as a lovable trait, not something to mock and despise.) 

Liane was a joke; she was an inept parent, a fool, and a "crack-whore." 

This treatment shifted over time. In the early seasons, her promiscuity and her tendency to indulge her son were framed as weak parenting, but part-way through the show's run, she started to get a more sympathetic treatment. She even has an episode devoted to her struggles with raising such a difficult child as a single parent (i.e. season 10, episode 7, "Tsst"), and in more recent seasons, there are plots about her really trying to do right by her son (like season 15, episode 1 "HUMANCENTiPAD," the season 23, episode 5 "Shots!" and the recent Paramount+ movie "The Streaming Wars").

It's not often brought to the forefront, but Liane has a difficult life. Of all the regularly recurring parents, she's the only single mother, and it's been hinted at more than once that she really struggles with that — not just the pressures of raising a child alone but also the loneliness itself. We saw glimmers of her humanity even as far back as season 2 — that same episode that mocks her for being a "dirty slut" also shows her questioning her ability to parent Eric. Does any other adult character ever show that level of self-awareness or selflessness? Randy Marsh sure as hell doesn't.

Liane Cartman fights for her son

Eric Cartman is the evilest child in all of "South Park," and it's easy to read him being overweight and poorly behaved as the direct result of being spoiled. While I'm sure it hasn't helped, there's ample evidence that Cartman is Cartman because that's just who he is. 

The season 2 episode "Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson!" reveals that the extended Cartman family is all overweight, and whether or not this was the intended reading, it does suggest Eric's weight and attitude are tied to his genetics. At the very least, Liane is guilty of nothing more than repeating the lessons she learned from her own upbringing. Liane is flawed, as is literally every other character, but she's not a bad mother; "Tsst" demonstrates how her loneliness makes her vulnerable to her son's manipulations. So many of the other parents are arguably worse, but their kids aren't nearly as bigoted and dangerous as Eric. 

I actually think Liane is one of the best parents in "South Park." She doesn't have the financial privilege of the Blacks or even the Broflovskis, but she always manages to make sure her son's needs are met. She undeniably puts Eric first, and I don't know that any other parent on this show does that for their kids. She fights for Eric, even when it means going up against the whole town. Liane even stands up for herself in "Shots!," telling off the town for questioning her commitment to parenting, then literally punching and kicking her way through a crowd and demanding they all "leave [her] son alone." The recent "The Streaming Wars" special even gives Liane a win as a mother, showing her finally standing up (successfully) to her son's nonsense demands.

'I want what she's having'

One of the many questionable running gags on "South Park" is its treatment of Liane's sexuality. I think it's fair to say the series in general reflected some pretty problematic societal attitudes towards women in the '90s and even well into the aughts. The audience was never meant to see characters like Liane, the overbearing Sheila Broflovski, or even the poverty-stricken Carol McCormick as anything remotely likable or relatable. 

Still, when I was younger watching "South Park," I always liked Liane, even in the first few seasons. The young me thought it was cool that she could get any man (or woman) she wanted in bed, and she did it with her sweet, maternal disposition. This trait has been downplayed in newer episodes, but it's clear she likes sex (who doesn't?) and she's certainly never acted like she needs to apologize for her lifestyle. She's independent, confident, and for the most part, happy. 

Her "South Park" episodes are still among my favorites: she's funny, sweet, and occasionally sexy. And now that I'm both a woman and a mother, I find myself drawn to her more. I want to have her endless patience with my own kids. I want to be as fierce and independent as she is. And I want all the townsfolk to love my cookies. 

Liane's changes over the last 25 years are emblematic of the show's maturation. She went from being a punchline to a three-dimensional character, all without any major personality overhauls or retcons. Is she perfect? No — but that's part of what makes her so interesting. I'm hoping this trend continues, with Matt Stone and Trey Parker writing more storylines that showcase the best "South Park" character.