The Animation Critic Continued: Society and its Discontents
I didn't really want to do this particular column at this point; it should have come much later along in the series. However, once in a while a fastball comes in letter-high at far less speed than the pitcher intended, and one has to take that swing. So, this month let's explore the interaction between animation and the society that produces it, consumes it, and judges its values. This is where you will stretch your talents as a critic, because no piece of animation is conceived of or executed in a vacuum: Once produced and seen, it takes its place in the enormous mosaic of our media and is consigned a definitive niche by the consensus of both the public and we, the critics.
For example, animation undergoes a process of "branding" in which it becomes a definable commodity. A simple example: there is today a subset of animation called "Classic Looney Tunes". I have no idea what this really means, since many of the most beloved Warner shorts were actually "Merrie Melodies", and shorts bearing this title continued to be produced by the studio until its final days. "Looney Tunes" today means both the characters that originated at the Warner studio and the cartoons both past and present, featuring them. Another example is Nickelodeon: It is both a network and a brand, with economic endeavors separate from its televised fare.
Thus, we have a confluence of culture, economics, politics, and demographics to consider whenever we analyze a particular piece of animation. The way in which these factors interact is an important consideration for you future critics (Of course, you can forego all of this and simply watch cartoon films and shorts for the enjoyment of it, and that's fine. Consider this a "think piece"). If you want the challenge of deeper analysis, however, let's roll.
SpongeBob SquarePants (both the cartoon series and the character) have earned a hallowed place in cartoon history. In the twelve years since his debut on May1, 1999, the Absorbent Yellow one has become one of the most popular and heavily merchandised characters in recent animation history. After his popularity soared during the 2000 season, SpongeBob has saturated the media, reaped the rewards of being one of cable TV's highest-rated programs, sold millions of dollars in licensed products, and now holds instant recognition factor among kids and adults both.
The show has been nominated for no less than twenty-seven animation awards and has won twenty-six others. SB (as we'll call him for the duration of this column) rivals The Simpsons in popularity and longevity, and like them, has a generational crossover audience that seems to span every demographic. So far so good for Nickelodeon, Viacom, and creator Steve Hillenburg; not always so good for SB.
Since SB first stepped out of his pineapple he has been embroiled in no less than six major controversies; not bad for a simple fry cook. Each one reflects different ways in which cultural factors have twisted SB to suit various viewpoints that the silly sponge has had little, if anything, to actually do with.