Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Society and it's Discontents Part II
We are on a mission this month. We have to discover why SpongeBob SquarePants is a lightning rod in American culture. Before we do this, however, we should conduct a brief but incisive history of culture and politics in America. The most cogent place to begin is 1968.
The first election of Richard Nixon came at a time of heated cultural change. Rather than explore this era in detail, suffice it to say that the bitter partisan political divisions that bedevil America to this day began during his administration. You could call the states powder blue and pale pink at this time; later they, and their constituencies, would darken into the "Red" and "Blue" states of today, where the parties have long ceased to work in a bipartisan manner.
As the fruits of the Civil Rights movement blossomed, many underrepresented groups began vying for political and social influence. Many of them were allied to liberal politics. America saw the rise of the conservative Christian Right during the late 1970's with the founding of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Evangelical fundamentalism began to seek the political pull and cultural capital to eradicate long-standing barriers between church and state.
It was also in 1968 that Dr. Benjamin Spock was persecuted by Attorney General Ramsey Clark for his antiwar views. Dr. Spock is, of course, the noted pediatrician who changed the conceptions underlying child rearing in postwar America. Children were no longer seen as stoic little adults, but precious packets of potential liable to harm from societal forces. This re-conception led to the origin of organizations such as Action for Children's Television (founded in, you guessed it, 1968) to protect children from unscrupulous advertising, and an increasing focus on children's TV by scientific bodies such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The latter group conducted studies on the effect of cartoon violence on child development.
Here we can begin to see how the cultural web thickens and evolves over time. At present, the divisions in America have grown deeper, and political pressures within both parties have led them to attempt to destroy, rather than simply disagree with opposing individuals. Watchdog groups seek regulation over a variety of influences on the population in the name of health agendas. The Christian Right attempts to derail the Darwinian theory of evolution in public schools. Conservatives form anti-government Tea Parties (at least for as long as Democrats control the White House) and the Occupy Wall Street movement cries out for social and economic justice. Talk radio, Internet bloggers, and news media further polarize a tense nation, and little is solved in the end.
A perky yellow sponge in a pair of square pants has been caught in the crossfire numerous times, trapped, as A.E. Housman said, in a world he never made. Why SB? With high recognition factor comes increased targeting. Because SB is so wildly popular, he is assumed to have a meaning greater than his existence as a cartoon character. SB has become a synecdoche for children's animation; anything he does is perceived to be an example of how animation allegedly affects children, culture, or stands for ideologies that were never intended to be represented, etc. This is the result of a societal condition known as "Moral Panic", observed to occur at times of severe cultural stress.