Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Society and it's Discontents Part II
"a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; it's nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians, and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions…" Social commentator Michael Shermer noted that: "Such events are used as weapons [for political groups in their campaigns] when someone stands to gain and someone stands to lose by the focus on such events and their outcomes."
Due to his wide visibility in the culture, SB becomes a symbol open to interpretation to different camps: We see here how controversies and cultural splits that have been forming for forty years have found a focal point in a media phenomenon known as SpongeBob SquarePants. The problem that Dobson and Focus on the Family had with SB? He was merely one of many appearing in the We Are Family video, but he was singled out due to past suspicions and the horrifying thought that children were being convinced to accept the evils of homosexuality. SB can be co-opted, for good or ill, by any group for any cause.
Critic and essayist Lee Siegel added a crucial economic component when he commented on "moral panic" and the SB controversies:
"It seems to me that the right's panic over this cartoon was the misplaced expression of a good and authentic fear, which is that anything goes in popular culture if it makes money. Especially in the realm of television. But these negatively obsessed fans of SpongeBob don't want to acknowledge that the free market they support is responsible for the popular culture that they deplore…Moral panic is perhaps their way of defeating the market's amoral influence and winning back a non-economic space. But they could use a little less time in front of the television themselves and a little more of SpongeBob's defiance and pluck. No wonder he stirs them up."
To Steve Hillenburg, SB is a cherished and successful creation. To Nickelodeon/Viacom, a source of immense profits. To James Dobson, an evil tool of pro-gay forces. To researchers, a smoker of young brains. Watchdogs see SB as an oversexed promoter of fast food burgers, and similar watchdogs worry about the sugary treats he advertises. For devoted audiences, SB is a silly treat to be enjoyed, and in the annals of animation, he's a storied success.
Which is the real SB? It is a decision to be made based on deeply informed knowledge of animation and it's past history, social theory, personal predilection, and intimate knowledge of how our culture views entertainment. This is where, in my opinion, the social commentator, popular culture academic leaves off, and the animation critic takes over, and for one simple reason: The academics explore, extrapolate, and theorize in a scholarly, clinical manner. The animation critic voices an opinion based on his/her critical thinking.