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The Animation Critic Continued: Society and its Discontents

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman looks at the interaction between animation and the society that produces it, consumes it, and judges its values.

SpongeBob's popularity makes him subject to a wide range of critics looking to find controversy.

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.

SpongeBob's innocence leads to misinterpretation.

Controversy One: SpongeBob is gay.

These allegations began to pop up in the (mostly conservative) media during 2002. At first they centered mostly on SB's relationship with Patrick (who is pink) and then spread to SB's neighbor Squidward, who was perceived as being effeminate. Hillenburg actually went so far to address the issue, stating that SB was "somewhat asexual". It should be noted that by 2002 SBSP was perhaps the most popular animated show on cable/satellite television; therefore SB's influence was perceived as being widespread enough to draw the suspicion of not only the Religious Right, but various funsters making their own inferences. The gay community never openly "adopted" SB as one of their own, but that didn't stop the sponge from being drawn into the culture wars.

Controversy Two: SpongeBob also has an openly gay agenda.

The suspicions of the Evangelicals never truly abated, and when SB (and many other animated characters) appeared in a 2005 video promoting tolerance, diversity, and acceptance of all humankind, the boom was lowered. James Dobson and his starkly conservative Christian watchdogs accused SB of promoting a gay agenda, especially since they believe SB to a be favorite among audiences of gay men.

Controversy Three: SpongeBob is a friend to childhood obesity.

2005 saw the release of a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation that implicated media and marketing in the rise of childhood obesity. Sugary treats, cereals, and beverages, it was claimed, were often hawked by charming and popular animated characters. Whether this made the foods in question more desirable is open to debate, but when faced with an epidemic, a multiplicity of cures is often tried. It was noted by New York Times columnist Marian Burros that SB was prominently featured on boxes of Pop Tarts (Wild Bubbleberry flavor, yum!), a product in which half the calories are composed of fat and sugar.

It was recommended (perhaps facetiously) that SB begin selling broccoli instead. The report called on Congress to enforce restrictions on advertisers using cartoon characters to promote unhealthy food products. Shades of Joe Camel.

Controversy Four: SpongeBob's Burger King commercial (2009).

Whether or not one lauds the efforts of The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one must admit that they are sharp-eyed.  SB was seen in a 2009 commercial for Burger King's Kids Meal imitating the famous hip-hop/rap artist Sir Mix-A-Lot. SB's funky rendition of "Baby Got Back" was accompanied by what CCC described as "sexy gyrating women" with phone books stuffed into their pants to give them a square appearance. SB paraphrases Mix-A-Lot by changing the lyrics to "I like square (originally 'big') butts." SB stood accused of promoting the objectification of women through the use of "sexualized images". It's rather confusing, considering that SB was widely accused of being gay just a couple of years beforehand.

Controversy Five: SpongeBob has promoted a global warming agenda unproven by science.

In August of 2011, the crew of Fox News cast an evil eye on SB for daring to suggest that glaobal warming may be a man-made, rather than epochal phenomenon. SB and Mr. Krabs had appeared in a book titled SpongeBobGoes Green! in which Mr. Krabs opens a swimming pool outside the Krusty Krab restaurant as an additional draw for customers. The weather is cold, however, so SB helpfully pumps carbon dioxide into the ocean to warm things up, with dire results. It's up to the sponge to reverse the effect, learn to respect nature, and care for the environment. Since the concept human-induced global warming is anathema to conservatives, the sponge also has to take the heat from Fox.

SpongeBob was used as the test example of a fast-paced cartoon in a study and felt the brunt of the negative results.

Controversy Six: SpongeBob is harmful to children's attention and concentration

The latest controversy. October of 2011 saw the publication of a study conducted by the University of Virginia that accused SB (and similar cartoons) of being  "fast-paced fantasy television programmes" that impaired children's "executive functions" (namely, the abilities of attention and concentration, problem-solving, and impulse control). Twenty kids exposed to nine minutes of a cartoon featuring "an animated kitchen sponge" (I suppose that wasn't The Venture Brothers) scored worse on tests than another group that watched nine minutes of Cailou and a third group that spent nine minutes drawing pictures. The stimulation produced by SB was postulated to have overtaxed the brains of the group that watched his cartoon. One of the researchers stated that "We think it leaves them mentally exhausted – at least for a short time.

All of these controversies have one thing in common: SpongeBob SquarePants, the madly popular winner of multiple entertainment awards, is under attack. Exposing children to homosexuality? Check. Promoting pro-gay propaganda? Yep. A factor in childhood obesity? Ditto. Being too sexy? You bet. Pushing global warming? Right. Wrecking kid's brains? Yes, that too.

But why SB? Has he done anything right? Where, besides at Nickelodeon, are those who will stand up for the absorbent, porous, and yellow one? Will there be more controversies, and what form will they take?  Please do tune in next month, faithful readers, because we are going on a wild, full-speed ride through the cultural context surrounding SB. It's a tour that will cut to the very heart of what criticism means in America at this particular point in time. Not only will everything above be explored and explained, the capstone of what it means to be an animation critic will be on display for your enjoyment.

This column marks twelve enjoyable years with AWN, and I am deeply honored to have been granted such a tenure. I'm just getting warmed up, readers: Stick with me and we’ll make Year Thirteen a great one!

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.