Search form

Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Society and it's Discontents Part II

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman looks at why SpongeBob SquarePants is a lightning rod in American culture.

Everyone seems to be pointing fingers at SpongeBob. All images courtesy of Nickelodeon.

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.

Because of his wide reach over culture, SpongeBob is a big target for angry responses.

The concept of moral panic, as defined by social critics James Richardson, Joel Best, and David Bromley is observed when:

"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.

It's not uncommon for a hot button issue like gay rights to be read into a popular kids series.

Thus, I fulfill my duty to you, my readers, and to the subset of people who read this column for whatever reason. I shall address the six controversies individually.

1.    SpongeBob is gay.  So what if he was? So are a considerable number of our citizens, and they are not the reason that America may be suffering any sort of decline. There have now been openly gay characters on television since 1974, and every year there are more of them. Acceptance of gay individuals is on the rise, and it matters little whether SB is or is not. 

One of the most repugnant conversations I have ever had was with a former acquaintance who, along with his wife, actually changed their religious alliance because the sect they belonged to was considering the selection of a gay bishop. It appeared to me that their lifelong religious identities were defined by homophobia; although I'm sure they believed they were following God's inerrant word.

With SB, it's even worse: he's condemned by people who don't even know the facts; SB's creator calls him "asexual." As far as I will address SB in future writings, this is an irrelevant and stupid point not worth addressing. Gay, straight, or bisexual, this is one damn fine cartoon character and one damn fine cartoon.

2.    SpongeBob has an openly gay agenda  And this can be seen…where? This is the inference made by the conservative Right based on their interpretation of the video itself and "hints" they allegedly ferreted out of individual cartoon episodes. Therefore, the video must also suggest that SB has an African-American agenda, a Jewish agenda, a Hispanic agenda, an Asian American agenda…but why go on? The burden of proof is on the accusers, and that is exactly what they lack. They have yet to provide the specific scene, dialogue, and sequence where SB promotes a gay agenda. They can't.  They never will. In addition, their opinions are, de facto, as worthless as anything in the Krusty Krab's dumpster is. Only the similarly bigoted and ignorant are entitled to share them.

3.    SpongeBob is a friend of childhood obesity

SB is well recognized and therefore is a desirable spokesperson for any product that can be marketed. However, he happens to be most familiar to a certain demographic market, children of a specified age group. This is why SB is used to advertise Pop Tarts and not extra large maxi-pads with wings or Glock pistols. Care must be taken here to differentiate the spokesperson from the product; SB was not created or commissioned by Kellogg's to sell Pop Tarts in the way that Sugar Bear wasdeveloped by Post in order to push Sugar Crisp.

SB is as much a player in the free market as Michael Jordan was for Nike. In his cartoons, SB neither eats nor espouses the consumption of Pop Tarts. SB (or his writers) likely do not think about childhood obesity when they lay out their storyboards. That being said, even if Congress does not mandate that advertisers stop using animated characters to sell foods detrimental to children's health, it's a good idea for SB to bow out of this sector of the advertising business .It won't dent his popularity or sour his legacy. He may cease to be a market force in a specified area, but his cartoons will still be just as good.

4.    SpongeBob promoted sexual exploitation This refers to the 2009 Burger King commercial where SB cavorted with square-butted babes to the tune of "Baby Got Back" in order to sell Kids Meals. SB purported to love "square butts". This might be considered an unusual stance for a character widely rumored to be gay (or at least pro-gay), but again keep in mind that SB functions as a synecdoche in times of moral panic: he is all evils to all people. I have viewed this commercial twenty times since I began this column and have concluded that it is: a) terminally silly, and b) so ridiculous that the images cancel out any possible sexual connotations.  Besides, any kid that has seen MTV, BET, or VH1 (and let's not kid ourselves here) will instantly recognize this commercial as risible parody. This accusation is a laughable overreaction from the moral watchdogs who don't seem to realize that SB exists in the very free market system that supports their lifestyles.

Hey Bob, that better be a hybrid hamburger!

5.    SpongeBob advocates a global warming agenda based on unproven science Let us tally it up thus far:  SB is now an advocate for a liberal global warming viewpoint, he is gay, a sexual exploiter of females, and a sugar/fat pusher as well. Global warming? Oh, naughty sponge! Fox News castigates thee! Does it matter that the Religious Right also tries to promote an "intelligent design" agenda based on "unproven science?" In case the Neocon talking heads at Fox have forgotten the contents of our founding documents, SB (or his spokespeople) have every possible right to express this point of view, whether it is correct or not.

This controversy surrounding SB is the least credible and easily the crassest one of all. The culture wars have never been uglier, and Fox is clearly scraping the bottom of the seemingly inexhaustible moral panic barrel by picking on a tiny yellow sponge instead of taking on established scientists.  The problem with Fox is that they believe children are being indoctrinated. Sort of like kids being taught that the Earth is 10,000 years old.

6.    SpongeBob cripples kid's attention spans  Or so claims the American Association of Pediatrics after a study in which preschoolers were allegedly driven dizzy by the fast pace of SpongeBob cartoons. Why SB cartoons? Again, high visibility produces the synecdoche effect. I'm a psychologist by trade, for those of you who don't know it already. I do believe that fast-paced cartoons really could ramp kids up. For a few minutes. If there turns out to be any long-term cognitive or neurological damage resultant from preschoolers watching SB, I'd be (non-clinical term ahead) gobsmacked.

Should you believe everything the educational experts tell you? Several years ago, there was another study.  It pretty much proved that the highly touted "Baby Einstein" videos that competitive parents were sucked into buying had no appreciable effect on accelerating the learning abilities of infants. The babes stared dumbly at the videos much like anything else thrown into the DVD player, mainly because their cognitive abilities were still a formative neurological stew.  That didn't stop countless families, in the misconception that the videos were a jump-start for junior, from spending money on them.

Back in 1969, a program called Sesame Street presented learning with brief, fast-paced, animated lessons resembling TV commercials, and this was hailed as an educational breakthrough, not a wrecker of young attention spans. Sesame Street has outlasted countless cartoon programs and is still revered today.

Today I watch kids in mid-graders manipulate every iTool available, play with Photoshop, use phones that contain seventeen billion functions, have hundreds of friends on Facebook, and play video games that I would lose within thirty seconds of taking the controls. They are a wired, multitasking generation who seem to utilize multiple attention spans and have them easily at their command by the seventh grade.

Now, if a four-year old was watching Sesame Street or SBSP in 1999 (the first year of SBSP) that child would be 14 today and would likely have access to, or even own, some of the above. This is their world, and some studies appear to suggest they actually suffer withdrawal symptoms when not using some device for a prolonged period. Did fast-paced animation destroy their attention spans or did they prepare them for full participation in a society of complex technological communications?

I'll tell you what would be too much for today's kids neurological functioning: A dial telephone. TV stations that went off the air at midnight (on all thirteen channels). An AM/FM radio and a vinyl record as sole sources of music. A camera that uses film. I am now fifty-five years old and grew up with all of the above, and I can tell you that I would never want to go back to that world. We all adapt. Kids adapt even faster, and we're fools to think they can't. So, how much damage does a SB cartoon really do?

Probably less than a Pop Tart would.

Therefore, in closing, have an opinion and don't be afraid to advance it if you truly want to be an animation critic. Call it as you see it, and controversy be damned. There will be those who agree with you and those who don't, but that should not be your prime consideration. SpongeBob does not need to be in the middle of controversies, but it is inevitable, for the reasons given above, that he always will be. So take a stand. If you're good and you're lucky, it's what you may be paid to do someday

Assignment: Give your own opinion of the six SpongeBob controversies. Clarify why you feel this way. How would you defend your viewpoints? Are they consistent with your observations? Write opposing viewpoints and examine how you feel about them, both emotionally and intellectually. Then go watch a few episodes of SpongeBob Square Pants. You've worked hard enough.

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