In Defense of SpongeBob: 6 Episodes with Profound Meaning
Nickelodeon's smash hit cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants, made the news rounds yesterday because of a study that suggested it might reduce the attention spans of 4-year-olds. Though I could easily spend some time discussing the worthlessness of the study (it's small, preliminary, sloppy, uncontrolled, etc.), I would rather talk about the serious subject matter that occasionally creeps into the show. These deep messages could easily plant themselves into the subconscious minds of developing young brains, for better or for worse, and I think that's far more relevant than what the cartoon does to the short-term attention span of a 4-year-old. As the father of a toddler, I am exposed to a lot of SpongeBob's exploits these days, but I will admit that I have been watching the show for much longer than my son has been alive. Sometimes, an episode will have a pretty intense, heavy subtext, and it isn't always hidden. For example:
The episode: SpongeBob wants to be stronger, so he goes to his squirrel friend, Sandy Cheeks, who makes him work out. The exercise is too much for SpongeBob, but as he contemplates how to tell Sandy that he doesn't want to work out anymore, he sees a commercial for inflatable muscles, called "Anchor Arms." He buys them and struts around town, showing off his new, ripped arms. Sandy, impressed that SpongeBob appears to have found an exercise routine that works for him, enlists him in an anchor toss competition. Forced to compete, SpongeBob is embarrassed and shamed when his inflatable muscles explode in front of everyone.
The subtext: Perhaps you've heard of Gregg Valentino, better known as The Man Whose Arms Exploded. Valentino was a bodybuilder who started using a wide range of steroids at the age of 24. Eventually, he became too big and steroid-riddled to compete in professional bodybuilding and instead devoted his life to simply increasing his muscle mass. An infection crept into his arms, which caused all kinds of unpleasantness, leading to the arm exploding in question.
The lesson: If you are against showing SpongeBob SquarePants to children, you clearly want them to grow up to abuse steroids.
The episode: After staying up late watching a movie in which robots take the form of people to take over the world, SpongeBob becomes convinced that his boss, Mr. Krabs, is a robot in disguise. He eventually convinces Squidward, and the two of them give Mr. Krabs a brutal interrogation. Eventually, they realize that Mr. Krabs isn't actually a robot, but by then, they've already destroyed most of his valuable possessions, which leaves them in a heap of trouble.
The subtext: In the 1950's, paranoia over communist infiltrators was at an all-time high, leading to the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy conducted hearings in which he accused thousands of American citizens of being communist spies. People were black-listed without proper evidence, innocent people were imprisoned, lives were completely destroyed, and the whole affair made the country apoplectic with anxiety. Eventually, the public turned against Senator McCarthy's extreme tactics, and the Supreme Court handed down several rulings that stripped him of his abusive powers. Unfortunately, by then, the damage had already been done. Today, the McCarthy era--along with several other time periods in which we unfairly prejudged huge swaths of people--is considered one of the blackest stains on American history.
The lesson: Kids who don't watch this episode could grow up to be the next Joe McCarthy.
The episode: One morning, SpongeBob is on his way to work when Sandy surprise attacks him with karate. They play for a few minutes, and then SpongeBob goes happily to his job at the Krusty Krab. While there, he is unable to concentrate because he is paranoid that Sandy could sneak up on him. Overly cautious and jumpy, he hits a customer he thinks is Sandy in disguise. Mr. Krabs intervenes and tells SpongBob that if he doesn't stop doing karate, SpongeBob will be out of work. SpongeBob and Sandy both try to quit, but they are unable to resist. While lazing around outside after using karate on everything in sight (including bread, meat, and vegetables to make sandwiches), SpongeBob idly wonders aloud if Mr. Krabs ever does karate. Mr. Krabs appears, but rather than firing SpongeBob on the spot, he decides to exploit SpongeBob's ability to make sandwiches with karate.
The subtext: I've worked many blue-collar jobs in my day, and it's easy to spot fellow employees who are stoned or drunk at work. They are moody, paranoid, and slow. When it interferes too much with their duties, management has to intervene, usually offering them one chance to shape up before they get fired. It's hard to quit doing drugs or alcohol, because these substances are addictive, and an addict will almost always relapse, usually because of peer pressure. (The substances can also destroy lives, as karate almost does to Patrick Star in the episode "Karate Star.")
The lesson: Drugs are bad, but if you're going to do them at work, make sure the drugs can improve your performance. ...Okay, so maybe this isn't the best lesson.
-e. magill 9/13/2011