»  National Review Online

March 5th, 2003

  Spongebob Squarepants


My kids watch TV cartoons. Different people have different ideas about the desirability of this. I don't much mind. Kids have to watch some TV, otherwise they have nothing to reminisce about with their peers when they're older. I am not a person who can be much bothered with supervising my kids, anyway, as readers of NRODT know. There are times when I'm busy, the wife is out, and the kids are banging around the house with nothing to do. Probably, if I were a better parent, I would know how to get them absorbed in building model cathedrals out of toothpicks, or conjugating Latin verbs, or re-enacting the Battle of Austerlitz, but I am not, so I don't, and that's that. I switch on the TV and leave them with it.*

Most of the things that aren't utterly unsuitable for them are dreck, of course — 90 per cent of everything on TV is dreck — and generally speaking, cartoons are the least objectionable fare. Thank Goodness, then, for Nickelodeon.

I can't say I have sat down and watched much of this stuff. I catch it on my way through the living-room, and have picked up general impressions. I don't think any of the Nickelodeon cartoons are really improving in any way, though there are degrees of vacuity. Arthur seems to be making some conscious attempt to instill good bourgeois values — but that, naturally, is the cartoon my kids like least. Rug Rats is sometimes mildly subversive, while the Japanese cartoons, like Pokemon, have a subtext of earnestness — though, as always with the Japanese, it is difficult to figure out exactly what it is they are being earnest about. The dominant theme of these TV cartoons, though, is one of empty silliness.

In this respect, the "purest" cartoon — and the one my kids like best, they tell me — is Spongebob Square Pants. This one I have actually sat down and watched a few times. It comes in 12-minute episodes, which is the kind of interval I can spare when my kids beg me to sit with them a while.

Spongebob, in case you have never seen the show, is a small cuboid of yellow sponge who lives at the bottom of the sea, in the town of Bikini Bottom. His house is a pineapple.** He has a pet snail named Gary, who meows like a cat. His next door neighbor is a grouchy squid named Squidward. His best friend is Patrick, a dim-witted starfish. Spongebob works for Mr. Krabs, proprietor of the Krusty Krab diner, whose specialty is crab patties. (Why a crab would be selling patties made from members of his own species is not explained. Nor is the physics of keeping a griddle hot underwater.) The crab patties are made according to a secret recipe, which the Evil Plankton is constantly scheming to steal.

Spongebob is, so far as I can tell, devoid of any large significance. The plot lines are conventional: Spongebob tries to be Employee of the Month for the 27th time, Patrick's parents come to visit, a food inspector calls to check out the Krusty Krab, and so on. The presentation of the stories, though, is beyond silly, and to get into the show you have to suspend not just disbelief, but practically all your intellectual faculties. If you can just do that for 12 minutes, the thing has a weird charm. Its target audience seems to be 5- to 10-year-olds, but to judge from Internet fan groups, it is watched by older kids, and even some adults. Pretty much all these older viewers are male, of course. ("One of the surest signs of his genius is that women dislike his books." — George Orwell, writing about Joseph Conrad.) A feature film is in the works for 2004.

To the tiny degree that Spongebob has any "tendency," it is upbeat and self-affirming. Unpleasant things happen to Spongebob from time to time (see below), but he rises above them all, invariably insisting, when asked, that he is "Ooohh-kay!" There is some exploration of the minor kinds of adult tribulations that kids might be aware of — having difficult neighbors, for example. (It would be interesting to know, if you could know, how many suicides are caused annually by that particular tribulation. I have been close to self-annihilation myself a couple of times on this account.)

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last fall reporting that Spongebob has a cult following among male homosexuals. Nothing much surprises me in this zone any more, but I can't quite see the connection here. The Journal (what a newspaper that is, by the way: stocks, bonds, futures, derivatives, and Spongebob!) thought it was all about tolerance — the characters in Spongebob being different shapes and sizes, yet treating each other on a basis of equality. Well, yes; but all cartoons are like that nowadays. In fact, all TV productions of any sort are pretty much like that. A TV program that wasn't like that would be howled off the air by an enraged mob of "victims" of "bigotry."

Probably the appeal to homosexuals rests on the simple fact that the show is about a bunch of single guys who live alone, or with pets. There are no children in it, and the only women I have seen are the schoolmistress Mrs. Puff (whose orientation, in spite of that "Mrs.," seems to me to be open to question), and Sandy Cheeks [sic], the squirrel. Being a squirrel, Sandy is an air-breather. She therefore spends all her time either in a diving suit with a glass-bubble helmet, or in her air-filled house, which has to be entered via an airlock. This makes her sexually inaccessible to Spongebob. He did attempt a date inside her house, but it was not a success. He could breathe the air OK, but started to dry out, and was reduced to drinking the water from Sandy's flower vases. He began to crumble before anything much could happen, and at last had to be rescued by Patrick.

What's a squirrel doing at the bottom of the sea? Don't ask. Spongebob doesn't bother much with logic. For example, it sometimes rains in Bikini Bottom. This is a world of pure nonsense. That means, of course, that children are perfectly at home in it. Children love pure nonsense. Half of the traditional nursery rhymes are nonsensical, yet they have lasted for centuries — far longer than 99 per cent of pop songs will last, or the kinds of productions that win contemporary poetry prizes.

Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon …

What's that all about? Similarly with the stuff gathered in Iona and Peter Opie's classic study The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren.

Mickey Mouse came to my house
I asked him what he wanted.
He stamped his foot,
And broke a cup,
And that is what he wanted.

Adults have not much patience with this kind of thing, and the adult appeal of Spongebob is therefore very limited. It is not really funny, in the laugh-out-loud sense, though you smile at the sheer absurdity of it. The creators seem to know this. There is, for example, very little of the cultural cross-reference stuff you find in more sophisticated productions, very little spoofing of movies*** or other TV shows, no mention of current events. In that respect, Spongebob is a throw-back to the older Tom and Jerry style of cartoon, sufficient unto itself.

A really successful children's writer is one like Lewis Carroll who has kept the long path from childhood, the path we must all walk, clear and open. The great majority of us let that path become overgrown with weeds, thorns and brambles, and have no way to go back down it. I'm not sure that that is a bad thing, but it is hard not to feel that it is a sad thing. Watching Spongebob with my children, I find myself sinking into a melancholy awareness that they, and he, live in a realm that I myself was once at home in, but that is now closed to me for ever, the entrance guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.

* Though in my own defense, I will at least say this: I am absolutely, flatly, adamantly and irrevocably determined that there will never be more than one TV set in my house.

** You may have heard that a child drowned somewhere in the United States, after falling into the sea because he thought he saw a pineapple — Spongebob's house — on the sea bed. This seems to be an urban legend; nobody has been able to locate any such incident.

*** It is curious, though, how persistent and apparently indestructible is the stereotype of the pirate: eye-patch, wooden leg, "Aaarrrrrrr!" Surely few human beings have had as much lasting impact on the consciousness of so many as the late Robert Newton.