He’s fun-damental, not fundamentalist!
He’s a Candide for the 21st century, facing the everyday predicaments of the human condition with a sunny optimism and unreasonable zest that seem borderline manic, but then he’s only a kid. His user-friendly presence attracts more than just rugrats and teens, commanding a TV viewership with adults reportedly in the majority. He’s cult cartoon hero SpongeBob SquarePants, above all an angel of tolerance, fair play, and honesty, who unwittingly breaks the rules in his zeal to follow them, all while maximizing the potential fun in any endeavor.
Whether on Saturday morning cable or in the new SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, the titular star has little competition as America’s favorite sponge, described by critic Ed Park as the “cardboard-trousered porifera” who’s an “unstoppable good-mood generator.”1 Appealingly protean, he swells in bath water but shrivels under a sunlamp, displaying elastic resilience inherited from his Looney Tunes forbears, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote. Together with his bubblegum-pink buddy, starfish Patrick, he romps through their undersea settlement called Bikini Bottom, encountering various manhood tests, yet on dry land he has also attracted unwelcome attention from the fundamentalist Christian Right machine.
Hardly a firebrand for revolutionary change or class analysis, SpongeBob nevertheless merits consideration as a cult phenomenon, a fortuitous comic art response to today’s fear-driven culture wars, a guileless character whose humanistic embrace of fallibility personifies subtle and not-so-subtle challenges to conservative values. Call it infantile, call the show comfort food cartooning that wallows in a shiny world of idealized innocence, but what’s undeniably striking is SpongeBob’s positive energy: he rarely models TV-engendered passivity, but gulps and bravely sails on to negotiate the shoals of reality.
With a child’s emotions but an adult’s circumstances, SpongeBob hides nothing of his transparent inner life, with no filters to mediate his simple joys or elemental fears, all too apparent from his blinding smiles or his knocking knees. His virtues and failings mirror our virtues and failings, just as his problems are recognizably ours. He is too trusting and unable to control his exuberance, his errors of judgment return to haunt him, and petty workplace demands war with the distractions of play. Grown-up vices translate into the childhood idiom, as when Patrick lures his pal into a lost weekend ice cream binge, self-medicating their disappointments with successive rounds of Triple Gooberberry Sunrises.
Such is the nation’s thirst for this buck-toothed rectangle of lemon-colored cellulose, reliably attired in respectable white collar and red tie, that even virtual shopping sites can scarcely contain the related products. These range from cross-marketing’s high end, a SpongeBob DVD player, to more readily affordable items, such as a steering wheel cover or an electric toothbrush or an inflatable chair. Someone somewhere is buying a SpongeBob-branded SnoCone Maker (right) or piñata or Pez dispenser. Ol’ Blue Eyes even finds himself an unlikely consort for Barbie in a duo-package deal, perhaps as misguided ideals of feminine perfection and masculine imperfection. More sensibly, there’s also a Bikini Bottom installation to anchor home aquariums, not to mention a selection of boxers and other squarish pants.
To sample SpongeBob’s universe, non-devotees are directed to the smile-a-minute SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, signed by director and creator Stephen Hillenburg. The transition from small screen to big screen preserves the conceit of Bikini Bottom as a delightful amalgam of unexplained and unpredictable anomalies, where the sun shines bright on the ocean floor but at sunrise, it’s a clam that sounds “cock-a-doodle-doo.” The familiar flourishes remain – the pirate prologue, the scene-setting narration murmured in a suave French accent, and occasional surprise intrusions from landlubber reality – and the seafood bestiary still includes such surreal conceptions as SpongeBob’s pet snail named Gary, who meows and sleeps a lot, and the villainous plankton inexplicably married to a computer named “Karen.” Then there’s Sandy the squirrel, who wears a spacesuit helmet to survive underwater, and makes only a cameo appearance, perhaps to sidestep the question of why a squirrel lives underwater at all.
Despite the marketing opportunities outside the theatre, the movie does not sucker the audience into enduring a barrage of corporate product placements. It celebrates not the cynical power-driven entrepreneur but the modest wage slave, as SpongeBob must leash in his toddler emotions to fulfill his economic imperatives, namely his day job as a fry cook at Krusty Krab’s fast food joint, which keeps him in squarepants and presumably pays the rent on his pineapple dwelling. In one TV episode, grumpy co-worker and neighbor Squidward articulates this deal with the capitalist devil in his typically cynical terms: “I order the food. You cook the food. We do that for forty years. Then we die.” (Yes, the squid stays in the picture).
New additions for the film include Princess Mindy and her father, the green-lipped and ermine-robed King Neptune, who provide the simple catalyst for the plot, sending SpongeBob and Patrick on a journey to Shell City to find his stolen crown. Time and again, the impressive editing scores by contrasting violent shifts in context or exaggerated facial expressions, while scene changes are marked by a wall of bubbles. With vivid colors and striking angles, the Korean animators and digital artists provide especially witty spatial tricks for the rousing musical setpiece, “Now We Are Men,” including a horizon-bending fish-eye effect. Hapless pals Patrick and SpongeBob feel empowered by the seaweed moustaches that officially make them “men,” so they merrily march forward to this song, serenely oblivious to every gargantuan monster of the deep and each gnash of snapping jaws, shielded only by their armor-plated optimism.2
The laid-back Hawaiian guitar that layers stoner whimsy over the TV episodes takes a back seat in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie to more expansive strings and new soundtrack tunes by Avril Lavigne, Wilco, and The Flaming Lips. But the visual team whips up another eyeful for the musical finale when SpongeBob rocks out in a riff on Dee Snider’s “I Wanna Rock,” bending, squatting, and undulating in breakdancing outlaw mode, though less Twisted Sister than twisty little brother. Here, echoing the SpongeBob franchise’s own geegaw giveaways through Burger King, the peripheral plot has the surpassingly greedy Plankton hand out bucket-like helmets as promotional gimmicks, then activate concealed brainwashing devices to render the population into zombified pod people. When he seizes power and declares the fascist state of Planktopolis – calling Fritz Lang! – SpongeBob Emancipator shoots high-voltage rays of liberating electricity from his hot pink guitar to rescue the polity.
Not to overrate the film’s pleasures, but what other movie can boast an action scene that boldly plays out on and around David Hasselhoff’s ass? With its commitment to silliness and its fast-paced social burlesque, the film made critic Eric D. Snider “as giddy and hyper as if I’d eaten a pound of cotton candy and washed it down with crack,”3 while the normally sober David Sterritt confessed that “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie recognizes that my inner child is about 95 percent crazy and at least half out of control – and that’s on the good days. The other days are even more fun, but let’s not go there. Sponge Bob goes there for us.”4
The SpongeBob creed becomes manifest when he affirms that “We worship a dancing peanut” (to each his own, freedom of religion), “You are who you are” (Embrace what makes you different), and “It’s okay to love bubbles” (It’s okay to be a sissy). If he and Patrick dress up as Carmen Miranda, the TV show endorses freedom to play with gender roles, and when the pair dance a can-can amidst bubbles, the movie flies the sissy flag high. The very opening scene enacts SpongeBob’s fantasy of hypermasculinity: he’s a cool hostage negotiator taking charge of a volatile situation, only to wake up to the pedestrian reality of his shaky virility. Adam Baldwin’s grizzled voicework as a Clint Eastwood-esque leatherman contributes to the critique of macho posturing, which culminates in a biker hangout where the Bikini Bottom buddies are sorely tested to conceal their sissyhood by feigning disinterest in the decidedly suspect Goofy Goober Song.
Though fundamentally innocent, the film still delights in naughty flashes and refuses to punish them, as when Patrick materializes in fishnet stockings and dominatrix stiletto-heels in a capricious bit of musical-theatre dress-up. By no means awash in double-entendres, the movie still insists on developing its points beyond simple one-liners. As Fred Topel observes, “When Patrick asks, ‘Did you see my underwear?’ it’s embarrassment. When he follows up with ‘Did you want to?’ it’s sexual, all within a two-line dialogue exchange.”5
In A. O. Scott’s estimation, SpongeBob provides “a welcome antidote to the self-seriousness and brutality that rule so much of the popular culture …. His unembarrassed embrace of his own immaturity [makes] an alternative to angry, aggressive forms of immaturity that dominate movies, television and video games.”6 But MaryAnn Johanson shows true Bikini Bottom spirit: “I fall at the spindly little feet of this man, this sponge, this SpongeBob, and worship his joie de vivre, his spirit, his square pants. Even though I am not worthy to do so.”7
Not everyone has such sympathy, of course. Truffling through the film’s 87 minutes, Lacy Mical Callahan, a critic for Christian Spotlight, turns up the following red flags: “There is nudity throughout the movie. We view Patrick’s bare buttocks during three scenes, and SpongeBob’s once. SpongeBob and Patrick are also shown in their underwear a few times. The underwear is drawn to look like men’s fitted briefs.”8 What must she see in Donald Duck, who wears no pants at all?
Move over Sodom, this must be Bikini Bottom Babylon, an orgy of penciled rutting, like that old-time clandestine porn fantasy drawn by maverick Disney cartoonists showing explicit and anatomically correct antics of Mickey Mouse and company. Sadly, this anxious righteousness seeks to paste fig leaves on animated pen-and-ink (and would probably put diapers on dogs), but unerringly maintains an unholy focus below the belt. It would take the Village People to penetrate this clenched fear-mongering so set on micromanaging mere drawings, so insistent on sexualizing the non-sexual. This vision would certainly earn Callahan the title of Knucklehead McSpazzatron, SpongeBob-speak for humorless moralist (nor does she take comfort from Hillenburg’s fish clad in bras).
While media behemoth Viacom squeezes every dollar out of this franchise, Citizen SpongeBob serves pro bono for certain socially beneficial initiatives, most recently garnering headlines as the new spokesfigure and kid magnet for spinach and carrots packets – “SpongeBob VeggiePants,” as the Associated Press put it – in a campaign to improve children’s eating habits. In this guise as a commercially validated free spirit who resists right-wing reins and promotes tolerance, SpongeBob was sooner or later fated to cross swords with fundamentalist overlord and 20th-century ideologue James Dobson, founder of the untaxed “faith-based” organization Focus on the Family.
As an erstwhile presidential candidate who actually believes he has reached an advanced state of infallibility, something like Tom Cruise’s level of “clear,” “Dobson (right) has the potential to lead us into sectarian violence,”9 in the words of Gil Alexander-Moegerle, his longtime radio sidekick (now disaffected). Choosing to access SpongeBob’s international following with untrammeled opportunism, Dobson addressed an audience of Congressmen to criticize “using SpongeBob and company to promote the theme of ‘tolerance and diversity,’ which are almost always buzzwords for homosexual advocacy … kids should not be taught that homosexuality is just another ‘lifestyle,’ or that it is morally equivalent to heterosexuality. Scripture teaches that all overt sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage is sinful and harmful.”10
In this finger-wagging statement about SpongeBob’s participation in an educational video promoting tolerance, the preacher stepped more carefully than when he earned universal scorn for his nursery jihad against the certifiably infantile mauve Teletubby, not exactly Fritz the Cat or Mr. Natural. It’s fair to say that Dobson has drained any fun out of fundamentalism, but his hollow outrage masks an extended state of homosexual panic (nor is this the first time Hillenburg has been forced to defend his creation’s tolerance). Considering the wealth of available issues, this power broker’s dog-with-a-bone opposition to gay rights, feminists, secularism, and abortion seems questionable at best.
Does Dobson use his pulpit to deplore beheadings in Iraq, secret American torture camps in the third world, or lies foisted on the public to justify an invasion that has destroyed thousands of lives? Does he rail against the systematic subversion of citizen privacy, the dismantling of social protections in the name of corporate profits, or the intimidation and paralysis of news media? Is he outraged by the corporation lawyers and lobbyists blatantly writing legislation for Congress, or the coarsened and brutalized public discourse epitomized by the vice-president of the United States telling a Congressional investigation committee “Fuck you”? How about the emptying of the U.S. treasury into the pockets of Halliburton subsidiaries by means of non-competitive contracts to supply the ill-equipped armed forces?
Perhaps Dobson stays too busy bullying his opponents or being fluffed by supporters, or is he so fearful of the subversive energy of children that he vents only against tolerance and understanding? Does the thought of bouncing SpongeBob on his knee send a bead of sweat creeping out from under his comb-over, to trickle down his flushed cheek? What would SpongeBob do? The loveable undersea hero would surely wrap his skinny arms around the censorious evangelical and plant a juicy google-eyed smooch on his scowling face.
The smugly smiling but humorless Dobson should seriously consider cultivating his own garden, as advised by the popular bumper sticker “Focus on Your Own Damn Family.” How irksome is it that both the TV and movie incarnations show Bikini Bottom society organized not around insular families but the larger community? Is there any contest between Dobson’s anti-intellectual nullity vs. SpongeBob’s pre-intellectual celebration of instinctive happiness? Alas, for all his leaps into the surreal and absurd, SpongeBob is not superhero enough to liberate Dobson’s regimented followers from his intolerance. Maybe it’s time for this brute fundamentalist to receive an investigative visit from Homo-land Security.11
- Ed Park, The Village Voice, November 19, 2004. [↩]
- Spanish-speaking fans should watch for El Bob Esponja Película, the adroitly dubbed and arguably more charming version released in Mexico, complete with songs recast in Spanish (the delightful “Now We Are Men” becomes “Un hombre soy”). [↩]
- Eric D. Snider, at mooviees.com. [↩]
- David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor, November 19, 2004. [↩]
- Fred Topel, at about.com. [↩]
- A. O. Scott, The New York Times, November 19, 2004. [↩]
- MaryAnn Johanson, at The Flick Filosopher. [↩]
- Lacy Mical Callahan, at Christian Spotlight. [↩]
- Gil Alexander-Moegerle in a tell-all exposé, James Dobson’s War on America. [↩]
- James Dobson, “Setting the Record Straight,” Dr. Dobson’s Newsletter, February 2005. [↩]
- To witness what happens when a “faith-based” government puts family values to work, look at these photos from Iran’s recent barbaric hanging of two gay teenagers. [↩]