Moving Pictures June 2009

SpongeBob's Golden Dream

The mysterious allure of the fry cook from Bikini Bottom
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Video: "Postmodern Bikini Bottom"

James Parker deconstructs the tormented irony and contagious optimism of a SpongeBob episode.

Of the colors that have colonized the nursery over the past decade or so, blasting their spores across our children’s lunch boxes and pajamas—I’m talking about Hulk green, and Elmo red, and Barney purple, and Thomas-the-Tank-Engine blue—none is more stridently offensive to the adult eye than SpongeBob yellow. Poor parent, poor shattered schoolteacher, wherever you look in the general welter of 21st-century-consumer-kid-dom, there it is: cadmium yellow, Cheerios-box yellow, yellowcake yellow, striking its inhuman note of fervency. WAKE UP! GIMME GIMME! NOW!

SpongeBob SquarePants, the cartoon, turned 10 years old this spring. Doesn’t that make you feel tired? The little fry cook from Bikini Bottom, down in the benthic zone of the Pacific Ocean, has been with us longer than the iPod. His anniversary, naturally enough, has triggered a fresh avalanche of SpongeBob crapola: for the month of March, Wal-Mart stores nationwide featured a special freestanding SpongeBob shop called “The Happy Place” (clothes, DVDs, toys, books, etc.), and Hasbro and Mattel between them are rolling out seven new SpongeBob board games. At February’s Toy Fair in New York City, Barbie herself consented to be co-branded, appearing with SpongeBob T-shirt and accessories inside a new “Barbie Loves SpongeBob” window box.

The marketing of products to children is a dirty business, no doubt, but SpongeBob’s economic buoyancy has a very pure relation to his character and pursuits. The sponge is a one-man stimulus package, not just commercially but morally. If consumer confidence had a face, it would be the gleaming, avid face of SpongeBob SquarePants.

“SpongeBob is one of the greatest believers in the American dream in all of children’s entertainment,” says Greg Rowland, whose consultancy, Greg Rowland Semiotics, has performed brand analyses for Unilever, KFC, and Coca-Cola. “He’s courageous, he’s optimistic, he’s representing everything that Mickey Mouse should have represented but never did. There’s even something Jesus-like about him—a 9-year-old Jesus after 15 packets of Junior Mints.”

He made his debut on Nickelodeon on May 1, 1999, in a pilot episode called “Help Wanted.” The plot: a young sea sponge applies for a job at a grungy ocean-bottom diner called the Krusty Krab. Oh, how he wants this job—the position of fry cook represents the summit of his ambition. He is shaped, fortuitously, like a kitchen sponge. “I’m rea-dy! I’m rea-dy!” he chirrups, eyes and toecaps shining, while a moron starfish called Patrick cheers him on. The interview doesn’t go well: he is sniggered at, talked down to. Guess what, though? When the Krusty Krab is invaded by a mob of violently hungry anchovies, it is SpongeBob who saves the day, volleying Krabby Patties at incredible speed through the kitchen hatch and straight into their astonished pieholes. Hooray! “That was the finest fast-foodsmanship I’ve ever seen, Mr. SquarePants!” beams Mr. Krabs, the owner. “Welcome aboard!”

Contained in this nine-minute skit is the complete DNA of SpongeBob’s rise to power. His industrial ardor, his outrageous spatula skills, the terrible, idiotic brightness of his eyes. The atmosphere at the Krusty Krab has the monochrome tint of a Gen X workplace satire, a Clerks or an Office Space; Mr. Krabs cackles over his money, while Squidward, the tentacled sourpuss at the register, droops with ennui. But SpongeBob’s professional life is rainbow-colored. More than an adventure, it is a romance. “What is taking you so long?!” complains Squidward, head through the hatch, in an episode called “The Original Fry Cook.” “I’m adding the love!” says SpongeBob happily, squirting a little valentine of ketchup onto his latest Krabby Patty. Take that, Karl Marx!

So passionate an investment in the act of production brings its own risks, of course. In “To Love a Patty,” SpongeBob finds himself unable to send an especially attractive patty through the hatch. “Such perfection,” he murmurs. “From your little lettuce hair to your rosy ketchup cheeks, right down to your mustard smile.” He cannot part with it; he must take the patty home and cherish it, spend time with it, talk to it, even unto madness.

As a cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants absorbed the advances made by John Kricfalusi’s The Ren and Stimpy Show—the mood swings, the fugue-like interludes, the surreal plasticity of the characters—but without the earlier show’s edge of psychic antagonism. There are plenty of gnashing monsters at the borders of Bikini Bottom, and deep-sea gulches where the breath of nothingness blows. SpongeBob is dismembered; SpongeBob explodes; intense emotion flays the sponge-flesh from his sponge-bones. But where Ren and Stimpy seemed bent on freaking out the more fragile (or stoned) sectors of its audience, the SquarePants writers are interested in stories, even in lessons. Again and again, a kind of innocence triumphs—over fear, over snobbery, and over skepticism.

Squidward, doomed and dichotomous, is the permanent foil. An upper-middlebrow elitist (“You can’t fool me!” he sneers in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, “I listen to Public Radio!”), a wage slave who goes home and—like Tony Hancock in The Rebel—throws on a beret and expands into the world of Art, he curls his squid lip at the quacking, gleeful sponge. But at the auditions for the Bikini Bottom Men’s Chorus, it is Squidward who croaks out a disastrous “Figaro” and SpongeBob, borne aloft by a seraphic formation of jellyfish, whose radiant contralto has the choristers snuffling into their mustaches.

Stephen Hillenburg, the show’s creator, taught marine biology for three years before getting a degree in animation, and Bikini Bottom has something of the flavor of a midafternoon classroom reverie. Gauzy flower-like symbols float in the upper depth; ferns nod, bubbles rise; wafts of Hawaiian guitar go by. SpongeBob stares and stares from the window of his pineapple-shaped house, making a tiny glockenspiel noise every time he blinks.

Bikini Bottom is also an effortlessly postmodern place, a baby-blue void in which all manner of cultural bric-a-brac drifts and combines. Neptune might pop by, or the Flying Dutchman, or even David Hasselhoff: the climactic scene in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie features SpongeBob and Patrick clinging, amid live-action waves, to the Baywatch star’s hairy legs. It even has its own pair of Watchmen-style deconstructed superheroes: Mermaid Man, shuffling in peevish slippers toward senility, and his long-suffering sidekick, Barnacle Boy. In Atlantis SquarePantis, SpongeBob and the gang are magically transported to the lost undersea city of Atlantis, whose Lord Royal Highness, red-lipped and stack-heeled like a Blue Meanie, has the same initials as L. Ron Hubbard (“My friends call me LRH!”). Various masterpieces hang in the great Atlantean halls, and Squidward is thrilled to discover that he can enter them bodily; he climbs into Van Gogh’s crooked bed, and drapes his proboscis alongside the fondant clocks in Dalí’s Persistence of Memory. “Ask your Mama or your Dada,” he sings, perched inside Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal, “to tell you about the schism between Minimalism and Cubism.”

Postmodern, but not post–culture war. Unlike the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who publicly voiced his suspicions of the purse-swinging Teletubby, Tinky-Winky, James Dobson never actually said that he thought SpongeBob was gay. Nonetheless, remarks he made in early 2005 contributed to a perception that SpongeBob’s closeness to his best friend, Patrick, was in the crosshairs of the Christian right.

Hillenburg modestly disavowed any subversive intentions. “We never intended them to be gay,” he told Reuters. “I consider them to be almost asexual.” It is Squidward, actually, tending his soufflés at home, who might be said to exhibit a certain spinsterish or curate-like gayness; SpongeBob and Patrick simply love each other very much. Steeped in the soft-edged eroticism of Freud’s latency period, they gambol together through the jellyfish fields. They hold hands. They blow bubbles at each other, whispering sweet nothings into their bubble wands, exchanging wobbling orbs of pure infatuation. SpongeBob is trebley, his voice pumped taut with positivity; Patrick speaks in a blubbering bass. They’re Shaggy and Scooby, or Rocky and Bullwinkle: a high voice and a low voice, a classic cartoon double act turned yellow and pink and polymorphous at the bottom of the sea. Can you imagine how attractive this is to a 7-year-old?

SpongeBob SquarePants knows its own power; deep inside the show there’s even a SpongeBob-size critique of marketing going on. Bikini Bottom is periodically swept by fads and crazes, its denizens rushing around in a volatile teenybopper horde, cheering or booing or raving on the beach to shudders of Dick Dale-ish guitar. This is the Beach Blanket Bingo thread in the show’s aesthetic, its harking-back to the first deliria of the youth market. SpongeBob and Patrick themselves are feverishly suggestible—no gimmick or promotion targeted at them can possibly miss. Patrick wears underpants emblazoned with the image of Goofy Goober, the peanut-shaped mascot of Goofy Goober’s Ice Cream Party Boat. SpongeBob, awaiting delivery of his free toy from Kelp-O Cereal, stands by his mailbox for days, in a seizure of expectancy.

In The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, it is the evil Plankton—sort of a condensed dark-green Bond villain, minute in size but with a huge, bombastic voice—whose brand is triumphant. Having stolen the secret Krabby Patty formula from Mr. Krabs, he then enslaves the population via the distribution of free bucket helmets secretly loaded with brainwashing circuitry. “All hail Plankton!” drone the toiling masses, as fascistic monuments are erected and Bikini Bottom becomes “Planktopolis.”

Is this cynicism, or a tormented irony, coming from the franchise that has given us the SpongeBob SquarePants Edgy Skateboard, and the SpongeBob SquarePants Rolling Duffel Bag, and the SpongeBob SquarePants Eyeball Speaker Dock? If so, it is an irony short-circuited by the sheer moral voltage of the sea sponge himself. Trotting along bright-hearted, laughing his spray-on headache of a laugh, he will not succumb to complication. His corner of the world is all levity. Embrace him, drained adult. Where you see his little yellow flag, salute it; it’s a sign of life.

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.
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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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