Wringing Out the Reality of SpongebobPosted: January 23, 2005
Last week most of the mainstream media picked up a “news” story about conservative Christian groups who are up in arms over the alleged promotion of gay values by Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants. This is not the first time the debate on this subject has been so animated. Spongebob has always been popular in the gay community, and these same allegations have surfaced several times since the cartoon’s inception. The renewed focus on the title character’s sexual orientation came after Spongebob’s inclusion in a video that is to be distributed to schools across the country to promote multiculturalism and tolerance.
The conservative Christian group Focus on Family fears that Spongebob may be gay because the character is not afraid to hold hands with his starfish friend, Patrick. Focus on Family’s founder, James C. Dobson, is urging parents and schools to boycott a pro-tolerance video campaign by the We Are Family Foundation as part of a “spiritual battle” for the country. The video also features the Muppets and Clifford the Big Red Dog, among others, and makes no specific references to homosexuality or gay rights in general. The conservatives may have a point about boycotting Spongebob, but I believe their focus is in the wrong place.
Focus on the Family’s main objection to the character is his suggested homosexuality. The ridiculous reality of Spongebob’s sexual orientation is this: he’s a sponge. Whether he’s been manufactured by 3M or grown naturally in a peaceful seabed, being a sponge negates his existence as a sexual being. Sponges are not creatures to which one can apply any kind of morality. Sponges, as they occur in nature, are hermaphroditic. Scientifically, that means that sponges possess both of the genitalia that nature typically assigns to males or females. Theoretically, nature has not gifted the sponge this way to double its sexual gratification so much as to increase its chances for survival and reproduction. It doesn’t matter whose hand he holds, it’s physically impossible for a sponge to be gay.
Having said my peace on the homosexuality issue, I’d like to point out that I don’t advocate the viewing of Spongebob Squarepants for children, especially young ones. Spongebob has been a multi-million, perhaps even billion, dollar cash cow for its parent company, Viacom. The show appears on Viacom’s cartoon outlet, Nickelodeon three, sometimes five times a day. The production values are cheap and the merchandising lucrative. Kids of all ages as well as adults have bought into the Spongebob hype. This character is made for exploitation.
But what bothers me about this ubiquitous sponge is not his sexual orientation. It’s that he’s a smarmy, nasty little guy in the midst of a mean-spirited undersea world. Characters regularly cut each other down, and friends just aren’t really friendly. They do things, not for altruistic purposes, but out of fear for themselves or guilt. To me, the show promotes homosexuality less than it does selfishness and bullying, and are those really the values we want children to have? Would that not ultimately be the thing that would bother Christ about Spongebob?
When you get to the heart of it, Spongebob Squarepants, as a show, is nothing if not just plain weird. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if the homosexuality accusation is nothing but a misinterpretation of the “imaginative” plot twists (and I use that term with passionate irony), which make little sense, and in the minds of knee-jerk reactionaries could certainly be hyperbolized. The show is just “out there” (the main character lives in a pineapple under the sea and works as a fry cook flipping burgers), and that is why it’s inappropriate for young children whose ability to interpret the bizarre is too immature to distinguish how far the show strays from reality.
Perhaps those with concerns in the conservative Christian movement suffer from a similar inability to distinguish reality from imagination.