Stephen Hillenburg was a pioneer and a genius at using subtle clues to entertain adults while their kids watched Spongebob Squarepants. Although Spongebob originally started out as a show for kids, it ended up appealing to age groups across the board. It has garnered cult-like philosophical followings with differing schools of thought – from the-grown-90’s-kids-that-still-love Spongebob school of thought, to the I-only-watch-Spongebob-when-I-am-stoned school of thought, and even the rare Spongebob-as-an-academic school of thought (some of these schools of thought overlap). I fall into that last school of thought, because I aim to see through the shallow façade of gag still-shots and saturated pastels to discover intensely deep political wisdom.
Here are some of the political insights that I have unearthed during my search for the truth, as told by Mr. Hillenburg and our favorite optimistic dish scrubber:
1. Hillenburg succinctly illustrates our devastating tendency to dehumanize anyone that we classify as ‘foreign’, no matter how similar we all are.
In “Sandy’s Rocket”, Patrick convinces Spongebob that they have landed Sandy’s rocket ship on the moon, despite the rocket making a swift turn during flight and marooning them safely back in their home town, right outside their own homes. Patrick seems to be vehement that the ‘aliens’ have only set up this familiar, relatable setting to coddle Spongebob and Patrick into complacency so they can make their attack. Despite confronting and coherently communicating with an alien that looks suspiciously like Squidward (it really is Squidward), the two proceed to rampage the town and unknowingly ‘harvest’ all their friends and neighbors, tying them up in little net bags like they’re trapping game. Hillenburg is making a social commentary here that exposes the fallacy that ‘different’ is bad, ‘foreign’ is bad, and that sometimes we become so entrenched in these ideas that we can’t see past the fact that the ‘other’ is just like us.
2. Being a heterosexual, affectionate male towards other males isn’t bad, nor does it make you gay. In fact, it’s healthy.
For a while, conservative news broadcasts ripped Spongebob Squarepants a new one, accusing him of being gay with his dear best friend, Patrick. Come on, people. We all know that Spongebob has had a crush on Sandy ever since he wrested that clam to meet her.
In “Valentine’s Day”, however, we see an innocent kind of affection between Spongebob and Patrick that is reminiscent of that which is expressed between two middle school girls during a season of gift giving. They attempt to exchange Valentine’s Day gifts, except the gift giving goes awry when Spongebob’s surprise for Patrick (a big chocolate hot-air balloon) isn’t delivered promply. Patrick becomes like a jealous mistress, becoming passive aggressive and whining until he gets his gift. But, in the end, Patrick finally gets his gift, and there is nothing driving the remainder of the plot but a sense of undying appreciation for just having each other as a friend. Now, if there is any hinting towards anything but heterosexuality in Spongebob, look no further than Squidward Tentacles and his infatuation with male ballet dancers, naked statues with scallop shells over the privates, and Squilliam Fancyson. But that’s for another discussion.
3. Our society’s obsession with appearance and convenience is a great way to capitalize on products that are completely useless.
I know what you are all thinking here – oh, here comes another soapbox commentary on “Musclebob Buffpants” and the shallow, meathead stereotypes. Well, you are right, but it goes way beyond that.
Spongebob, our silly yellow protagonist, has had it with being a ‘wimp.’ He sits in front of the television and imagines being a big, burly sponge instead of the flimsy dish sponge he really is. He sees a commercial that just happens to directly cater to his thoughts at that very moment – “GET ANCHOR ARMS”, a quick fix to being an atrophied shrimpboat. He buys it, only to find short term success with this underwater-infomercial product. It works just long enough to briefly impress his friends, and then he goes back to being a shrimp in front of their very eyes. He decides to start working out a little more by the end of the episode.
Now, this is a VERY profound political insight a la Spongebob. Why? Because it shows just how ludicrous we are as a consumer nation. Who can’t say they haven’t been just like Spongebob when he watched the ad for Anchor Arms? There will always be a time when we have been forcibly made docile by the long hours we work (which we work so that we can down overpriced beer bratwursts/ trendy apple ale with friends on the weekend and buy shoes that we can’t afford), to the point where nothing matters but convenience. All we want is a quick fix for the pouch that is sitting on our bellies as a result of too much takeout while working overtime. We don’t want to put in any hours of discipline and self-improvement most of the time, because our free hours have become a form of escapism from our crappy jobs. Spongebob addresses that issue here – that everything that is worth your time requires work – real, consistent, long-term work. We can’t just be the passive consumers that our work week and economy try to make us and expect for the solutions to our problems to ‘fall right out of the sky’ (“Club Spongebob”).
4. Employers have no qualms about capitalizing on over-qualified applicants, and will probably manipulate the existentially conscientious applicants to make them the best working machines.
Nowadays, when employee tenures are as rare as a gift from the heavens in our unstable economy, it is oh-so-easy for employers to get exactly what they want out of the applicant pool. Do you remember how, right after the housing market crash of 2008, the real estate ventures switched from being a ‘seller’s market’ to a ‘buyer’s market’? Well, imagine what the crash did to prospective applicants applying and selling themselves for positions when the economy went to hell during that time… and it was ALREADY a ‘buyer’s market’ in that worked in favor of companies, which had the luxury of skipping over newly minted college grads in favor of more qualified candidates (thanks a lot, cultural depreciation of bachelor’s degrees).
Well, Spongebob, you hit the nail on the head in regards to overqualified candidates with some very serious real world foreshadowing in the pilot of your show. In the pilot episode, “Help Wanted”, we see a vastly overqualified and optimistic candidate for a humble frycook job at the Krusty Krab. Spongebob is our tragic working-class hero. He can’t even see how wonderful he is, and that he should applying to be the boss, because he is constantly belittled by the business owner, Mr. Krabs, and is forced to prove himself in a life-or-death situation (attacking killer anchovies) just to be validated as a qualified candidate. He is later put into a constant, incentive-less comparison game with his co-worker Squidward (“Employee of the Month”), which exploits and manipulates Spongebob’s lust for pleasing people by shaping and conditioning him to be the ideal fast-food horsecart puller. Mr. Krabs has always been the exemplar cartoon character for representing greed, but his character, to one extent or another, could easily be a more-or-less-exaggerated version of your boss or potential boss, because we are in an economy that gives them the leeway to get what they want. (On a final note, Google The Serfs of Arkansas and then tell me the working class isn’t still being shafted big time).