image by Captkiro –
One thing that must be made abundantly clear from the onset when talking about SpongeBob SquarePants is that he is not simply popular among kids. There are adults out there who are die-hard fans. But we hardly consider why SpongeBob seems so appealing to us (with his simple lifestyle, his ever cheerful character and his unshakable loyalty to his friends and to the crabby patty – which symbolizes more than just his job but is something of an art or a piece of himself). Why now though? Why hasn’t there been a similar cartoon before and, if there had been, why wouldn’t we have cared about him/her as much as we do about SpongeBob?
Are we unwittingly receiving a message from SpongeBob that presents an answer for how we live today? Cartoons, of course, have always had messages within them – far from the innocent childish entertainment we like to believe they are. In the 1940s, for instance, Walt Disney focused a lot of its cartoons on propaganda in support of US involvement in the Second World War. It’s even possible to go as far as saying that a lot of Walt Disney’ early characters were conservative patriots – you know, the type to get a job, get married and get a home. Looking back at US history after the war (which is pretty much the history of the world, since the US has so much influence), we can see that these three things – (1) a job (2) the “nuclear family” and (3) their suburban home – were actually the central points of the capitalist system in the twentieth century. These three points generated the patterns of production and consumption that allowed guys like the Henry Ford and the Livette brothers to make massive fortunes selling cars and suburban homes (and, by the way, the more suburban your home is, the more you need a car).
Early cartoons frequently featured working tools (such as anvils) and industrial equipment (such as turn-belts) and cartoons were often shown doing some kind of work while singing happily. Of course the melodic synchronicity portrayed in these “working songs” was a microcosm – a metaphor – suggesting that everything can work harmoniously within the capitalist system and that everyone has their rightful place in the system; its just a matter of finding your place and working within it rather than pointing to others. Interestingly though, it’s possible to find class distinction in these early cartoons, since not all characters perform physical labour. In fact some are filthy rich (think of Scrooge McDuck, for example). But Disney proposes an oddly benevolent (even altruistic) version of the rich, which is very different from SpongeBob’s boss, Mr Crabs, who is endlessly selfish and puts money above everything. Mr Crabs also sees the crabby patty, which is the ultimate expression of SpongeBob’s being, as nothing more than just a way to make himself rich (now why does that sound familiar?).
So when did our view of the rich change from good guys like, Scrooge McDuck and Richie Rich, to bad guys, like Mr Crabs? My guess is that things were never quite the same after the 1970s, which is a time characterised by rapid change, political protest and even violence. At the heart of the many movements in the 70s (e.g. the civil rights movement, the hipster movement and the wave of Third World independence) was the fact that people were finally questioning the idea that the capitalist world order was fair and that everyone had a place within that system. Racial minorities in the US, feminists and colonised countries now spoke out against “The American/capitalist dream”. Now, because this criticism of capitalism had been along gender and racial lines, it’s pretty easy for us to forget that the problem of capitalist exploitation has always run deeper than gender and racial lines. The system, as we have noted, centres on the (1) job (2) the nuclear family (3) and home ownership. What’s most different about today then is the fact that for the first time all three points of the system are being challenged (this challenge has been epitomised by the Occupy Movement in the US). This is perhaps why SpongeBob is so relevant to the twenty first century.
SpongeBob presents a very interesting model for the individual in the twenty first century, something very different from the conservative twentieth century worker/consumer – an apparent rebel against the capitalist machine. For the purposes of this short article, however, it is impossible to look at how SpongeBob relates to all three tenets of the capitalist system and so we’ll only look at (1) the job.
There are three types of workers in the SpongeBob cartoon. Squidward is the typical worker who hates his job but nonetheless wants to milk it for any benefits it may hold for him. He is just a cog in the capitalist machine and all his movements (his actions and even his emotions) are all due to forces generated by the system, such as rent and food prices, or the length of his working hours or the exploitative nature of his work. Then there is Patric, who clearly doesn’t have a job (but I can only assume he makes his living through some illicit means – maybe even narcotics). His appearance in the cartoon contrasts sharply with the traditional view that everyone has a place in the system. But it resonates with our daily reality,, since we all know someone who doesn’t quite fit into the system. SpongeBob’s loyal friendship to Patric is thus perhaps the most fundamental challenge that the cartoon poses to the capitalist system. SpongeBob is himself stuck in a dead-end job and – oddly enough – this may also add to his appeal amongst adults: he is free from the corporate “rat race” epitomised by Wall Street. Is that the message? Is SpongeBob conveying an anti-capitalist – maybe even communist – sentiment? He has a very close and very personal relationship to the product of his labour, the crabby patty. He frequently uses the crabby patty (his product) or his spatula (the tool he uses in the production of crabby patties)to save the day or to make others happy. And all of this is reminiscent of Soviet-era paintings of workers proudly raising their shovels, with flags waving in the background.
As a concluding remark, let us consider for a moment the notion that SpongeBob might not be a revolutionary break-away from the Disney message but, rather, a necessary extension to it. The wave of revolution that characterised the 70s was a call for “the better life” to be extended to everyone else. But, of course, SpongeBob does not want a better life; he just wants fun. He doesn’t want Mr Crabbs to share the wealth; all he wants is fun. He is a hedonist at heart and is perhaps the perfect poster boy for our society, where fun and pleasure trump everything else – even in the face of heightened exploitation and heightened awareness of that exploitation.