The moral vision of SpongeBob SquarePants.

What you're watching.
Feb. 3 2003 11:29 AM

Mark Twain Under the Sea

The moral vision of SpongeBob SquarePants.

A hip square
A hip square

Is a sponge a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, a sponge might soak up information; so maybe it's intelligent. On the other hand, it can soak up other people's energy and money; so maybe a sponge is lazy and a user.

This dilemma is faced every day, many times a day, by the world's foremost sentient sponge, SpongeBob SquarePants, star of the self-titled animated show with the obscenely high ratings on Nickelodeon. You might find the name of this creature—one more time, SpongeBob SquarePantsrevolting, or you may sing it quietly to yourself, profoundly amused. Taken together, the syllables Sponge, Bob, Square, and Pants are primally affecting. No one quite knows why.

Advertisement

SpongeBob lives in a pineapple on the floor of the Pacific Ocean in a city called Bikini Bottom, in which a squirrel cavorts, fires are lit, and the properties of the deep sea as we understand them do not obtain. SpongeBob is a young adult sponge who lives with his pet snail; he is an excellent short-order cook, and he enjoys his work. He is yellow, absorbent, and porous. He spends much of his time after hours with a dopey starfish named Patrick, who talks like Bert Lahr. SpongeBob has a female pal, too—the squirrel, Sandy Cheeks, who's a surfer—but, perhaps since the show's gay following has picked up, she hasn't been around much lately.

The show, like many non-PBS shows that feature explosions, is flamboyantly anti-educational. In Bikini Bottom, in fact, "educational television" is a horrible punishment, as fearsome as a bout with giant clams. And still each show contains moral questions, after a fashion. They are not the kind that find answers in ordinary children's fare (be kind and tolerant), but rather the pressing, if tawdry, dilemmas that adults face every day.

  • Am I cool enough to get into a cool bar?
  • Is it all right to borrow something without asking, if I return it before it's missed?
  • Is it OK to pass a class on dubious extra credit?
  • What if junk food is delicious?

What do you teach your children about these things? SpongeBob SquarePants is no help; it has nothing to teach. SpongeBob's would-be role models—his greedy, pirate-like boss (Mr. Krabs); his blowzy, neurotic teacher (Mrs. Puff); and his snobbish co-worker (Squidward Tentacles)—furnish only opportunistic answers. And SpongeBob, who never stops being happy, fumbles toward his own ad-hoc solutions. Bikini Bottom is no Gotham City, but it is a world of low-end cheating, slipshod work, obliviousness, firecrackers—and cheap Huck-Finn-style rascality. In the way of Mark Twain, SpongeBob SquarePants disdains sanctimony and hypocrisy far more than bad behavior. It does not put a lot of stock in families; characters tend to live by themselves and congregate in bars and restaurants. And it puts a premium on go-along-get-along happiness, the kind not grounded in principles but in small pleasures, the kind enjoyed by SpongeBob himself.

SpongeBob SquarePants has featured cameos by the actor John Lurie and the director Jim Jarmusch (who collaborated to make the films Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law), and it's no surprise that these downtown-art outlaws took to this show. They were probably drawn to its trippy good/bad sponge hero. For sure, the show is for an audience that prefers adventure to self-improvement, fun to goodness. That sounds like kids. That sounds like a lot of us.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 12 2014 7:24 PM Come and Take It Libertarians fight for people whose property was seized by the police.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Outward
Sept. 12 2014 3:32 PM Yes, Those Straight Guys Who Wed for Rugby Tickets Are Mocking Marriage. What’s New?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?