I commend anyone who can watch SpongeBob SquarePants and not spend the rest of the day muttering, “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SpongeBob SquarePants!” But the cartoon’s cheerful theme song is not its only infectious element. Like many cartoon characters, SpongeBob vacillates between childhood and adulthood, enjoying the innocence and delights of the former along with the autonomy of the latter. The latest SpongeBob DVD set, Seascape Capers, features 10 episodes (including two previously unaired) that explore this theme.
SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny), a good-natured sea sponge with a tendency to lose his trademark square pants, lives in a pineapple in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom with his meowing pet snail Gary and sea creature neighbors, Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) and Squidward Tentacles (Rodger Bumpass). He works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab and admires his boastful, penny-pinching boss, Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown).
Though there is nothing remotely grownup about SpongeBob (his ability to hold a steady job notwithstanding), he is free from adult obligations: he chooses his own friends, eats what he likes, and stays up as late as he wants. At the same time, his life in Bikini Bottom speaks to children’s experiences. Like SpongeBob, they live in a private universe, with its own rules and politics. The adult world exists alongside their own, like the rarely glimpsed above seal level world exists in SpongeBob. Such disconnection is evidenced in the episode “Krab Borg,” where SpongeBob persuades Squidward that Mr. Krabs has become a killer robot and Squidward bellows into The Krusty Krab’s loudspeaker, “Robots have taken over the world!” The customers blink at him, mute and unmoved, unable to understand how what happens in “the world” has anything to do with them. “Our world!” he clarifies, and hysteria ensues.
Children may feel disengaged from the adult realm, but they ideally benefit from its structure and support. Similarly, SpongeBob is comforted by the proximity of authority figures. Aside from Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob also relies on his grandma’s guidance. SpongeBob’s grandma is a link to his babyhood and, like many children, he has difficulty learning to be a big kid when he still craves being coddled. In “Grandma’s Kisses” (for which the DVD also includes storyboards), he is humiliated when “the guys” at The Krusty Krab witness him getting a “kissy-wissy” from his grandma and he determines to leave behind everything he loves about visiting her: cookies, story time, and sweaters with love in every stitch.
But when Patrick plays grandma’s baby, proclaiming, “Being grownup is boring!” SpongeBob cracks. In a rare display of bad behavior, he throws a tantrum, shouting that he wants to wear “diapies” and be the baby, too. His grandma assures him that he doesn’t have to be a baby to get all her love. This storyline epitomizes SpongeBob‘s appeal: it gently teaches “good” behavior, humorously.
But children aren’t the only people who watch SpongeBob. The show has inspired numerous fansites and attracts millions of adult viewers every week. Unlike cartoons that target adults, such as The Simpsons and South Park, SpongeBob doesn’t employ cynicism, crude humor, sarcasm, or biting social commentary. Instead, it features a guileless central character with Forest Gump-like good luck who wants the best for everyone.
SpongeBob, who ranks number nine on TV Guide‘s 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters list, is so frank about his emotions and full of good will that he is almost painfully endearing. In “Bubble Stand,” he spends his day off sharing a favorite activity with others: for 25 cents (which he’ll lend you if you’re a bit short), folks can blow a bubble with his bubble wand. For another quarter, he’ll teach them his foolproof “technique.” Cranky neighbor Squidward mocks SpongeBob and Patrick for enjoying such silliness, refusing to acknowledge that learning the technique enabled him to blow his first bubble. Even so, the two best friends congratulate him on his success and dance around, joyfully chanting, “Squidward! Squidward!” At moments like these, SpongeBob transports you back to childhood. It dazzles the senses and makes you laugh, a refreshing break from the snarkiness that permeates so much of pop culture.
Though SpongeBob‘s sincerity sets it apart from other cartoons in many delightful ways, it disappointingly sticks with the status quo in others. Like many animated characters (especially the non-human breeds), SpongeBob lives in an almost entirely male world. (TV Guide‘s Top 50 list includes only nine females, four of whom share their position with a male counterpart.) The only notable exceptions in SpongeBob tend to be grandmothers, single-episode love interests, and a smattering of bikini-clad fish, though Seascape Capers includes a couple of brief appearances by SpongeBob’s friend Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence), a spunky, karate-chopping squirrel who lives in an enclosed air dome under the sea.
But even Sandy is introduced as the object of SpongeBob’s juvenile affections and is an outsider in Bikini Bottom (she’s an “air-breather”). While SpongeBob provides viewers, male and female, child and adult, with a vibrantly colored alternative universe where it pays to be a good guy and every day is buoyed by the tiny pleasures of life, it also makes this world the province of boyish interactions and activities, suggesting that girls are part of the “outside world” that we tend to forget.