Queering the Sponge: The Transcendent Queerness of 'SpongeBob SquarePants'
Despite being rooted in nostalgia, the reemergence of SpongeBob could very well be linked to a longing for a yet-to-be-realized queer future.
SpongeBob SquarepantsAirtime: Fridays, 8pm
Cast: Tom Kenny, Rodger Bumpass, Bill Fagerbakke, Clancy Brown, Carolyn Lawrence
"Hey, this isn't so bad!" SpongeBob SquarePants (Tom Kenny) says as he emerges from the ocean. Suddenly, he's an actual sponge propped up by a pole, standing on a fake beach in a poorly lit studio. In this season two episode, entitled "Pressure", Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence), a squirrel who survives underwater by wearing scuba gear, dares SpongeBob and his friends to "last a minute" on her "turf". Not wanting to admit that they’re inferior to her on land, they accept Sandy's challenge.
In 2002, after both Christian advocacy groups and gay men claimed that Spongebob SquarePants was a queer television show, series creator Stephen Hillenburg told The Wall Street Journal that he never intended his characters to be gay; he'd considered them to be, in fact, "asexual". At the time, Cathy Renna of GLAAD commented to PlanetOut, "He's a sponge; how can he be gay?" In their dry and literal responses, Hillenburg and Renna were seemingly unaware of the anxiety percolating beneath these religious advocacy groups' accusations.
They assumed that for SpongeBob SquarePants to be understood as a "gay show", SpongeBob and his friends had to explicitly identify as queer. For the The Wall Street Journal article, "Something about SpongeBob Whispers 'Gay' to Many Men", journalist Sally Beaty asked a few gay men in Greenwich Village why SpongeBob had become popular within the queer community. Their responses ranged from claiming that the characters are all gay to praising the show's tolerance for flamboyant personalities.
Whether or not it was Stephen Hillenburg's intention, a tone of queerness pervades SpongeBob SquarePants: an anarchic and irreverent fluidity that can't be boxed into traditional notions of gay, straight, or asexual. In the 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam explores how "animated animals allow us to explore ideas about humanness and alternative imaginaries in relation to new forms of representation" (33). SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Mr. Krabs, and Sandy aren’t bound by a traditional heterosexual family structure, or even biological sameness. They're bound to each other through being different, a togetherness that transcends current ideas of normalcy.
Speculating on these cartoons' actual sexualities is a cruel exercise in imposing rigidity onto their fictive world, ripping them from the ocean and forcing them to shrivel into actual objects. Jose Esteban Munoz argues in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity that "queerness" is an abstract idea that's always looking forward, and not grounded in either the past or the present. In chapter three, "The Future is Present", Munoz makes the case that within "oil dance floors, sites of public sex, various theatrical stages, music festivals, and arenas both subterranean and aboveground", queer people collectively create this vision of their utopian future -- what he calls an "actually existing queer world" (49). In SpongeBob SquarePants, this "actually existing queer world" is Bikini Bottom, an underground space that thrives through abiding by its own rules of absurdity and fluidity.
In order to fully grasp the radicalness of SpongeBob SquarePants, a discussion of its historic context is necessary. Premiering in 1999, the Nickelodeon cartoon gained popularity concurrently to the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian identities. During the late Clinton years and the early Bush era, a number of LGBT-themed shows debuted on primetime broadcast and cable TV, branding themselves and subsequently being received as trailblazers for acceptance and tolerance. Programs like The L Word (Showtime), Queer as Folk: US (Showtime), Will and Grace (NBC), and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo) had casts featuring multiple gay characters, and utilized their issues as central plot points.
The general notion behind these series was that if queer characters were represented on television, heterosexual society would understand them as human beings, rather than consider them an abstract, contrarian evil. Yet, in participating in a narrative of advocating for acceptance, these shows gleefully and righteously fought for what Munoz refers to as an "assimilationist gay politics" (21). Unlike the lofty ambitious goals of previous generations of queer activists, "assimilationist gay politics" is primarily focused on normalizing LGBT people and helping them fully integrate into American capitalism. Whether it was comedy, drama, or reality series, these TV programs used the tension of a marginalized minority wanting to be normal as their central ethos.
The Showtime series The L Word and Queer as Folk provided a window into the world of lesbians and gay men, demonstrating the negative effects of homophobia, while simultaneously celebrating the underground spaces in which queer culture thrived. Despite being significant steps forward in representation, these two shows are often obscured by the darkness of the reality they aimed to depict. On the other hand, Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were full-blown exercises in making queerness a sparkly accessory for a cosmopolitan heterosexual lifestyle. In her 1964 essay "Notes on Camp", Susan Sontag states:
The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony … the Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense.
Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy promoted a gay, campy aesthetic solely for the purposes of enhancing and enlightening heterosexual culture. In Will and Grace, gay men lent their ironic, snarky humor for middle-American laugh tracks, while in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Carson Kressley and his crew of homosexuals -- the "fab five" -- used their feminine knowledge of fashion to help heterosexual men seem more appealing to women. The gay men on these shows are self-aware, constantly making ironic and over-the top jokes at the expense of themselves and their straight friends.
These jokes, however, offer miniscule, momentary escapes from the overall normative goals of these series. What makes SpongeBob SquarePants so different from these comedic gay shows is its celebration of a camp aesthetic on its own queer terms. For example, SpongeBob, Squidward, and Patrick all live on Conch Street in houses that are kitschy exaggerations of their unique personalities. SpongeBob's "pineapple under the sea", manifests and mocks his playful, infantile sensibility. Squidward lives in a replica of an Easter Island Head decorated with expressions of egotism; his long face is featured on various rugs, busts, and paintings scattered around the house. Lastly, Patrick's house is a giant brown rock with nothing but a TV antenna sticking out of it, the perfect visualization of his simple personality. Conch Street's inhabitants live in righteous solitude, existing and thriving for no one but themselves.
A Google search for "SpongeBob is gay" brings a number of articles from conservative and LGBT blogs, most of them showing a list of specific moments in which something "gay" occurred in the series. These listicles tend to reference SpongeBob surfing on David Hasselhoff's brawny chest, the show's affinity for rainbows, and random homoerotic moments between the male characters. Unfortunately, these articles fall into the conceptual trap of understanding SpongeBob and his friends' desires, relationships, and aesthetics as innately human. Although the series is filled with moments of homoeroticism and gender fluidity, to assume that necessarily demonstrates a presentation of a fixed identity denies the radical power of SpongeBob and his world.
One episode in particular highlights how the world of Bikini Bottom wholeheartedly rejects heteronormative culture and creates an "actually existing queer world". In the season three episode, "Rock-a-Bye-Bivalve", SpongeBob and Patrick find an abandoned baby clam and adopt it as their child. Before raising the clam, the two best friends have a silly conversation about what gendered parental roles they'd both assume:
Patrick: Oh! I wanna be the mom!
SpongeBob: I don't think you can be the mom, because you never wear a shirt.
Patrick: You're right. If I was your mom, this would be kinda shocking. Just call me daddy!
By explicitly mocking the performative nature of sexuality and gender, the act of trying to understand these characters' actual identities collapses, making space for an exploration of SpongeBob and Patrick's utopia. Patrick starts the conversation with wanting to be "mom" and then ends with screaming, "just call me daddy!" These roles have profound significations above water, and yet for SpongeBob and Patrick, they can easily be disregarded and rearranged. Soon after agreeing on their gender roles, SpongeBob throws on a colorful dress and Patrick starts sporting a suit and tie; in Bikini Bottom, drag shows start instantaneously.
"Rock-a-Bye-Bivalve" can be read as an example of Jack Alberstram's concept of "creative anthropomorphism". While many animated films and series impose heterosexual society onto animals and objects, "creative anthropomorphism" fights against that practice, using cartoon characters to explore nontraditional modes of thought.
In a scene where SpongeBob and Patrick are taking their baby clam on a stroll, a heterosexual, same-species fish couple walk by and are puzzled by this nonconforming family. A thought bubble appears above the head of the female fish, visualizing her deliberation of how SpongeBob and Patrick's family contradicts the rules of heterosexual reproduction. The thought bubble lingers for a few seconds and then disappears, leaving this biological question purposefully unresolved for both the fish and the viewer.
SpongeBob and Patrick's interspecies, same-sex union isn't about "love winning", it's about love imploding. Throughout the episode, the baby clam is used as a vessel to deconstruct traditional family structures. Patrick becomes the overworked dad and SpongeBob transforms into the underappreciated housewife; their queer friendship comically falls apart as they try to be normal. With Patrick's hyper-masculine aloofness and SpongeBob's Victorian neuroticism, they fail as parents.
In the episode's climax, SpongeBob points to a large mountain of dirty diapers as proof that he, as a mother, can't raise this clam on his own. Patrick then vows that he'll try his best to come back the next day at "six o'clock" to help him out with changing diapers and other domestic chores. They repeatedly scream "six o'clock" to one another, until the promise, much like their family, is rendered absurd.
Alberstram argues that for queer people, "there's something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing" because "all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner" (120). He labels this "the queer art of failure". SpongeBob and Patrick's dysfunctional family can be read as a powerful attack on the heterosexual "winner"; they fail as parents because they’re clinging to normative ideas of gender, instead of embracing their family for its differences. The episode concludes with the clam flying away from SpongeBob and Patrick’s proverbial nest. They longingly smile at their child goes off to adulthood. SpongeBob ironically jokes to Patrick, "Let's have another!"
Sandy Cheeks, a cowgirl squirrel, manifests this "queer art of failure" through her incongruence with Bikini Bottom. Her presence serves as a testament to SpongeBob Squarepants' irreverent disregard for conformity. Unlike her male counterparts, she’s a mammal, and hence can only survive under water by wearing an oxygen tank and living in an air-locked dome. Sandy was originally sent by the "Treedome" corporation to Bikini Bottom to study undersea life. Instead of treating SpongeBob and his friends as scientific subjects, however, she becomes their companion, eliminating the possibility of creating an oppressive power dynamic between the land and underwater world.
While many animated films convey clear dichotomies and singularities in the worlds they illustrate, Bikini Bottom is presented as a space in which even a squirrel from Texas can learn to adjust. By befriending a starfish and a sponge, Sandy manages to subvert any sense of order or sameness that would be assumed about an underwater society. Sandy fits in with SpongeBob and his gang because although she readjusts and rearranges to survive, she wholeheartedly refuses to assimilate.
Recently, screenshots from SpongeBob SquarePants episodes have been recontextualized into memes circulated on Twitter and Instagram. These memes serve as a momentary reminder of the absurdist cartoon we watched on Saturday mornings, signifying a shared cultural past between American millennials. Despite being rooted in nostalgia, the reemergence of SpongeBob could very well be linked to a longing for a yet-to-be-realized queer future. Even though there’s now more nuanced queer TV programs like Transparent and Orange is the New Black, these shows ultimately serve as dramatizations of the perils of present queer reality.
On Viceland, Ellen Page is the host of Gaycation, a series that she claims is a "journey to explore what it means to be gay, bi, or trans all around the world". Gaycation features the lesbian actress and her two gay companions going to various parts of the globe, imposing their Western classifications of gender and sexuality through encouraging people to “come out” and discuss how they feel marginalized within their respective culture. In its insistence on categorization and assimilation, Gaycation is the complete antithesis of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Jose Estaban Munoz proclaims, "Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality…we are not yet queer. We may touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality" (2). SpongeBob and his gang exist as a reminder of this future, forever inhabiting a reality that no matter what progress we've made in our actual world, will always be transcendent, unattainable, and most importantly, strange.
Just call me daddy!
Daniel Spielberger is an LA-based writer who graduated from Reed College with a BA in history, as well as studying Chinese cultural history, film studies, and literature. He recently published an essay in the New Orleans art and cultural magazine Pelican Bomb.