It seems Spongebob Squarepants, with his “I’m ready” attitude, has been the target of a smear campaign over the last year. Why any sort of Spongebob “controversy” would be considered news is beyond me, but that’s just what’s happened. First, a few months ago, some people pointed a finger at the kids’ program saying it taught kids about environmentalism, as if that were a bad thing. Now, it’s under scrutiny again after it was singled out as a cause of low attention spans in 4 year olds.
It seems Mr. Squarepants can’t catch a break. It wasn’t that long ago that news programs were reporting that there was something indecent about Spongebob’s friendship with Patrick, and that his relationship with the astronaut squirrel Sandy Cheeks was platonic at best.
I never thought myself or anyone would have to defend a harmless show like Spongebob Squarepants, but it seems a bit necessary now.
You might be wondering what a grown man is doing watching Spongebob Squarepants. No, I’m not a stoner. I occasionally babysit my friend’s 11 year old daughter, which usually amounts to a few hours of watching kid-friendly TV shows. On the one hand, she likes cartoons like Spongebob and Adventure Time, and alternately she loves Disney sit-coms like Hannah Montana, The Jonas Brothers, iCarly, and That’s So Raven. Often, I’m on the verge of begging her just to watch cartoons.
I find the Disney sit-coms to be much more objectionable than the worst that our aquatic friend can dish out. Disney sit-coms seem to suggest to kids that it’s of the utmost importance to remain fashionable, and so childhood ebbs away while fretting about trying to look good. For instance, while babysitting I’ve sat through an entire episode of The Jonas Brothers where the boys were supposed to meet the Queen of England, but then the whole episode turned into them trying to pick out the right clothes to wear, and devolved into squabbling about who could wear the flashiest jacket. They never got to Buckingham Palace. In That’s So Raven, the heroine becomes a fashion-designer. What kind of teenager becomes a fashion designer? Hannah Montana suggests that if you put on different clothes, you can become a whole different person. To be fair, I’m not suggesting all Disney programs are vehicles for product placement. I found myself laughing while watching iCarly, and The Suite Life with Zack and Cody at least involved fantasy elements like mermaids.
Oppositely, the charm of Spongebob Squarepants is simply that it is irrelevent and irreverent. The way in which it pertains so little to actual life on Earth makes it appropriate for children. By being so detached from reality, it allows kids to enter into an imaginative wonderland where noses can be piccolos and starfish can be friend material. At most, Spongebob tries to sell Spongebob, i.e. Spongebob merchandise. It doesn’t try to sell you on the idea that it’s necessary to be fashionable (or make children beg their parents to buy them Hannah Montana’s wardrobe).
For the first ten years or so of my life, fashion never entered into my thoughts. I guess that’s because I grew up in the era of Duck Tales, Batman: The Animated Series, and a Transformers spin-off involving robot dinosaurs. If anything, I wanted my own Megazord like the Power Rangers, not pants like a Jonas Brother. I look back on that time as a necessary period of my development. Those were years of fertile imagination for me. I can quite fondly remember sitting in a sandbox playing with action figures, not only coming up with reasons why they were fighting, but also coming up with back stories for each robot or weird human-animal hybrid. That experience was just as essential to my development as a writer today as reading F. Scott Fitzgerald in Junior High. I often feel that the younger generation has it worse than I did. With the omnipotence of the internet now, the adult world comes flooding in. It’s hard for a child not to hear about awful tragedies on the news or have ads for self-improvement constantly absorbed. The children’s program should be a refuge from the real world, at least for 22 or so minutes.
Plus, what’s so bad about Spongebob? He’s basically a boy-scout. He’s the Superman of the ocean floor. He can’t tell lies, he values his friends, and he has a positive attitude. If anything, he’s too good. He has a realistic job at a fast food joint. While other children’s programs feature kids as rock stars or psychic fashionistas, Spongebob does something that most young people will have to do at some point (it’s kind of a rite of passage in America), flip burgers.
I should also point out that the test which claimed Spongebob was bad for kids’ attention span used 4 year olds as the subjects, and used the show Caillou as the alternative. Caillou is aimed at 4 year olds, while Spongebob is aimed at kids 6-11. That’s bad science if you ask me.
If Spongebob really does affect kids’ attention span, it’s probably just because they’re daydreaming, a perfect pasttime for youth.
If you’re looking for other entertainments for kids, check out The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book.
100 episodes of Spongebob Squarepants are available for streaming on Netflix.