If I had to pick something from pop culture that unites my “generation” more than anything else, the answer would be twofold: Shrek and Spongebob Squarepants. They’re goofy, funny, entertaining, and, since their protagonists are both nonhuman and also in children’s media, immune to the rampant problematicization of literally everything that’s so en vogue today.
Or so I thought.
Holly Barker, a professor at University of Washington, has some news for me: Spongebob is racist now. According to her essay in the Contemporary Pacific (or rather the abstract because I’m not spending 18 bucks to read the damn thing and you can’t make me), “SpongeBob Squarepants and his friends play a role in normalizing the settler colonial takings of Indigenous lands while erasing the ancestral Bikinian people from their nonfictional homeland.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Spongebob lives in a pineapple under the sea in a place called Bikini Bottom. This entirely fictional, absurdist, and animated town is conceivably located below Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It’s a place where supergenius squirrels live under water, crabs hoard money made through a burger joint, fish go swimming in a lagoon, squids play clarinets, and there’s a TALKING SPONGE THAT WEARS PANTS.
To draw this premise back to reality (as if such a thing could be done), Campus Reform– who did fork over the cash to access the article, I thank them heartily– reports,
Barker’s chief complaint hinges on her perception that the show’s fictional setting of the town of Bikini Bottom is based on the nonfictional Bikini Atoll, a coral reef in the Marshall Islands used by the U.S. military for nuclear testing during the Cold War.
The indigenous people of the area were relocated during the testing, which eventually rendered the area uninhabitable due to residual radiation. Barker finds it unjust that SpongeBob and his pals be allowed to “occupy” the area when the nonfictional indigenous people of the area do not have the option to return to their homeland.
As an “American character,” SpongeBob supposedly has the “privilege” of “not caring about the detonation of nuclear bombs.” In order to demonstrate this, the professor quotes one of the show’s writers, who said that the main character is “a guy who could get super-excited about a napkin but wouldn’t care if there was an explosion outside.”
“The detonations do not cause concern for the characters, as they did for the Bikinians, nor do they compromise SpongeBob’s frequent activities, like visiting hamburger joints or the beach with friends,” writes Barker.
Now in fairness to Barker, she’s not the only one who’s considered the possibility– even probability– of Spongebob Squarepants’s connection to a nuclear test site. But there’s a difference between going, “Hey, you know what might be funny and appealing to children? Goofy sea creatures that we privately pretend came to exist through nuclear radiation, but that will have no particular bearing on the show!” and going, “Hey, let’s profit off of the tragedy of the native peoples removed from their land by nuclear testing!” If anything, we get a sense of sympathy: Bikini Bottom is fully separate from Bikini Atoll, and humans play a negligible role in the Spongebob-verse (except for that time David Hasselhoff used his pecs to project Spongebob and Patrick into the ocean with King Neptune’s crown.)
Of course, that’s not good enough for Barker.
“Although the U.S. government removed the people of Bikini from the atoll above the surface, this does not give license to SpongeBob or anyone else, fictitious or otherwise, to occupy Bikini,” insists Barker.
“SpongeBob’s presence on Bikini Bottom continues the violent and racist expulsion of Indigenous peoples from their lands (and in this case their cosmos) that enables U.S. hegemonic powers to extend their military and colonial interests in the postwar era,” she added.
Jaysus, I’m running out of patience to continue parsing this. The rest of the essay argues that the design, motifs, etc. are culturally appropriative of Oceania, because artistic inspiration is never anything but violently colonial (WHEN ARE WE GOING TO GO AFTER PICASSO, HUH?!), that it’s sexist because Sandy Cheeks is the only regular female character, and deeply ingrained because the creators probably didn’t mean to be agents of colonialism but also didn’t realize that “Bikini Bottom and Bikini Atoll were not theirs for the taking” and that’s disturbing to her.
Okay. I’m only going to say this once and, frankly, I can’t even believe it warrants saying that many times. ANTHROPOMORPHIC SPONGES ARE IRRELEVANT AND UNRELATED TO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT COLONIALISM, IMPERIALISM, RACISM, OR ANY OTHER -ISM LEFTIST ACADEMIA IS OBSESSED WITH TODAY. It’s a TALKING F*CKING SPONGE.
Don’t you come near me or my sponge ever again.