Monday, March 10, 2008

on the literary beauty of SpongeBob Squarepants

So, some stirrings in the blogosphere (whose url's will remain unidentified) have led me to put some thoughts down in reflection on the goodness of the cartoon known as SpongeBob Squarepants.

I still remember the day when I strolled down the halls of the department of molecular biology and biochemistry at UC Irvine, when the departmental chair stopped to ask me if I was a fan of this show. He knew I was somewhat quirky, and thought we could share a moment of common affection for what I now hold to be a television great. However, in standard elitist tone, I gruffly said "No. I'm too cool for such childishness." Of course that comment was half tongue in cheek, half serious. As the years passed and free cable graced the face of our student housing complex, I saw some of the show as my wife and son were watching. Admittedly, there were moments of great music, as this undersea alternate universe played it out in ways that were comical and true to our world.

One instance would have to be SpongeBob's pet Gary, the snail who is indubitably the show's equivalent of a cat. When Gary left, this song accompanied SpongeBob's seach for reconciliation with his pet. The R&B sensibilities are just great.

But overall, there was a period of time where I knew that my family enjoyed the show, but I had no serious interest in watching it.

Perhaps the weight of the three letters, P, h, and D, have led me to seek more levity. Whatever the cause, at some point the genius of SpongeBob Squarepants got through to my hardened heart.

Just as the great heroes are not mere molecules who accidentally arrive on scene and unwittingly save the day, the adventures of SpongeBob do not come about in a haphazard way. The genius, however, is that this show presents itself as pure whimsy. The plots unfold like any standard story, and our protagonist carries himself as no hero at all-if anything, he is the opposite of a hero. If you watch him explain his stance on the matter of fun in the following video, you will see what I mean.

A cursory observation of this clip (and most complete episodes) would lead one to think of this as harmless children's entertainment where having a fun time is all that matters in life. A more twisted view may lead to conclusions of superficiality on the part of our 21st century undersea Ulysses (or Odysseus, if you're really cool), or even some sort of underlying immorality on his part.

On the contrary, the true beauty of SpongeBob Squarepants is in the fact that he exists as a light shining out in darkness. His light, masked in a nerdy awkwardness, is a light of innocence. He exists in a world of cynical narcissism, megalomania, and godless materialism, as exemplified and personified by the most commonly occurring adult characters of Squidward, Plankton, and Mr. Crabs, respectively.

Going back to the F.U.N. video, we see two different views of what matters in life, and as silly as SpongeBob is, he is right about what matters more. Power and bombs, or friendship?

Zooming out to consider this show in toto, all of the interactions that our child hero undergoes show the glaring incongruity between the mind of a child who wants to engage in the simpler things of life and the adults who are contrasted with him. Sure, some of the funniest moments are when this innocence leads him to make conclusions that are fallacious, but the texture of the show is a consistently innocent one.

And so I would say that not only is this show funny because of the silliness, but behind the silliness is a tapestry of wisdom. There is wisdom in innocence. It is not self-aware in the young ones on our planet, and self-awareness is sometimes the strongest way to quench that light, but childlike simplicity has the power to overcome that darkness. We see this, oddly enough, in a cartoon as unassuming as SpongeBob.


foldreformer said...

Let's just be honest with ourselves, it's just a watered- down version of Ren and Stimpy!But the sponge will never have their magic,

contrarian 78 said...

By the criteria normally used on your blogs, that would warrant deletion of your comment. Fortunately I'm more tolerant.

Not having had cable until I was 26, I can't comment fully on the matter of Ren and Stimpy.

My recollection of the few instances when I'd watch at a friend's house was that they lived in their own universe of whimsy. There was no context to their capers.

I presume you're making a superficial analysis of the artistic style?

contrarian 78 said...

On reading the wikipedia entry, I'm even more sure that my assumption is correct. The plot of that show centers on Ren killing/abusing/hurting Stimpy, in a parody of the cat and dog genre of cartoon stories. How this bears any resemblance to SpongeBob Squarepants is beyond me.

foldreformer said...

I have to admit that I have never given spongebob a chance, it's just so obnoxious, I've never gotten through a whole episode.

signed,foldreformer's evil twin

contrarian 78 said...

Ah, but that only underscores my thesis about the show and childhood. After all, everyone knows that a random intersection with the life of a child often consists of hearing them whining, crying, or being simply foolish. That same annoyance we feel towards a stranger is something that we forebear with children who are close to us, and as a result if you haven't even seen an entire episode of the show in its context you may have missed the magic and seen only the tantrum of our absorbent tot.