The first time I let my kids watch Looney Tunes, they were horrified. My daughter asked in a quavering voice, “Why is the rabbit being so mean to that man?”
That’s the kind of cartoons my generation grew up with. Sociopathic a-holes like Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Donald Duck reigned. Pretty much everyone was trying to kill each other all the time and the good guys, if present, were naive goody-two-shoes practically begging to be outwitted, FrankBurnsian rule-followers who deserved their comeuppance, or roadrunners.
My kids grew up watching Spongebob Squarepants instead.
Spongebob Squarepants, of course, is that sweet and silly show that served as a refutation of the pessimism and mindless violence that surrounded Generation X, a rejection of the nihilism that tainted our childhoods and the precocious pop-culture worldliness that forced us to grow up before we were ready. Spongebob restored the faith of those of us who were taught by the generations before us to be faithless, who wanted something not-hopeless and not-terrible to share with our children. Stephen Hillenburg, who passed away November 26, created not only a beloved character in Spongebob Squarepants, but a downright subversive one. With Spongebob, Hillenburg wrested control of the narrative from the cynics and curmudgeons and restored a much-needed spirit of innocence to childhood. And he did it without condescending to children, without insulting their intelligence, and most importantly, without boring them.
I’ll state an unpopular opinion: growing up, I never liked Mr. Rogers. I thought Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was dull as dishwater, and while I didn’t have the word “pedantic” in my vocabulary, I saw Mr. Rogers as another busybody grownup telling me what to do. That’s probably what appealed about Looney Tunes – it was utterly devoid of moral instruction. But even though I enjoyed a well-placed anvil to the head and found Mr. Rogers to be an insufferable milquetoast, I perceived a chronic and depressing lack of sincerity coming from the TV. (As a true Gen-Xer, the TV talked to me far more than any human being ever did). The characters who seemed sincere, like Mr. Rogers, nearly always ended up to be hypocrites and were always always preachy. And the others – Bugs and his ilk – mostly seemed to care about being cool – edgy, before edgy was even a thing. Once I aged out of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, nearly every kid-friendly protagonist I encountered was sarcastic and uncharitable and snarky. Most beloved characters of the ‘70’s and 80’ were egomaniacs like Daffy Duck, future criminals like Bart Simpson, or like Pee-Wee Herman, their innocence was played tongue in cheek, as a joke for grownups. The world presented to me as a child appeared strangely binary – devils or angels, with little in between, and for some reason, the devils were supposed to be the good guys. The children’s show where the characters behaved like decent people without being overly saccharine didn’t seem to exist.
Spongebob is the kind of character I needed but never had growing up – he is sincerity, personified. Despite his geometric proportions, Spongebob is not edgy, and he doesn’t even try to be. His innocence is celebrated, not denigrated. In most cartoon universes, Spongebob would be the butt of the joke, not the star of the show. Spongebob Squarepants performs the rare trick of blending straight talk (kids crave straight talk) about how the world works with entertainment, and somehow does so seamlessly. Spongebob Squarepants isn’t preachy, it isn’t mean-spirited, AND yet it’s still freaking hilarious. Spongebob is neither obsessed with coolness nor is it a thinly veiled morality play the adults are putting on to teach the kiddies a lesson. No one in Bikini Bottom is too good to be true, not even our hero.
No one is too bad to be true, either. The mustache-twirling villains of most cartoons whose evil is a handy plot device, are not present in Spongebob. There are no villains in Bikini Bottom at all, really. While the characters all have negative personality traits, they’re the kind of traits where you actually know people who have them. They’re relatable, believable, familiar. Take Mr. Krabs, for instance. We’ve all worked for Mr. Krabs a time or two – not necessarily a bad guy, you actually kind of like him, he looks out for you when he can – he just loves money. We all have a friend like Sandy, who’s so gung ho that she never stops to realize she’s inflicting her passions on everyone else. And Squidward – well, I think most of us not only know Squidward, but ARE Squidward at times. Even Plankton is just a guy that desperately wants to succeed and doesn’t think it’s fair that Mr. Krabs has the secret formula when he doesn’t (#inequality!) Most of the conflict in Spongebob comes not from the nonsensical machinations of a supervillain, but from the seemingly mundane interactions of realistic archetypes. It’s the minor drama of everyday life – trying to be a good person, trying to do your job, trying to stay cheerful when everything is going wrong, trying to put up with your friends and coworkers even as they drive you crazy – in a funhouse mirror. We see ourselves there, both adults and children alike, and we can’t help but laugh hysterically at our reflections.
I seriously doubt that when a marine biologist named Stephen Hillenburg donned a Hawaiian shirt and went in to pitch an animated show about a talking sponge at Nickelodeon, that he envisioned an entertainment juggernaut that would be as culturally important as Spongebob Squarepants has become. I seriously doubt he knew he would be helping to make the world a happier, brighter, more joyous place for two generations of children (and counting). But he did. Steven Hillenburg’s positive and upbeat vision gives even us adults a cultural touchstone to share in these divided times. Spongebob brings people together in a world that feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. We may feel miles apart from each other, but we all laugh at a Spongebob meme.
The day Stephen Hillenburg passed away, my children turned on Spongebob Squarepants like they’ve done dozens of times before. I sat down to watch it with them like I often do. They sang along with the theme song and laughed uproariously at the hijinks of Spongebob and Patrick and Gary and the rest of the Bikini Bottom gang. And regardless of what adults think about Spongebob’s importance in the grand scheme of everything, that’s really what matters. Children enjoy what Stephen Hillenburg created. It’s the best tribute there could possibly be – making millions of kids happy now and for many years to come.
Thank you, Stephen.
Photo by roldanace
Photo by Neo-grapher