Stephen Hillenburg, Creator of Spongebob, has passed away


Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar jason says:

    Great piece. I loved the old Looney Tunes cartoons (they were my introduction to classical music and opera), but I also love Spongebob. It’s a great cartoon for children and adults: it’s smart, funny, and doesn’t rely on dated cartoon tropes.

    I was sad to see that the creator died-thanks for writing this.Report

  2. I’ve never seen Spongebob Squarepants, so I can’t comment on the show.

    I do agree with your assessment of (most of)* the cartoons and kids shows you (and I) grew up watching. I liked Looney Tunes as a kid, but you’re definitely correct about the mean streak.

    I didn’t like Tom & Jerry, in large part because most of the shows were about the mouse doing something horrible to the cat (I forget which was Tom and which was Jerry) and the moral seemed to be, “because the mouse is weaker, it doesn’t matter what he does to the cat, because the cat is stronger.”**

    That was, come to think of it, the moral behind a lot of the Looney Tunes cartoons. But I liked Looney Tunes better. Perhaps it was more artfully done? Or perhaps there’s no accounting for taste?

    I think I agree about Mr. Rogers. I did like him as a kid, but I think I liked him in large part because I thought the grown ups in my life expected me to like it. So it was kind of a “forced liking.” I don’t know if that makes sense. I chose to do that a lot when I was younger and even into my early to mid-20s. And then I found out that the “grown ups” tended to like and have more respect for those who were more assertive and honest about their preferences.

    Thanks for writing this post, Kristin. I really enjoyed it.

    *There were exceptions, though. Plenty of cartoons featured good guys who foiled bad guys. True, the bad guys were almost always the mustache-twirling stereotypes you mention. But the good vs. evil aspect lacked the sarcasm, usually. Even so, I agree that it was simplistic.
    **There were, however, a few Tom & Jerry shows where they were friends.Report

    • the moral seemed to be, “because the mouse is weaker, it doesn’t matter what he does to the cat, because the cat is stronger.”

      I do realize, by the way, that stories with that moral have a long history and aren’t necessarily something to be condemned. They could work as one of the “weapons of the weak” that James C. Scott* (for example) has talked about or that Eugene Genovese**documented in his study of slavery (I haven’t read it, but I understand that’s part of his argument).

      *James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, 1987.

      **Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, ca. 1976.Report

      • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy says:

        See, I have a different read on this. I don’t think it’s so much that it’s ok the mouse wins because the cat is bigger. I think it’s that the mouse (or the bunny) wins because he’s smarter – and more importantly cooler. People who are gullible or uptight or dumb or lame DESERVE getting taken down by their “betters”. People who are cool have a right, even an obligation, to rip those who are uncool, to shreds.

        And that – I think that’s an unfortunate message and is what a lot of us really took away from the Looney Tunes cartoons in particular.

        You can see the evolution in Hawkeye vs. Frank Burns and in Jim vs. Dwight Schrute. At some point it isn’t punching up any more. Bugs, Hawkeye, and Jim have powers that their nemesis-es lack and it really seems more like they’re punching down to me. They’re the bullies. Yet it goes on and on and on, because it’s funny when it’s on TV, but not so much when it occurs in real life.Report

        • I can see that. To me, at least, that applies more to Bugs than to the mouse, but you’re right that the cat is “dumb” in a way the mouse isn’t.Report

          • It’s part of the rules that the other guy attacks first and then Bugs retaliates. Elmer Fudd may be a helpless dufus, but he’s a helpless dufus that likes to shoot wabbits. Woody Woodpecker, on the other hand, is a jerk from the get-go.Report

            • I hadn’t thought about it that way. It’s probably true of Looney Tunes and (mostly) true of Tom & Jerry.Report

              • To expand on that a little bit (but also to add an ad hoc point to your very good point), there is a sense in much of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry (I didn’t watch Woody Woodpecker all that much and don’t remember it well) that the game is overly simplistic.

                The good guys and bad guys are too distinct, most of the time. There’s very little nuance. Wile E. Coyote hunts the roadrunner and gets his comeuppance. But it’s in his nature to hunt for food. He’s not bad for doing that. (That said, a cartoon where he got the bird and where the viewer would be expected to find that success funny would convey a vicious message.)* For Tom & Jerry, as I said it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it strikes me that the mouse baits the cat more than serving as the cat’s potential victim.

                That (in my view) overly simplistic portrayal of the good vs. the bad seems to give way to a more nuanced and more believable (and therefore, better) view of human traits we see in Spongebob (by Kristin’s account… I’ve said, I’ve never seen the show). At the same time, I guess we see some nuance in Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, such as the shows where Tom & Jerry work as a team and where Wile E. Coyote and the bird (Foghorn Leghorn?) clock in to work where the coyote chases the bird, but once they clock out, they’re friends again

                I don’t want to make too much of my distinction. It might not be worth the number of words I’ve just written. And I admit my comment here has a “butwhatabout” quality to your very good point about the “rules” making what I see as bullying more about self-defense.

                *Notice I left out Elmer Fudd. He seems more legitimately dressed as “bad” than, in my opinion, Wile E. Coyote.Report

              • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy says:

                See, I’d say that it’s not only in Wile E Coyote’s nature to hunt food, but it’s also in Elmer’s nature to hunt food. Unless we’re vegetarians, we are all Elmer Fudd really. It’s a guy who needs to eat vs. a guy who doesn’t want to be eaten. Unless you’re a strict vegan, Elmer isn’t morally or ethically wrong for wanting to eat to survive. It’s not a case of an evil supervillain trying to rule the world or anything, it’s just a guy who wants to live and needs to eat to do that.

                And Bugs also takes down some people who are fairly innocent, like the guys who are trying to put up a building where his hole happens to be. He also sells out Daffy – he’s totally cool with Daffy getting shot by Elmer, as long as it isn’t Bugs. So I have a hard time accepting Bugs Bunny as a shining warrior of justice taking on the bad guys.

                Even if he was a pure and noble avenging angel going only after those who done him wrong, his response is so off the charts that it feels cruel. Like the guy who kicks their opponent in the ribs once they’re down. At some point who cares if the other guy looked at you funny or hit on your girl? The response is so much more than the situation required, it still amounts to bullying.

                Bugs Bunny is a bully. Even if the other guy started it, and even if the other guy had it coming, he’s still a bully.

                I really feel like we’re seeing a lot of Bugsism lately. “This person is bad, problematic in some way, so any level of response, no matter how extreme, is not only acceptable, it’s warranted.” It really seems to be an unfortunate trend that has come to fruition the past decade or two or three, that all means are justified if the other guy is wrong/dumb/uncool or maybe, oh, I don’t know, golly gee whiz – voted for a different political party than you.

                Of course it’s just a children’s cartoon, maybe I’m reading too much into it all, but then again Pepe Le Pew is certainly seen in a different light now than he used to be.Report

              • For some reason, I think I see Elmer differently, but I can’t really put my finger on it. I’m definitely not a vegetarian, and hunting is a much more ethical way to get meat than the factory farmed methods that probably create most of the meat I use.

                That said, I agree with the rest of your comment, especially the penultimate one. There are so many things I could add to your list of “wrong/dumb/uncool or…voted for a different political party than you.”Report

              • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy says:

                Elmer is definitely drawn to be unsympathetic, but then again so are Wile E and Sylvester.

                IDK. Coming from an area where most people are super into hunting (my dad hunted when I was a girl) the “dumb cruel hunter” trope has gotten a bit tiresome for me.

                All means are justified to win is probably the best version.Report

              • Yeah, I guess I see where you’re coming from. And I’m certainly with you on your critique in general even if I differ on Elmer specifically.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to gabriel conroy says:

      I had to do some picking and choosing for the readability of the piece – I did indeed think about several “good guys” who didn’t really fit the “cool a-hole” trope – Bullwinkle, Superfriends, Scooby Doo – and had a little bit about that, but it just didn’t flow. You’re right though, plenty of exceptions.Report