Archive for October 15th, 2008

Spongebob Politics

One TV show I often wish my five year old wasn’t watching is Spongebob Squarepants.  From that show he learns words, phrases, and even humor that really isn’t fitting for a five year old.   Of course, I am the parent with the remote control, why do I let him watch it?  Well, first, I’m not a protective parent in the sense that I feel a need to control the various influences and not let him watch a show he really loves.  I limit total TV time and try to redirect, but if he really wants to watch Spongebob, I am not going to be a tyrant.  I still remember how I resented it when my parents thought I was “too young” to watch something.  The second is that I like the show and enjoy watching it with him.  At first I thought it was just weird, but it’s actually quite clever, with some really brilliant bits of humor.

Two recent episodes were specially good.   In one, Spongebob’s friend Patrick, a dim-witted a star fish, sees an elegantly clad gentleman and becomes terrified that it’s the librarian out to collect back fines.  Turns out it’s someone from the royal ministry, come to inform Patrick that he is actually the King of Bikini Bottom (that’s the town they live in).

Patrick isn’t sure what a King is, but when Spongebob tells him that it means he can have whatever he wants, Patrick becomes intrigued.  They go to the Krusty Krab (Spongebob’s work place — he is the perfect employee, and loves his job) and Patrick eats a lot pleasing the money hungry owner, Mr. Krabs.  Yet Krabs becomes upset when informed that Patrick, as King, can have whatever he wants free of charge.  He kicks them out of the restaurant, but Patrick is starting to enjoy this thing called power.  He then demands everything he can see…a comic book from a pathetic forty year old who finally has competed the collection he’d spent his whole life gathering, lollypops from babies, food from people on the street, and a walker from an elderly man.  They all give it up when told that royal decrees say they must.  Patrick becomes opulent, selfish and arrogant.

This all comes to naught when they move the home of Squidword, a more cynical Krusty Krab employee, to make way for Patrick’s new castle.  When told of this, an indignant Squidword goes on the rampage, “look at him!  He’s an idiot!  What possible qualification can he have to be King of Bikini Bottom?  Don’t give him anything!”

The citizens look at each other, decide Squidword’s right, and stop serving Patrick.  Patrick goes into a rage, that horrible Squidword has ruined everything, he is the cause, and must be stopped.  Finally, after Spongebob his loyal friend betrays him, Patrick looks in the mirror and sees the monster he’s become.  He freaks out, finds the man from the royal ministry and says he no longer wants to be king.  The ministry official understands, noting that “absolute power requires absolute responsibility” (but realizing that such language is above Patrick’s head) and informs Patrick that he isn’t the king after all — a coffee stain on the document reveals that really Spongebob’s pet snail Gary isn’t king.  And, while Gary can’t stand splinters, he doesn’t abuse power.

That’s got a lot of poli-sci in it.  Power corrupts.  People blindly acquiesce to injustice because of demands by “royal decree” or government law, not really questioning whether it’s just or ethical.  Then when things get really bad a rabble rouser finally wakes the people up who turn on the corrupt government.  The government of course blames the rabble rouser or revolutionary.  So when the Sandinistas rebelled against the Somoza government (Somaza was a lot like Patrick), the US and many anti-communists looked at it as a communist plot to spread their evil doctrine, rather than also compelled by people waking up to a grotesquely unfair social-political situation.  In almost every situation the leader of a revolt or country is considered the problem, not much effort is made to understand the deep social causes.  And power corrupts; even Patrick, the lovable dunce, gets overtaken by the desire for power.   In fact it’s those boorish ones, like Stalin in Russia or the businessman Uthman, chosen over Ali as third Caliph in the Islamic world, who was seen as unambitious and thus safe, who set up a corrupt regime that ultimately led to his son, Mu’awiyah taking the Caliphate by force and turning it into a military dynasty.

Another episode I ran into by chance last summer while teaching my summer term “Consumerism and Politics” course.  The new Education building has flat screen TVs upon which one can, among other things, show power point presentations.  I turned it on but it came on in TV mode, showing Spongebob.  We had been talking about the efforts by marketers to turn young children into consumers, and quickly it became clear this was an episode about that.  Mr. Krabs’ daughter Pearl is turning 16 and wants the perfect birthday party.  She gives her dad a list of gifts that she wants.   Mr. Krabs gives Spongebob the task of buying the perfect gift.  He follows Pearl to the mall, and we see an orgy of consumerism as she goes from one want to another.  Spongebob, who has been given Mr. Krab’s credit card (amazed that just giving a piece of plastic can buy something) has the best line when he buys one of Pearl’s gifts: “I’ll purchase that piece of plastic with this piece of plastic,” handing the clerk the card.

Meanwhile, Pearl comes home and Mr. Krabs has a pathetically lame surprise party ready.  “But I gave you a list!” Pearl wails, as her friends get ready to ditch her.  Then Spongebob shows up with a boatload of gifts, including a rock band Pearl loves, singing “it’s all about you, on your 16th birthday.”  She’s happy.  Mr. Krabs is horrified at the cost, but reasons that since he bought his daughter what she wanted, he’s a good father.

This episode was brilliantly timed for that class, mocking our rampant and excess consumerism.  Reflecting on these two episodes, I’m not sure what to think.  I like them, they are cutting satire.  They are also not really the stuff five year olds can understand.  Yet the irreverence and perhaps a bit of the satire might rub off on kids.  And, as one who prefers irreverence, laughter, and rebelliousness to orderliness, seriousness and conformity, I’m not sure it’s really that bad an influence after all.  It just requires me to teach him not to use certain words or sayings (e.g., ‘you are such an idiot.’)

And, frankly, it’s better than Sesame Street.  I’ve been told Cookie Monster has morphed into a more healthy “veggie monster,” that Oscar the grouch is no longer there because of his negativity (might cause the kids to have negative thoughts), and Big Bird’s imaginary friend is gone because, well, I guess imaginary friends are no longer seen as good.  It seems that in a desire to be politically correct, Sesame Street has become a sanitized and boring show — one my son constantly refuses to watch.

So give me Spongebob.   Better a cutting, funny show my child likes than a boring politically correct show that he can’t stand.