Tuesday, January 25, 2005

My Beef With SpongeBob

There's been a lot of brouhaha (with exaggeration on both sides) about SpongeBob SquarePants lately. I am not a SpongeBob fan. I have seen several episodes and decided that while he is hilarious for grown-ups, he is not generally suitable for small children.

The episode that bothered me the most, of the ones I saw, was the one where SpongeBob splits his pants. Now don't jump all over me and assume that I object to this because of the showing of spongy buttcrack in the pants rip, because my objection is to something else. I'm not one of those people who have a list of anatomy parts that are deemed shameful to see under any circumstances. Besides, SpongeBob is a sponge; he doesn't have human anatomy parts.

In this episode, SpongeBob accidentally splits his pants and gets some attention. Liking the attention, SpongeBob splits them deliberately and gets some more. After deliberately splitting his pants several times, he realizes that the shock value of mere pants-splitting has diminished, and moves on to more over-the-top stunts. So far, so good. I'm with the episode up until now-- it portrays realistic behaviors that children relate to, which is something I like to see in children's shows. And it would have been a good episode for kids, if it had ended with SpongeBob realizing that his excesses are not a good way to get real and caring attention from his friends. But it didn't. It ended in a pants-splitting music video extravaganza in which SpongeBob realizes his fantasies of endless attention from pants-splitting. It is this ending that I don't want my kids exposed to, particularly Sonshine who already has a natural tendency to take things over the top to get attention. He doesn't need this reinforced; he needs constant reinforcement of the "good attention/bad attention" meme and more encouragement to seek the "good attention".

I don't think this sort of ending makes SpongeBob into the Eeeeevil Spawn of Satan. Some of the episodes were perfectly fine for kids (I particularly liked the one where Squidward moved into a community of people just like him and discovered that he really needed the diversity he'd had in his old neighborhood). And I don't think SpongeBob is gay. I didn't see any sort of sexuality in the cartoon episodes I saw; you'd have to be one of those people who thinks three-way intersections are kinky to see any sexuality in the show. But, as I told my kids, I don't trust SpongeBob. Not all his episodes are good for kids. There are better things out there to watch.

For example, I really like the Thomas The Tank Engine stories. They're accessible to kids on many levels. Unlike the flat characters in Bob The Builder whose interactions are alternately insipid and cloying, the Thomas trains have realistically human personalities-- they quarrel, they cooperate, they play jokes on each other, they can be both petty and noble. They interact with each other and their environment in ways that anyone who works in an office will find quite familiar. And yet, at the end of every episode, good behavior is reinforced, hard work is praised, and any engines who were engaging in unacceptable behavior apologize to each other (although they still retain rivalries). The Thomas universe is a simplified one, but one which retains the basic complexity of real life.