Too often the viewing patrons of Sponge Bob Square Pants are quietly marginalized, particularly those in their mid-20s who would wake on Saturday afternoons and spend a significant portion of the remainder of the day watching episodes back to back.
What these denigrators of the classic cartoon are not aware of is how the viewer participates in social change even while he or she watches the series.
Every now and again an animated form of media appears which challenges everything we thought we knew. “The Simpsons” holds a mirror to United States culture. “South Park” functions as a bastion of conservativism using the irreverence typically associated with left-leaning satire. And “The Flintstones” defies the Darwinian dogma that tried to separate dinosaurs from humans.
This time, however, quiet and modest the Nickelodeon channel has brought forth another catalyst of cultural progress, the aforementioned Sponge Bob Square Pants.
The careful examiner will not fail to realize that this cartoon has all of the elements necessary for invigorating progress toward localism and racial reconciliation.
Here we must tread carefully; we must note in what way Sponge Bob Square Pants is not form of social change. The superficial observer might assume that Sponge Bob Square Pants represents racial reconciliation through diversity. It is true that the various characters are very diverse. Sponge Bob is a sponge. His best friend Patrick is a star fish. And his girlfriend Sandy is a squirrel who visits him under water with the help of a diving suit.
Yet, while the diversity in the show may make children less afraid to befriend someone whom society has dubbed Other, that is not the primary reason why Sponge Bob Square Pants as a show may hold one of the keys to racial reconciliation. Or rather, it is a reason which must be connected with another.
The truth lies in the nature of the show as portraying a local entity and community. As the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation notes, local living and organization is at the heart of being truly reconciled. Hence the true means of racial reconciliation and the life restoring localism itself is found in Bikini Bottom, the name of the town or geographic location under the sea where the primary characters live.
The community is a local one, and Sponge Bob knows his neighbors well. Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist and philosopher Wendell Berry would surely appreciate this cultural offering, Berry himself relishing in the local and the customary. Yes, Sponge Bob regularly interacts with them, one who is his best friend, and one, Squidward, who considers himself to be Sponge Bob’s rival. Those who know their neighbors may be more inclined to love them, even when our neighbors are our enemies, or our friends, regardless of the race.
Yet another way in which Sponge Bob manages to help secure positive social progress is by his taking on a low-paying job. He is willing to take on a menial task of flipping “Crabby Patties,” at a restaurant that is, again, local, thereby subverting the economic paradigm that says the race which is the center of attention necessarily will have the most prestigious jobs, and the highest pay. In the tradition of Dorothy Sayers, he has made his work his art. He is the dominant figure of the show, yet he does not seek to financially suppress the marginalized, rather he takes on the role of the least of these, the servant figure.
This, in combination of boundless optimism of the character of Sponge Bob, including his role of dignified servant, good neighbor and friend of the Other, all joined together with the diversity of the local community of Bikini Bottom make this cartoon character the ideal harbinger of peace among the races in our U.S. culture.
All the more reason to pin our hopes for racial peace and cultural rejuvenation on a television show with psychedelic flashing animation made by a former marine biologist, and thereby have less reason to demean those who regularly watch the show, or who might happen to catch a few episodes while his or her grade school sisters have the television turned on.