SARAH SMILEY

SpongeBob: He’s not so bad

Sarah Smiley
Bangor Daily News file photo by Kevin Bennett
Sarah Smiley
Posted Sept. 18, 2011, at 12:03 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 18, 2011, at 1:03 p.m.

Monday morning, while my children sat in the living room watching one of the 198 episodes of “SpongeBob SquarePants” we have saved on our DVR, I opened the newspaper and saw a report: “SpongeBob Squarepants” is bad for children. In particular, it is (reportedly) bad for 4-year-olds. It makes them inattentive and hyperactive. (And this is different from every other 4-year-old because …?)

As early as 8 a.m. that morning, Facebook was abuzz with mothers posting links to the article. “I knew SpongeBob was bad!” they wrote. Or, “I never let my kids watch that junk.”

Of course, the other side — the SpongeBob-tolerant side — was also represented on Facebook: “So long as my kids don’t act like Patrick …” wrote one mother. And my status update: “My kids are DOOMED!”

When I first saw the report — flawed not in the least because (1) 4-year-olds are not the intended audience of “SpongeBob Squarepants,” as noted by its creators; and (2) the study only examined 60, yes, 60, children — I stopped mid-bite, a spoonfull of cereal hovering over the newspaper, and considered my relationship with SpongeBob.

I first became aware of the cartoon on Ford’s second birthday. One of Dustin’s friends gave Ford a stuffed SpongeBob, and it seemed hideous. Why would I let my child watch this tacky, nearly fluorescent yellow character, which is shaped more like a kitchen sponge than an underwater one? I wondered.

Four years passed. Ford was in kindergarten, and Owen was 4. I was speaking at a military-spouse event in Georgia, and while I was gone, Dustin let the boys order a movie from the hotel’s television menu. In the absence of many kid-friendly choices, the boys reluctantly chose the first SpongeBob Squarepants feature movie. They didn’t really know SpongeBob; they weren’t sure they’d like it. Neither was Dustin. Yet, when I came back to the hotel, all three attacked me: “Mom, you’ve got to see this!”

“Really, Sarah, this stuff is pretty funny.”

Apparently, I had judged SpongeBob by his cover, if you will, because Dustin and the boys were right. It’s a sophisticated kind of humor, full of irony and double meanings. It’s like “Saturday Night Live” skits for kids: Humor comes from the absurd, measured against your own understanding of culture and current events.

I was surprised — and quite pleased — that my young children seemed to “get” SpongeBob’s humor. One of our first favorite lines, repeated often, was: “Come on, Squidward was always there for us when it was convenient for him.”

Oh sure, SpongeBob occasionally has an episode with technically inappropriate language. But the “Idiot Box” is funny because it’s inappropriate. My children know that. And sure, SpongeBob rips his pants while he’s trying to act cool and make people laugh, but humor comes from feeling embarrassment over every time we’ve ripped our pants or otherwise were caught trying to be something we’re not.

And I challenge anyone to find other cartoons with such clever, deeply layered writing. When you begin to believe that a snail named Gary who only “meows” has a personality of his own, you know there’s some serious character development going on. Some of the most creative conversations I’ve had with my children involve dissecting the humor and character development in the script of SpongeBob. For instance, for all the nonsensical things on SpongeBob that require us to momentarily suspend our disbelief (fish that drive motorcycles, a crab that counts money), the creators have held firm in this: a squirrel (Sandy) cannot breathe underwater. She has to wear an oxygen tank. That’s funny!

The new study says kids are distracted and not creative after watching SpongeBob. Some of the things my kids have done after watching an episode include: writing their own SpongeBob SquarePants script, making puppets and filming their own cartoon and writing a book about SpongeBob.

A few years after our family embraced SpongeBob, Lindell was born. He crawled around the living room, a bottle hanging from his mouth, while his brothers sang the familiar theme song. Within a few months, Lindell started babbling. “Bop bop bish,” he said, and we all wondered what he meant.

“What’s he saying? Is he trying to talk?”

And then, all at once, I knew: Lindell was trying to say SpongeBob Squarepants.

Yes, my third son’s first word was SpongeBob. And I’m OK with that. It could be worse. I look forward to reading his first SpongeBob script.

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