Saturday, January 22, 2005

Fear, Punditry...and Spongebob

I admit it: I love Spongebob. As the parent of a young child, this is one of the few shows I'll let her see. I never analyzed why I adored Spongebob so much, not until right wing Christian groups attacked the cartoon series as promoting a homosexual agenda. That got me watching some of the Spongebob episodes I have on DVD, at which point I discovered the true, devious undercurrent of Spongebob that makes the far right shake in its boots: a liberal.

Being a liberal, I don't make that charge lightly. But let me describe one episode of Spongebob, entitled "Squirrel Jokes", and you'll see what I mean.

In "Squirrel Jokes", Spongebob is a wanna-be stand-up comedian, who saves his act from completely failing onstage by making fun of Sandy, the one-and-only squirrel who lives under the sea in Bikini Bottom. She wears a space suit-type contraption and lives in the Tree Dome, and...well, heck, it's just a cartoon! She just lives under the sea. Moving on...

Sandy tries to tell Spongebob that his jokes are hurtful, but his ambition to be a loved, stand-up comedian gets the better of him for most of the episode. There's one scene where he literally has to make a choice between his friend and his career, and against the backdrop of the cheering crowd demanding more "squirrel jokes", he chooses his career. Sandy doesn't give up on him, however, and shows him how damaging his stereotypes really are. Spongebob then changes his act to poke fun at all of the sea creatures, not just Sandy, the outsider.

Ethically speaking, there's a lot going on in this episode. First, the obvious thrust of the cartoon is the harm that can be caused by telling stereotypical jokes about people, even if you're only trying to get a laugh. This is a very important message, and one that young children - and even some adults - need to hear. But what really got to me after viewing this episode again was the second message: even if the "marketplace of ideas" wants you to engage in stereotyping, and even if you'll get honors and accolades for doing so, you shouldn't.

Think about this second point. What do Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and all of the radical right-wing talk show host punditry have in common? They love to single out groups of people for ridicule: the liberals, who they love to label "members of the hate America first club"; the poor, because somehow they deserve to be poor; and illegal immigrants because of course, they will be more prone to commit violent crimes. Michelle Malkin loved pointing this out recently in her blog - the emphasis is her own:

"News from my neighborhood...

A 37-year-old man was charged with the rape of a Montgomery County[, Md.] teenager and is a suspect in a rash of other attacks on women over the past two years, authorities said yesterday.

Jorge A. Rivera-Aleman, who prosecutors said lived in a room on Kodiak Drive in Silver Spring for the past two months, was charged Monday with first-degree rape and burglary for allegedly attacking a 13-year-old girl from Colesville after she came home from school in November. In two separate cases, Rivera-Aleman was charged with first-degree burglary and attempted burglary of two homes in the White Oak area of Silver Spring in the past week.

Authorities said DNA samples from Rivera-Aleman will be tested for a link to at least four other attacks against women and teenage girls since March 2003. The wave of attacks prompted police to form a task force and school officials to warn parents to be vigilant...

Authorities said Rivera-Aleman, a native of El Salvador, was living in the United States illegally but did not say how long he had been in Maryland or whether he had a job.

Just raping the women and girls no one else will rape, right?"

Now, line up the actions of Spongebob, who was willing to find a way to make a name for himself in the "marketplace of ideas" without pandering to the worst instincts of his audience, and place them against the likes of Maulkin, who sells the reinforcement of racist stereotypes to the "marketplace of ideas". Who acts more responsibly in the face of fame and fortune? Who puts the well-being of other people before their own need to advance their careers?

No wonder the far right wants to shut Spongebob down. He redefines what the "culture wars" are all about: tolerance, compassion and understanding of those who are different from you, even if that means giving up something you love in the process. These are certainly not traits the far right wants their children to learn, because if they did it would mean questioning their parents' values and their need to stigmatize the "other". Without that dynamic, the far right has precious else to base their movement on.

Spongebob is certainly a threat to the likes of Dobson, because with an annoying giggle and a catchy tune he can take down their entire movement. Those of us on the left would do well to learn from him.

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Toad734 said...

Maybe that’s why the Coulters and Limbaugh’s, are the way they are, their parents were probably the ones hosing down civil rights demonstrators in the sixties and they just don’t want to admit that their parents were wrong. The Anti-American label that they try to use for these people is just for the headlines, it would be like me calling them right wing bomb throwing abortion clinic terrorists. It diverts the real issues into a sound bite.

At 3:29 PM, Blogger grannyhelen said...

As my parents are committed wingers, I don't want to discuss anyone else's (talk about throwing rocks in glass houses)! There could be many reasons for the wingnut talking head dynamic...all I know is it's wrong.

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