I have just spent a weekend talking about SpongeBob Squarepants. Was that in my plans for the weekend? No. Would I really have chosen to do that except for the conversation being driven by other people’s near hysteria? No. I have to admit that I have been prejudiced against SpongeBob. I’m always suspicious of an abundance of enthusiasm for any cultural icon. But now that he is being maligned publicly, I feel I owe it to him to look below the surface of the ocean. Though I had virtually no direct exposure to SpongeBob, I started to check him out.
A friend whose opinion I trust wrote: “He is a hard worker at the Krusty Krab and cares about every last creature in Bikini Bottom. He has a huge heart, and it is usually his innocence that gets him into trouble. The humor largely derives from his naivete.” Hey, I could have a relationship with a guy (or gal) like this! She also wrote: “SpongeBob is a dear little sponge who, like Charlie Brown, just tries to deal with whatever life sends his way.” Well, I can identify with that these days. After all, why am I even talking about him? How did my life suddenly become absorbed by SpongeBob? While I was boycotting the inauguration, some self-proclaimed guardian of family values had the audacity to cast aspersions on SpongeBob’s sexuality (later on I discovered it was James Dobson of Focus on the Family). Most of us thought SpongeBob was just a sponge, and who remembers from biology how sponges reproduce anyway? As my friend-expert writes: “If talking in a high-pitched pinchy voice and being compassionate and emotional (he is always soaking up his own tears and wringing himself out) makes him gay, then so be it.” Sounds to me like we should all be more like him, especially more sensitive and caring for others. It also sounds like he has a good work ethic, which “family values” police usually applaud. But it turns out, SpongeBob is just a drop in the ocean. He was selected to be included in a video which aspires to “celebrate our common humanity and the vision of a global family,” according to Nile Rogers of the We Are Family Foundation (WAFF) sponsoring this video (WAFF was formed following the tragedy of September 11, 2001). Meanwhile, SpongeBob was the one picked on and targeted in a long list of reputable cartoon characters and children’s TV shows (like Bob the Builder, Arthur, Dora the Explorer, Madeleine, Winnie the Pooh, and Sesame Street), in an attempt to discredit this video production and its airing simultaneously on Disney, Nickelodeon and PBS, March 11, 2005. 61,000 copies will also be sent free to public and private elementary schools across the nation with a teacher’s guide printed by the Anti-Defamation League. The deeper issue is children’s programming, and how it’s used to educate our children. What messages do we want them to hear? Even if we’re not parents or family of young children right now (though we have council members and constituents who are), don’t we have a stake in how this next generation is being raised? And then, it’s only another step to the issue of how media influences us all, picking and choosing what we will hear and see and consequently “know.” I believe that those of us who are trans, bi, lesbian, gay-identified and/or of racial or ethnic minorities or differently-abled have a large investment in what is being portrayed. What can we do? Monitor this as you would any other issue important to you. Don’t take someone else’s word for what’s going on. Support the producers and channels based on principle, advising them what your principles are. Like acceptance of cultural diversity. Support for tolerance of differences, including sexual identification and gender expression. Support for different spiritual and religious views (Remember when the Pocahontas movie was chastised for being a hot bed of spiritualism?). Or any other values that are important to you. Then, watch the video when it airs; evaluate it for yourself. Give the stations and producers feedback following your viewing. Stretch beyond your normal day-to-day routine. I watched five episodes of SpongeBob yesterday afternoon (and two more videotapes to go), and I don’t even watch TV! Today I was laughing about the show with other SpongeBob fans. I did read with amusement one criticism of the video by Peter Sprigg, senior director of policy studies of the Washington-based Family Research Council: “It becomes clear that a part of the agenda [of the video] is to change the definition of family to include virtually anyone who chooses to be called a family, including homosexual couples and homosexual couples raising children….” As if full inclusion and allowing everyone to claim who they are and who they love is to be feared and avoided at all costs! Just as some of our churches want to exclude those of lgbt-identity who want “in” — at a time when most mainline denominations are losing members! It’s absurd; and yet it is a serious matter when the political and religious right tries to define “family” and “marriage” and other institutions from their perspective only. I also believe that all of this takes up our time and energy disproportionately. Is this a deliberate diversionary tactic on the part of these conservative forces? While we’re responding to the conservatives accusing SpongeBob of pushing the “gay agenda,” what are we not tuning into? What’s going on in Iraq or the Middle East or South Asia where the tsunami hit? What about poverty in Appalachia and many, many other places in the US as well as around the world? What about unemployment everywhere in the US when our economy is supposedly improving? What about necessary reforms in our educational system and lack of sufficient funding? What about our health care system, rising health care costs, or social security? Today the New York Times reported that a coalition of major conservative Christian groups that includes Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and the Family Research Council is threatening to not support President Bush’s plans to “remake” Social Security unless he again pushes for a constitutional amendment to ban same-gender marriage. This controversy isn’t about SpongeBob and his allegedly being gay. This is about power and privilege and a lack of separation of church and state. James Dobson and Focus on the Family and other like-minded groups threaten to drown us in a tidal wave of injustice. I urge you to dive beneath the surface, and soak up the ocean of love and truth, like hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. I have faith that God will give us the strength to swim against the tide, day by day. And who knows, maybe we’ll even meet SpongeBob!