To believe the headlines from conservative media last month, “SpongeBob SquarePants” is not the beloved children’s cartoon most of us think of.
Rather, “SpongeBob’ is a ‘violent,’ ‘racist’ colonizer, says University of Washington professor,” Fox News reported Oct. 12.
The United Kingdom comedy news website Chortle ran this headline (complete with British spellings): “Spongebob ‘is an apologist for military colonisation’.”
That article begins, “You might think Spongebob Squarepants as a friendly sea sponge who lives in a pineapple beneath the sea and loves blowing bubbles. But, in fact, he’s an apologist for colonialism, desensitising children to the military violence of occupation and the sexualisation of indigenous women.”
Is SpongeBob — which marks its 20th year this year — really a violent, racist, sexist colonizer?
Or is it, as the show’s theme song says, just animated “nautical nonsense” that makes delighted viewers “drop on the deck and flop like a fish”?
And why should we care?
To answer the third question, the article in question — “Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom” — was published in September by the University of Hawaii Press. So there is a Hawaii connection.
It raises the point of how the media and popular culture can “whitewash” the actions of the American military and effectively erase the histories of indigenous peoples — in this case, the people of the Marshall Islands and their continued suffering due to the U.S. nuclear testing of the 1940s and 1950s in the region.
The author, Holly Barker, is an anthropologist at the University of Washington who has done extensive work in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
While never stating directly that the creators of SpongeBob intended for the inhabitants of the fictional Bikini Bottom to represent characters mutated through exposure to radiation, she suggests that there are viewers — especially young Marshallese — who may well see it that way.
“Did SpongeBob’s creators intend to infuse a children’s show with racist, violent colonial practices?” Barker writes in her conclusion. “Perhaps not, but by taking place on Bikini Bottom, the cartoon becomes part of a broader, insidious practice of disappearing Indigenous communities and normalizing the nonsensical settling of a community where it does not belong.”
She continues: “We should be uncomfortable with a hamburger-loving American community’s occupation of Bikini’s lagoon and the ways that it erodes every aspect of sovereignty.”
Nonsense, say critics. It’s just a cartoon about a harmless square sponge and his buddies.
It’s a total stretch, they say, to tie Bikini Bottom to Bikini Atoll, the site of a 1954 detonation called Bravo that equaled 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
Katherine Timpf, a writer for the National Review, wrote in her Oct. 14 piece that what happened in the Marshalls was truly upsetting and remains so.
“The thing is, though, I actually think that the worst way to communicate that horror is by making sweeping, illogical claims about the impact of a Nickelodeon cartoon,” Timpf wrote. “If anything, focusing on a damn cartoon as being the thing that needs addressing on behalf of these people seems like it actually minimizes the very real atrocities that they have faced.”
She added: “I mean, why spend all of that time shaming a cartoon, when you could be shaming the U.S. government?”
Many in our audience appreciate the stories, but there are those who argue we give way too much attention to Micronesians. The detractors often let us know, and not always in a civil fashion.
The reaction to Barker’s article seems to have gone to a whole other level of outrage. While the news reports on Fox and in the Post and Examiner were respectful and factual — in spite of the clickbait nature of the headlines — Barker has received ugly threats for her article, prompting her and her supporters to post online statements defending the work.
Barker’s statement said that “certain media outlets have grossly oversimplified and mischaracterized” her research paper.
“My article does not say that the character of SpongeBob is violent or racist,” she said. “Instead, it asks readers to consider the way that the show’s creation of a fictional world in the non-fictional homelands of the Bikinians removes the U.S. history of violence on that atoll and the Marshallese people from our gaze.”
A statement from the Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, the Department Of American Indian Studies and the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art at UW said, “This article is an important piece of scholarship that addresses the impact of media representations, especially children’s cartoons, on systems of inequality.”
The statement adds: “While cartoons may seem harmless entertainment, extensive research has demonstrated the ways in which these representations shape policy and influence how people understand and engage with each other.”
Reached by email, Barker said she is reluctant to say more about her article “because of the tsunami of alt-right harassment that came with the publication of that piece.”
But Alexander Mawyer, editor of The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs, where Barker’s article appears, sided with UW “in condemning the harassment directed at Dr. Holly Barker and calling for more thoughtful engagements with her work.”
In an email to me, Mawyer — an associate professor at the UH Center for Pacific Islands Studies — wrote, “Dr. Barker’s scholarship contributes to a timely, significant conversation about the easily overlooked role of public and popular mass media in maintaining or supporting historical legacies of violence against colonial and formerly colonized peoples in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, across Oceania, and around the world.”
I don’t personally think SpongeBob is anything more than a children’s show.
I accept the widely reported information that creator Stephen Hillenburg, who died last year, was inspired by sea sponges. Hillenburg loved the ocean and wanted to get kids to love it too.
But I have no problem with Barker, who has written about this topic before, writing about SpongeBob as a way to shine a light on the awfulness of what happened in the Marshalls and to question how people consume popular culture and ignore or vastly misunderstand indigenous populations.
The SpongeBob controversy, however, illustrates how scholarly work can be easily distorted by the media and that distortion spread in lightning time.
The hard copy of the fall 2019 issue of The Contemporary Pacific was issued in late September. A few days later, on Oct. 3, it was posted online.
Only a week later the conservative website Campus Reform — it focuses on higher education — wrote about Barker’s article in detail. National Review was among those that picked up on the story and credited Campus Reform.
Mind you, an academic journal concerned about contemporary development in the Pacific would not seem to be on the radar of conservative media. To date I have seen no outlets reporting on other articles in the same fall issue as Barker’s piece, including ones about decolonization songs in West Papua, public health in Samoa and the diplomatic relationship between Tuvalu and Taiwan.
But in an era where the backlash against political correctness is at a furious peak, daring to question the wholesomeness of an anthropomorphic sea creature is apparently beyond the pale to some, it seems.
In the meantime, Bikini, the Marshalls and nuclear weapons remain serious matters, and topical:
The Marshalls (and the FSM and Palau) continue to matter, most of all to those who live there. We should care, too.
As Bikinian Alson Kelen said in the UW statement about Barker’s critics, “They are upset about a cartoon character they grew up with, we are upset about a life we lost.”
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