Monday, October 04, 2004

The psychology of Spongebob

If the children in your life watch cable TV, chances are that you know "who lives in a pineapple under the sea." When Spongebob Squarepants premiered on Nickelodeon in 1999, it was hailed for clever animation, wild humor, and smart cultural references. But Spongebob also visits psychological terrain, with more sophistication than most cartoon fare. Guilt, obsessions, histrionics, paranoia, rage, hallucinations - all may be found in the Spongebob oeuvre. Watch longer, as the characters bounce in and out of trouble, and themes emerge: Spongebob is about naivete, and the loss of naivete. It is about growing up, and the loss of illusions. It is about learning how to live in the world without the shelter of one's parents.

Spongebob is youthful, eager, fun-loving, and completely trusting. Each episode presents him with a lesson about the world. He finds fun and friendship, but he is also exploited. He meets rejection, or treachery, or cruelty. He finds failure or success, acclaim or ridicule; loss, or illness, or death. Sometimes the lesson is not learned, and he remains as blissfully naive as ever. When he does gain an insight, however, his knowledge is short-lived. In the next episode, the clock is always turned back; he starts afresh, and he is as naive as when we first met him. He repeats the cycle, like a cheerful Sisyphus, eager to push the boulder up the mountain again.

Parents are a distant presence in the cartoon. Moving back home with one's parents is to be regretted and resisted. His boss, Mr. Krabs, is a paternal figure who offers protection and advice. But the boss is so consumed by greed that his advice is often suspect. Friends, not family, play essential supporting roles. The lone, strong female character, the squirrel Sandy Cheeks, has brains, athletic prowess, and common sense. But she clearly descends from a distant world, quite mysterious to Spongebob. Older figures in the cartoon - except for Grandma - are portrayed in humorous but dismayingly unsentimental terms. Spongebob, true to form, romanticizes the wisdom of old age, even as the cartoon skewers it.

The centrality of boss and peers; the focus on independence and competence; the mystery of the opposite sex; the endless conflict between Spongebob's idealism and the world he encounters - these elements open a window to themes of older childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. When Spongebob's movie premieres this fall, I will be watching for the evolution of his character. Will his enthusiasm and idealism triumph? I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready to find out.

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