“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”
You know you know the answer. It’s SpongeBob SquarePants, the iconic cartoon character loved by kids and adults alike, who on Friday turned 20 years old.
The animated sponge spends his days getting into wacky adventures along with his buddies Patrick Starfish, Squidward Tentacles, and Mr. Krabs. And without speaking down to children, the lovable, absorbent square doles out some life lessons along the way.
But a University of Washington professor thinks SpongeBob is violent and racist.
Holly M. Barker has penned a piece titled, “Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom.”
“Billions of people around the globe are well-acquainted with SpongeBob Squarepants and the antics of the title character and his friends on Bikini Bottom. By the same token, there is an absence of public discourse about the whitewashing of violent American military activities through SpongeBob’s occupation and reclaiming of the bottom of Bikini Atoll’s lagoon. SpongeBob Squarepants and his friends play a role in normalizing the settler colonial takings of Indigenous lands while erasing the ancestral Bikinian people from their nonfictional homeland,” reads the abstract for Barker’s piece.
Barker’s abstract asserts that SpongeBob has colonized Bikini Bottom — the underwater home to the lovable characters — and claims the cartoon is “whitewashing” the “violent American military activities” against natives on Pacific islands, specifically the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, used by the U.S. military for nuclear testing:
This article exposes the complicity of popular culture in maintaining American military hegemonies in Oceania while amplifying the enduring indigeneity (Kauanui 2016) of the Marshallese people, who maintain deeply spiritual and historical connections to land — even land they cannot occupy due to residual radiation contamination from US nuclear weapons testing — through a range of cultural practices, including language, song, and weaving. This article also considers the gendered violence of nuclear colonialism and the resilience of Marshallese women.
The Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable, and some conspiracy theorists claim the cast of SpongeBob SquarePants were mutated by the testing.
Barker declares that as an “American character” allowed to live there, SpongeBob showed his privilege of “not caring about the detonation of nuclear bombs.”
“SpongeBob’s presence on Bikini Bottom continues the violent and racist expulsion of Indigenous peoples from their lands (and in this case their cosmos) that enables U.S. hegemonic powers to extend their military and colonial interests in the postwar era,” she wrote.
Barker even rips the theme song, saying it denounces Bikini Bottom as full of “nautical nonsense.”
“The song’s directives, ensconced in humor, provide the viewer with an active role in defining Bikini Bottom as a place of nonsense, as the audience is instructed ‘If nautical nonsense be something you wish… drop on the deck and flop like a fish,’ ” she wrote.
Barker says the children’s show is full of gender bias as well, writing, “all of the main characters on the show are male.” Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel that lives underwater with the aid of an old-fashioned diving suit, is, of course, a female, but Barker says she’s just a token.
In conclusion, Barker writes, “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.”
Nautical nonsense, indeed.