According to a University of Washington professor, the children’s cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants is actually “infuse[d] . . . with racist, violent colonial practices.”
In a piece for The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs — titled “Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom”— Holly Barker claims that the fictional land of “Bikini Bottom” depicted in the cartoon is actually “appropriation of” the very real Bikini Atoll, which is a Marshall Islands coral reef that the U.S. military used for nuclear testing during the Cold War, displacing the indigenous people who lived there in order to do so.
According to a piece in Campus Reform, Barker is basically upset that the fictional characters of SpongeBob SquarePants (like a talking sponge named Spongebob and starfish named Patrick who wears boardshorts) were able to “occupy” the Bikini Bottom area whereas the indigenous people of Bikini Atoll do not.
“Although the U.S. government removed the people of Bikini from the atoll above the surface, this does not give license to SpongeBob or anyone else, fictitious or otherwise, to occupy Bikini,” Barker stated.
“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 continued.
Campus Reform reports that Barker also takes issue with the fact that “all of the main characters on the show are male.”
“The name ‘Bob’ represents the everyday man, a common American male, much like a ‘Joe,’” Barker observes, concluding that “our gaze into the world of Bikini Bottom, as well as the surface of Bikini, is thus filtered through the activities of men.”
Now, I must admit that I am completely ignorant when it comes to whether or not “Bikini Bottom” was actually based on Bikini Atoll. Campus Reform states that Barker herself believes that the show’s creators probably didn’t mean “to infuse a children’s show with racist, violent colonial practices” — which, honestly, makes her decision to write an entire academic article on it anyway especially interesting — but I did some research and found that Barker was actually not the first person to make this claim. First, I found similar claims made in a June 2018 piece in The Conversation. Then, I saw a Huffington Post interview with Tom Kenny (the voice of Spongebob himself!) in which he actually states that “Bikini Bottom is kind of named after Bikini Atoll.” I’m not sure what “kind of named after” means exactly, but it’s still enough for me to concede that there very likely is truth to the idea that that one may have been influenced by the other.
Here’s the thing, though: Before I saw the Campus Reform article, I had absolutely never considered it myself, and I don’t think that I’m alone in that. Rather, I’d guess that most of the people who, like me, grew up watching the talking, cackling sponge had never thought of it, either. Which is why I was confused by Barker’s claim that the show actually “shapes global perceptions of the actual place called Bikini.”
“The cartoon desensitizes viewers to the violence of settler colonialism, normalizes and erases the Bikinian people from their ancestral land, and whitewashes US military rampages on the islands in the history and narratives of Bikini.”
My question? Just how in the hell could all of this actually happen because of the show’s connection to Bikini Atoll, when pretty much no one actually even recognized that connection (if it does exist) in the first place?
Short answer? It can’t.
Make no mistake: What happened on Bikini Atoll was horrific. The United States threw people out of their homeland so we could nuke the hell out of it more than 20 times. That is completely something to be upset about; I will never argue otherwise.
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. 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. I mean, why spend all of that time shaming a cartoon, when you could be shaming the U.S. government? Why accuse a cartoon of some very dubious transgressions (like shaping “global perceptions”) when you could be accusing the U.S. government of credible ones? If anything, it makes the issue look like a joke. After all, when you go too far with accusations, it often makes people hesitant to listen to you talk about the issue at all.