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Who Lives amid Censorship under the Sea? SpongeBob SquarePants

A child waves at characters from the television series SpongeBob SquarePants at Comic Con International in San Diego, Calif., July 17, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In recent years, we have seen an increasingly distressing trend in culture: Namely, once it is decided that certain things are “problematic” or flawed in some way, they are simply obliterated from history. It is a trend that has touched things large and small, from historical figures and events to Dr. Seuss books and significant films.

The latest victim of this worrying trend lives in a pineapple under the sea, absorbent and yellow and porous is he. That’s right: SpongeBob Squarepants, the title character of the long-running Nickelodeon children’s television show, for those of you who somehow managed to avoid ever hearing the theme song of this nigh-omnipresent piece of programming. But whether or not nautical nonsense be something you wish, you should be at least somewhat unsettled by the recent decision of Paramount+, the streaming service for SpongeBob episodes, and Amazon Prime to remove two episodes of the show from circulation.

According to IGN, the two episodes have a fig leaf of controversy that serves as the apparent justification for the decision. One of them, “Kwarantined Crab,” I have not seen (I stopped watching later episodes of the show for reasons I’ll explain below), but a Nickelodeon representative explained the yanking thus:

The ‘Kwarantined Crab’ [sic] centers on a virus storyline, so we have decided to not air it due to sensitivities surrounding the global, real-world pandemic.

This is an overreaction, and a mistargeted one. So what if some piece of pop culture produced before coronavirus happens to resemble the real world at the moment? This is the kind of overimposing sheltering of children that actually ill prepares them for adulthood, a la the recent obliteration of Pepe Le Pew. At any rate, it’s not like society has taken many other steps to insulate children from the consequences of coronavirus: Nationwide, many schools remain closed, without justification, reminding the children who should be attending them of the pandemic’s ongoing reality.

The other episode, “Mid-Life Crustacean,” I have seen. It involves Mr. Krabs, one of the show’s characters, having suddenly become conscious of his advancing age, seeking escape in youthful escapades with SpongeBob and Patrick Star, SpongeBob’s best friend forever. At one point, the characters take part in a “panty raid,” a search for feminine undergarments that unwittingly leads the trio to the house of Krabs’s mother. (“Why didn’t you tell me this was my mother’s house?” Krabs asks when his mother catches them in the act. “Why didn’t you ask?” SpongeBob meekly replies.) Watching this episode for the first time at about age ten, I thought little of it, though in hindsight, I clearly recognize it as the show’s creators pushing the envelope to see what they could get away with. Some of the show’s creative staff had experience of doing exactly that with The Ren & Stimpy Show and Rocko’s Modern Life, two earlier Nickelodeon shows that could at times be even more risqué than SpongeBob ever was. Even SpongeBob had, among other things, an entire episode in which SpongeBob and Patrick discover profanity (tastefully replaced with noises drawn from undersea life, in keeping with show’s aquatic themes). At any rate, the controversy over “Mid-Life Crustacean” is not new; in fact, the episode hasn’t been in circulation since 2018, according to IGN. But it’s still overblown.

It is disappointing to see SpongeBob treated in this way. Some may deride my fondness, as a 27-year-old, for a show clearly intended for children. But the show’s reputation and popularity are not unearned. The original run of episodes from 1999 to about 2004, including the first theatrical movie, were the kind of children’s programming we need more of: funny, clever, (mostly) wholesome, and (typically) well-written. The brainchild of marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg (R.I.P.), the show in its early run blended slapstick and silly humor meant for kids with tightly scripted situational comedy and surprisingly erudite allusions enjoyable for adults. (The best example of this: season one’s “SB-129,” a profound, time-spanning meditation on existence packed into an eleven-minute cartoon.) And adults noticed; 40 percent of the show’s audience in season two, at or near its quality peak, was in the 18-49 demographic.

What has happened in the years since is disappointing, as a change in staff and focus have led to SpongeBob becoming more and more like a typical kids’ show — or even worse than typical, at its nadirs. Some will say this is the nostalgic’s lament, but the decline in quality is obvious to me. The older episodes I watched faithfully and repeatedly never fail to amuse me, even now; the scattered instances of newer ones I have seen elicit barely a chuckle. So to see SpongeBob fall victim to the same lust for obliteration that we have seen elsewhere in culture is yet another thing for us fans of the show to be sad about. It is also a reminder that streaming services, while convenient, leave one at the mercy of those who control content. Certainly neither is cause to drop on the deck and flop like a fish.

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