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The Politics of SpongeBob
by Gene C. Gerard
January 24, 2005

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Conservative Christian organizations have accused a children’s cartoon character, SpongeBob SquarePants, of being part of a secret agenda to promote homosexuality. The character appears in a music video, produced by the non-profit We Are Family Foundation, which was established following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to promote greater cultural understanding. The video, which is being distributed to 61,000 elementary schools, features SpongeBob, Winnie the Pooh, and other popular children’s characters. Although the video does not mention sexuality, the website of the foundation asks people to take a tolerance pledge by respecting those of different abilities, beliefs, culture, sexual identity, and race.

Ed Vitagliano, of the American Family Association, criticized the video by writing that, “A short step beneath the surface reveals that one of the differences being celebrated is homosexuality.” Dr. James Dobson, the founder of the ultra-conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family, spoke to members of Congress last week about SpongeBob, accusing the foundation of using the character to promote a “pro-homosexual video.” A spokesman for Focus on the Family, Paul Batura, said, “We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids.” Critics have based the accusations on the fact that the cartoon character is effeminate and occasionally holds hands with his starfish sidekick Patrick.

Of course, this is not the first time that conservatives have launched moral criticisms at the entertainment industry. In the fall of 1992, as the presidential campaign was heating up, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech in which he lamented that “Right now, the failure of our families is hurting America deeply. When families fall, society falls.” He went on to complain that “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown -- a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman -- mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice’.” At the time, the Bush/Quayle campaign was looking for a way to offset a 15 percent lead in the polls of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. It didn’t work. Many in the public responded negatively to Quayle’s criticism, and his approval ratings dropped precipitously in the following weeks.

During the 1996 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole was searching for a way to erase President Clinton’s ten percent lead in the fall polls. He gave a speech in Los Angeles characterized by his campaign as attacking Hollywood’s values. In the speech, he criticized “music extolling the pleasures of raping, torturing, and mutilating women” and accused the entertainment industry of “the mainstreaming of deviancy.” He ended the speech by accusing Hollywood executives of attempting to “debase our nation and threaten our children….” Although it was a giant news story the following day, and helped Dole solidify his conservative base, he failed to surge ahead in the polls, as his campaign had hoped.

Early in 1999, just three months after Congressional elections in which Republicans lost seats in the House of Representatives, which was widely viewed as declining public support for the Republican’s efforts to impeach President Clinton, evangelical minister Jerry Falwell accused Tinky Winky, a character on the popular children’s show Teletubbies, of promoting a homosexual agenda. In the National Liberty Journal, a publication of Falwell’s Liberty University, an article cited the fact that “He [Tinky Winky] is purple -- the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle -- the gay pride symbol.” The article also noted that the character carries a purse, although in the show it was referred to as a magic bag. Falwell was ridiculed and scorned after making the accusation, even by some Republicans.

Conservatives have yet again shifted from reality to fiction, in part, as a result of the prevailing political climate. Immediately after George W. Bush’s re-election in November, conservatives proudly claimed victory. They basked in the defeat of same-sex marriage ballots in all eleven states that held votes on the issue, and asserted that they had dealt a serious blow to the gay rights movement. However, in the two months since the election, various court decisions have undermined conservative positions. Montana’s Supreme Court recently ruled that the state’s public universities must provide health insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees. In Arkansas, a court ruled that the state’s child welfare agency could not restrict gays from becoming foster parents. And the Illinois legislature just passed a law prohibiting discrimination in jobs, credit, public accommodations, and housing based on sexual orientation.

The entertainment industry is such a prominent force in popular culture that it merits critique. But when conservatives direct moral criticisms against it, in part due to politics, it undermines the legitimate criticism that is not only important, but necessary. And history suggests that conservatives have repeatedly done so. If the Republicans loose Congressional elections in 2006, that purple dinosaur, Barney, may be in trouble.

Gene C. Gerard teaches American history at a college in suburban Dallas. He is a contributing author to the forthcoming book Americans at War, to be published by Greenwood Press. His articles have appeared in The Free Press, The Modern Tribune, The Daily Star (a leading English language Middle Eastern newspaper), The Palestine Chronicle, BuzzFlash.Com, and History News Network. He can be reached at:

* Related Article: SpongeBob GayPants? by Bill Berkowitz