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Hands Off SpongeBob!

by on January 21, 2005

First they came for the Teletubbies and I did nothing, because I hate mewling horribles who live in Orwellian romper rooms. But then they came for SpongeBob SquarePants. Now it’s time to march.

That’s the reaction a lot of people–not all of them cartoon fans–seem to have had when The New York Times on Thursday reported that James Dobson had criticized Nickelodeon’s cheerful yellow sponge for appearing in a video promoting tolerance. The problem, apparently, is that the kind of tolerance being promoted would extend to (among others) people who are gay.

Image on the video now being criticized.

We reported, too, when the reported started earlier this month.

And on Thursday we duly carried a attacks to the Times article (registration required; here is a hassle-free copy).

So I’m not exactly surprised to see this break out into the wider world. While posting the earlier articles I could be heard silently muttering to myself: “3… 2… 1… Make controversy go now!” Complaints that cartoons are corrupting our kids are about as bewhiskered as the here. This kind of hysteria makes me very tired, both because it’s very silly and also very old.

At the same time, let’s remember that it’s The New York Times we’re dealing with. These days it helps to have an advanced degree in Kremlinology while perusing their articles.

Look at the Times opening grafs:

On the heels of electoral victories to bar same-sex marriage, some influential conservative Christian groups are turning their attention to a new target: SpongeBob SquarePants.

“Does anybody here know SpongeBob?” James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, asked the guests Tuesday night at a black-tie dinner for members of Congress and political allies to celebrate the election results.

In many circles, SpongeBob needs no introduction. He is popular among children and grownups as well who watch him cavorting under the sea on the Nickelodeon cartoon program that bears his name. In addition, he has become a camp figure among adult gay men, perhaps because he holds hands with his animated sidekick Patrick.

Now, Dobson said, SpongeBob’s creators had enlisted him in a “pro-homosexual video,” in which he appeared alongside other children’s television characters such as Barney and Jimmy Neutron, among many others.

Compare it with this Bugs Bunny in a dress gag from Reuters:

Christian Conservative groups have issued a gay alert warning over a children’s video starring SpongeBob SquarePants, Barney and a host of other cartoon favorites.

The wacky square yellow SpongeBob is one of the stars of a music video due to be sent to 61,000 U.S. schools in March. The makers — the nonprofit We Are Family Foundation — say the video is designed to encourage tolerance and diversity.

But at least two Christian activist groups say the innocent cartoon characters are being exploited to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.

Notice the difference?

The Times: Several conservative Christian groups are criticizing SpongeBob SquarePants for appearing in a video that they claim promotes homosexuality. (Those are the words of our reporter Ace the Bathound.)

Reuters: Christian groups are criticizing a video that exploits cartoon characters to advance a pro-gay agenda.

As Reuters describes it, Christian groups are attacking a video; the various cartoon characters and entertainers who appear in it are being criticized indirectly (if at all) for lending themselves to an agenda that these critics deplore. As the Times describes it, though, these groups are specifically attacking SpongeBob. And by sticking in an early and gratuitous reference to SpongeBob’s popularity with gay men (a point utterly irrelevant to a story about the video), the Times creates the impression that Dobson is attacking SpongeBob for being a gay icon. No wonder a casual reader comes away with the impression that Dobson is attacking SpongeBob for being gay.

In fact, if you read the Times article carefully you’ll see that it adds nothing to the story carried by WorldNetDaily two weeks ago, except for some innuendo about a popular cartoon character. (Reuters’ more pellucid summary makes clear that the story hasn’t advanced in the last two weeks.) Of course, I don’t know for sure: maybe Dobson went off on an anti-gay tirade in which he mocked SpongeBob for his cheerfulness, his tendency to skip and sing, and his fondness for holding hands with his best friend Patrick. But if so, why is the only Dobson quote in the Times the colorless “Does anybody here know SpongeBob?”

I’m not interested in the “gay” angle to SpongeBob, and as an editor and reporter on this site I have no interest in gay marriage, gay rights or any of the other social controversies that so exercise Dobson. I think Dobson and his allies are very foolish to treat what sounds like a bland grammar-school video as a threat to American values; I think it is execrable that he should try piggybacking his social agenda onto innocent cartoon characters and their innocent creators.

But the Times, intentionally or not, appears to be guilty of the same thing. Deliberately or not, it appears to have twisted Dobson’s position and imputed to him (without evidence) an argument he does not seem to have made. And in making SpongeBob sound like a martyr, it appears to be trying to piggyback a rival agenda onto his very thin shoulders: Save SpongeBob from the bluenoses!

Cartoons don’t deserve this. SpongeBob doesn’t deserve this. And SpongeBob’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, certainly doesn’t deserve to have his creation kidnapped and turned into a giant puppet in some freak protest parade, no matter what its cause.

To Dobson and the Times I’ve a simple message: Get your hands out of SpongeBob’s square pants.

Update: Dobson’s organization has released a statement on the controversy.

More: The “We Are Family” video can be viewed online statement at the We Are Family Foundation website. SpongeBob appears in only a very few shots, and the shots used are clearly stock footage from the television series.

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