By Jacob Pardo (’23)
Since its debut in 1999, Stephen Hillenburg’s SpongeBob SquarePants has been a cornerstone of popular culture and a source of many iconic television characters. For at least two generations, children have been tuning in to watch the adventures of SpongeBob, enamored by his misadventures in jellyfishing, boating school, and the Krusty Krab. However, this seemingly innocent children’s cartoon holds a dark secret: an implicit message to uphold the status quo and eagerly subject yourself to the oppression of the ruling class. By watching SpongeBob, children are being conditioned to fill the role of the ideal proletariat (SpongeBob) while happily submitting to the authority of the bourgeoisie (Mr. Krabs).
There is no question that SpongeBob is represented as the “ideal worker” — what Karl Marx described in Das Kapital as “a working-class, which by education, tradition, and habit, looks upon the conditions of that [capitalist] mode of production as self-evident laws of nature” (Marx 809). Labor is certainly in SpongeBob’s nature; he works at inhuman efficiency, winning “employee of the month” every month, coming into work after close for extra maintenance, volunteering for unpaid overtime, and making his job a core aspect of his identity. After tying his shoes during work hours, he even volunteers to pay Mr. Krabs back for the loss of labor (“Squid on Strike” 1:43). Like any good worker, SpongeBob searches for self-actualization through labor — however, unlike real-world workers, SpongeBob actually finds it. SpongeBob represents the idealized laborer because he cherishes his own exploitation, and revels in the chance to create capital for the ruling class.
In contrast to SpongeBob, Squidward represents a dissatisfied laborer, one who is privy to his exploitation and attempting to change the status quo. He is depicted as the stereotypical left-wing intellectual: a bohemian with a lazy, snobbish demeanor, over-educated and out of touch with the general public. He is presented as the example of what not to become; in the words of the show, “No employee wants to be a ‘Squidward’” (“Krusty Krab Training Video” 5:35) Squidward’s leftist views are confronted head-on in “Squid on Strike,” in which he attempts to organize labor to protest for better working conditions. In his own words, “The gentle laborer shall no longer suffer from the noxious greed of Mr. Krabs… We will dismantle oppression board by board!” (“Squid on Strike” 6:30). Unsurprisingly, the show depicts the strike as a useless endeavor; in order for the ideological brainwashing to succeed, children must be convinced that class solidarity does not accomplish anything. In fact, the strike worsens the conditions of SpongeBob and Squidward, who are made to work without pay to make up for the Krusty Krab’s expenses. Upon hearing this, the ever-dutiful SpongeBob proclaims, “Yahoo, the strike worked, Squidward!” (“Squid on Strike” 11:30). To the bourgeoisie, Squidward is dangerous because he represents the threat of the proletariat achieving class consciousness. In order to combat this, the show paints him as unappealing and unsuccessful, convincing children before they fully understand his words that they do not want to become ‘a Squidward.’
If SpongeBob and Squidward are laborers, then Mr. Krabs is the benevolent job creator, an entrepreneur who became successful through rugged individualism and who is only hindered by government oversight. Of course, this figure is just as mythical as the hyper-efficient laborer depicted in SpongeBob — however, this is a myth that we are conditioned to believe in from birth. At face value, Mr. Krabs contributes almost nothing to his own business; while he owns the property and means of production, it is SpongeBob who produces the entirety of the Krusty Krab’s capital, with Mr. Krabs acting as little more than a leech on SpongeBob’s productivity. In a sense, this is the role of all capitalist business owners; therefore, the way children are taught to see Mr. Krabs will shape the way they view their own role in the workplace. While Squidward is awake to Mr. Krab’s exploitation, SpongeBob is not; in fact, he reveres his boss, almost deifying him in his sycophancy. SpongeBob even forgives Mr. Krabs after Krabs sells his soul for sixty-two cents (a nod to the personal value of the working class) (“Born Again Krabs” 11:00). This is why it is so important for the show to present SpongeBob as a model character, and Squidward as an example of what not to become; by putting themselves in SpongeBob’s shoes, children begin to believe in the inherent superiority of the ruling class. SpongeBob utilizes the Social Darwinist arguments of Carnegie and Rockefeller to justify Mr. Krabs’ obscene wealth, teaching kids to accept circular logic: the wealthiest of society are the fittest; Mr. Krabs is wealthy; therefore he is fit. Once children accept this, there is little they can do to oppose the authority of the ruling class.
SpongeBob SquarePants is a piece of filthy capitalist propaganda, which grooms children to submit to their oppression and uphold the authority of the ruling class. This is shown in the show’s model laborer, SpongeBob: an ultra-efficient worker, SpongeBob happily submits to the unfair conditions of his job and views his own exploitation as a core component of his identity. His foil is Squidward, a leftist intellectual who is depicted as snobbish, lazy, and egotistical; although Squidward attempts to organize labor to fight for better working conditions, he is far too out of touch and ineffectual to make any meaningful difference. The character of Squidward is imperative to the show’s pro-capitalist message, as he depicts class consciousness as unappealing and unfulfilling — before children can fully understand his argument, they are turned against it. Accordingly, they are taught to root for Mr. Krabs — a man who, despite leeching off SpongeBob’s productivity, is revered by the model laborer. By being put in SpongeBob’s shoes, children are encouraged to deify Mr. Krabs alongside him, being encouraged to view members of the ruling class as inherently more “fit” to control obscene amounts of wealth and power. It is possible that children who grew up watching SpongeBob may never achieve class consciousness, simply viewing labor as their natural place and the ruling class as unimpeachable god-kings who are ordained from birth to control wealth. However, I believe that the young generations can come to realize their own indoctrination — to realize that, after all, they really do want to be ‘a Squidward.’
“Born Again Krabs.” SpongeBob SquarePants, created by Stephen Hillenburg, season 3, episode 56a, Nickelodeon Animation Studios, 2002.
“Krusty Krab Training Video.” SpongeBob SquarePants, created by Stephen Hillenburg, season 3, episode 50b, Nickelodeon Animation Studios, 2002.
Marx, Karl. Capital: The Process of Capitalist Production. C. H. Kerr, 1906.
“Squid on Strike.” SpongeBob SquarePants, created by Stephen Hillenburg, season 2, episode 40a, Nickelodeon Animation Studios, 2001.