The Lasting Legacy of SpongeBob SquarePants

by Jackie Sizemore, Originally published on Crixeo (magazine no longer in business)

SpongeBob has been sharing his childlike outlook on life since 1999, and with a third movie coming in 2020, the famous sponge won’t be stopping anytime soon.


As a millennial, SpongeBob SquarePants has been around my entire childhood and adulthood. I spent many evenings watching SpongeBob reruns while babysitting the kids in my neighborhood, watching their faces light up when SpongeBob outsmarted Plankton’s latest scheme. It seemed like no matter how many times they saw the same episode, they could still find something new to giggle at. Throughout high school, SpongeBob became more of a symbol, and I watched him show up on peers clothes, backpacks, and cars.


Caption: SpongeBob SquarePants / Nickelodeon


SpongeBob has been living it up in his pineapple under the sea home in Bikini Bottom as a Nickelodeon Animation Studios show. SpongeBob SquarePants is a lovable sponge whose greatest joys in life are going on adventures with his best friend, Patrick, and making the perfect Krabby Patty at his burger-flipping job. Like any good main character, SpongeBob is always getting into messes, ruining the town, destroying his house, or annoying his character foil, the clarinet-playing, often depressed Squidward. But no matter how big Spongebob’s freak-outs get or how hard villainous Plankton tries to steal the super-secret Krabby Patty formula, SpongeBob can always find something to laugh about– even if he is the only one finding humor in the situation.


The show of nautical nonsense has won 9 Primetime Emmy Awards as well as many other awards for voice acting, producing, and songs. At Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, the show has won “Favorite Cartoon” for the past 10 years in a row. SpongeBob SquarePants has a connection to another popular animated series as voice actor Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob and SpongeBob’s pet snail, Gary, also voices Adventure Time’s Ice King and other characters. Celebrities such as David Bowie, Robin Williams, Gene Simmons, Amy Sedaris, and Jon Hamm have also lent their voice talents to the SpongeBob SquarePants for minor characters.


Before the popular Broadway musical adaptation featuring an actor screaming while running around in a full-sized Krabby Patty costume, SpongeBob had two movies. The first was The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) featuring a South Park inspired poster that declared, “Bigger. Better. More Absorbent.” Then, in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015), the Krabby Patty formula has been stolen leaving SpongeBob and friends to go onshore to battle the pirate owner of “Beard Burgers”. In this movie, the underwater squirrel scientist Sandy Cheeks is transformed into a regular, non-clothes wearing fox squirrel. The third movie’s release date has been delayed until July 31, 2020, but the movie’s title, It’s a Wonderful Sponge seems like a promising start.

The show’s theme song has also stood the test of time, as campy and corny as ever. Fans of the show of all ages are known to happily sing along to the framed picture of the pirate Captain asking, “Are you ready kids?” (“Aye, aye, Captain!”) From the moment each episode begins, viewers are encouraged to be a part of the experience and be onboard with the silliness of Bikini Bottom. Though SpongeBob and the show’s animation have seen some upgrades in detail and color since the first episode in 1999, the core of the show remains the same. The newer seasons feature brighter color palettes in both background and characters, along with a greater frequency of exaggerated facial expressions.


As with many great animated series, SpongeBob thrives with jokes and storylines that work for kids and adults, where younger children may not pick up on all of the meta-references or dark humor. However, SpongeBob SquarePants hasn’t been on air for 19 years without some controversies.


Certain SpongeBob episodes have been banned in different countries over the years. The United Kingdom and Australia banned Season 2’s “Shanghaied/Gary Takes a Bath” because Squidward’s surreal nightmare in “Shanghaied” was too scary for children’s TV. “Gary Takes a Bath” follows SpongeBob’s saga of trying to get a reluctant, cat-like Gary to take a bath. After trying a variety of tricks and pleading, an exasperated SpongeBob tries to convince Gary that there is a pirate treasure hidden in the bathtub and calls the bars of soap “doubloons”. As part of this joke, SpongeBob warns Gary “not to drop them,” referencing the common but offensive euphemism for unwanted sexual contact in prisons. While this joke would likely have gone over the heads of kids, it still earned the show a ban in these countries.


In 2011, SpongeBob SquarePants faced heavy backlash after the “SpongeBob, You’re Fired!” episode aired where SpongeBob was fired from the Krusty Krab after 15 years. Within days of not having a job, SpongeBob is clearly not himself, and is portrayed like a beggar. Patrick reassures him that “glorious unemployment” can be great and will be filled with free stuff. In the U.S., some critics felt that the episode devalued the worth of social services like unemployment funds and access to free meals for those in need. Others argued that SpongeBob’s firing so that Mr. Krabs could save one nickel was an attack on labor laws. In response, Nickelodeon’s President of Content, Development and Production at the time stated that, “…despite this momentary setback, SpongeBob’s eternal optimism prevails, which is always a great message for everyone.” Conservative media like Fox & Friends chimed in saying, “The harsh economic climate has hit the underwater community … but instead of mooching off social services at Bikini Bottom… SpongeBob sets out to return to the work force.” However, the implication that all one needs is optimism and a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude fails to include the many reasons that a person may need, or be stuck in, dire circumstances like unemployment.



Caption: SpongeBob SquarePants / Nickelodeon


Rumors and interpretations of SpongeBob and Patrick’s friendship being a romantic gay relationship have also led to calls for bans. The Ukraine’s National Expert Commission for Protecting Public Morality claimed that the show promoted homosexuality because of SpongeBob and Patrick holding hands. In 2002, SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg stated that he always thought of SpongeBob as being “asexual.” Regardless of the official status of SpongeBob and Patrick’s affectionate relationship, the show certainly takes opportunities to push against gender norms and expectations. From smaller things like SpongeBob’s affinity for dressing up in different costumes to episodes like Season 3’s “Rock-A-Bye-Bivalve” where SpongeBob and Patrick adopt an abandoned clam and debate over who should be the mom and who should be the dad. The argument ends with Patrick yelling to “just call me daddy!” and SpongeBob resolving to wearing a colorful dress. Their new family relationship quickly disintegrates into the common tropes of an exhausted stay-at-home mother (complete with SpongeBob sprouting extra hands to multitask clean) and an overworked father. SpongeBob pleads for a break with Patrick continuing to promise it “tomorrow,” until SpongeBob’s reveal of a literal mountain of dirty diapers shows Patrick the error of his ways, poking fun at the unrealistic standards we hold for nuclear families.

Caption: SpongeBob SquarePants / Nickelodeon


Sometimes controversy makes for a great meme. Take season 2’s episode “Your Shoes Untied” where SpongeBob is watching a pink coral dance until his pet snail Gary comes into the room. SpongeBob panics and changes the channel to a football game and tells Gary he was “just looking for the sports channel.” This moment turned into a meme in the early 2000’s, with fans editing what SpongeBob is “caught” watching.


The prevalence of SpongeBob memes is astounding considering that the show is neither new nor unpredictable. Perhaps these qualities create a comfort zone for the creativity of memes where SpongeBob or any of his co-star characters can provide the perfect reaction for how we are feeling. Classics like the “No, this is Patrick” meme have been remixed and recycled, and according to a 2018 timeline of SpongeBob memes, we are currently in the aftermath of “Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket” and “Savage Patrick”. Most of the memes created have little to do with the episode they are pulled from, but perhaps the tendency for SpongeBob and friends to have exaggerated facial expressions and reactions combined with the oddity of being underwater sea creatures just makes for good entertainment. One of my personal favorites is the SpongeBob Time Card meme, perfect for expressing utter disappointment, sass, or general disbelief. Reading the time cards in the same French accent as the voiceover in the show is key.

Caption: SpongeBob SquarePants / Nickelodeon


SpongeBob SquarePants has played a large role in pop culture for the past 19 years, even inspiring the name for a new mushroom speciesSpongiforma squarepantsii. For Millennials and Generation Z-ers, the absorbent, porous, yellow sponge continues to inspire and entertain us, all while providing plenty of meme-able moments every season. Spongebob’s character highlights the possibilities of bringing a childlike, optimistic outlook into a mediocre adulthood, a sure way to make any job and small town living that much more fun. SpongeBob provides a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek escape that is sure to end in a laugh.