The Woke get hold of SpongeBob with predictable results: he’s deemed racist, colonialist, pro-nukes, an eraser of women, and a normalizer of colonial and military violence

October 15, 2019 • 12:00 pm

This article is not a joke: it was published in the journal The Contemporary Pacific (a University of Hawaii journal) and was written by Holly Barker, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. By now the article, which is all over the media, will surely drive Dr. Barker into hiding, and she deserves all the opprobrium she gets for making the beloved SpongeBob SquarePants into a figure of horrible malfeasance. You will see what happens when careerist academics, brought up in the humanities (Barker is a sociocultural anthropologist, not a scientist), decide that yet another bit of popular culture should be put into the Sausage Grinder of Wokeness.

SpongeBob: Worse than Hitler?

Click on the screenshot to see (or download) a pdf of the article. (I’m betting it won’t be up long, but I have a copy.)

I cannot emphasize how bad this article is, and if you don’t believe me, read it, or at least skim it. All the tropes of Woke postmodernism march in line, like military horses, through the pages. Here, for example, is the paper’s abstract:

Billions of people around the globe are well-acquainted with SpongeBob Squarepants and the antics of the title character and his friends on Bikini Bottom. By the same token, there is an absence of public discourse about the whitewashing of violent American military activities through SpongeBob’s occupation and reclaiming of the bottom of Bikini Atoll’s lagoon. SpongeBob Squarepants and his friends play a role in normalizing the settler colonial takings of Indigenous lands while erasing the ancestral Bikinian people from their nonfictional homeland. This article exposes the complicity of popular culture in maintaining American military hegemonies in Oceania while amplifying the enduring indigeneity (Kauanui  2016) of the Marshallese people, who maintain deeply spiritual and historical connections to land—even land they cannot occupy due to residual radiation contamination from US nuclear weapons testing—through a range of cultural practices, including language, song, and weaving. This article also considers the gendered violence of nuclear colonialism and the resilience of Marshallese women.

This is all because SpongeBob, by living on Bikini Bottom, maintains a “singularly submerged viewpoint that disconnects the lagoon bottom from holistic Marshallese constructions of place, which, rather than seeing the air, land, and sea as separate domains, as represented in the cartoon, maintain the interconnetivity between these realms.”

Oy, SpongeBob: how could you do that?

Yes, you can argue about the colonialism and nuclear testing by the West on the Pacific Islands, but you don’t need SpongeBob to do that. Nevertheless, Barker buys into the theory that “the characters in the show are malformed and bizarre because they are mutants exposed to radiation from the atomic detonations at Bikini.” This, of course is a “fan theory”, which Barker considers “not farfetched.” But more important is that SpongeBob and his pals have become “squatters” at Bikini, making its story comical and erasing the reality of what happened to the island (and I’m not denying it’s bad).

Bollocks. Read the whole article and tell me if you think the SpongeBob cartoon is doing any real harm to anyone. Nope, all it’s doing is advancing Barker’s career, which, judging by the media reaction, isn’t all that efficacious. She even admits that the show didn’t intend to be so racist and colonialist, but that this is its outcome:

It is implausible that Hillenburg and Nickelodeon, the cartoon’s network, envisioned an act of US colonialism as they developed the show, but it is disturbing that it did not occur to them that Bikini Bottom and Bikini Atoll were not theirs for the taking. Since millions of viewers worldwide hear about Bikini Bottom through SpongeBob without being offered a deeper understanding about Bikini Atoll or its people, it is essential to consider how the show shapes viewers’ worldviews, ideologies, and understandings.

What we have here, then, is “cultural appropriation” of an island by a cartoon. Read it and weep. But you’ll also thrill, for example, to the section in which Barker, focusing her laserlike analysis on other aspects of American cartoon culture, asks and answers the question, “What do Smokey Bear and SpongeBob SquarePants have in common”? (p. 363). If you’re really up on woke culture, you’ll be able to guess. (Think indigenous cultures.)

Yes, I’ve read the paper, and it made me ill. Not only is it completely stupid, an exaggerated but real example of the degeneration of the humanities since their infection with Wokeness, but somebody got paid to do the work that led to this. And somebody thought it was worth publishing. Is it any wonder that the humanities, infested with stuff like this, is losing enrollment in colleges? (Of course, not all humanities scholars turn out such worthless drivel.)

But it will also make you laugh—especially if you can envision it as a hoax. And it could be, though I doubt it, since Barker is a genuine anthropology professor. The problem with humanities “scholarship” like this is that it’s indistinguishable from satire, and when that happens you can kiss these areas goodbye.

105 thoughts on “The Woke get hold of SpongeBob with predictable results: he’s deemed racist, colonialist, pro-nukes, an eraser of women, and a normalizer of colonial and military violence

  1. Hahaha. Somebody needs to do a sitcom with characters like Barker working out their academic plots as they try to interact socially without violating any woke norms — sort of like “Big Bang Theory” with humanities profs instead of physicists.

  2. If nothing else she has made a name for herself, at least for a while. I had read about this from another source. She is clearly reaching with her writing and seeing things that are just not there. Bikini Bottom, the erstwhile home of the beloved sponge and friends has to my knowledge never been linked to the island nation of Bikini. Furthermore, a large swath of US citizens are completely unaware of the what and why surrounding the events, namely the forced removal of the indigenous people for nefarious purposes, atomic testing. What I don’t recall her musing about is that the USA made promises of remuneration that have never come even close to what the promises, of the treaty laid out. The US has deliberately failed to take care of the people as they promised to. That is far more serious problem than anything alluded to my the author in her “Woke” work.

    1. For those who don’t know much about the Marshallese and the promises not kept by the U.S. to them, please start by going to Wikipedia to look up COFA (Compact of Free Association)for information on the Marshallese and associated islanders.

      My son-in-law, Loyd Henion, is working with the Marshallese in Oregon as an unpaid lobbyist to obtain equitable benefits for them. So far, drivers’ licenses no longer are temporary, as they used to be, and medical care has been obtained, which they previously weren’t eligible for. They are still working on dental care. Other states in which Marshallese live, such as Washington, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas are considering doing as Oregon has done.

      Instead of focussing on a stupid cartoon character such as SpongeBob Squarepants, Holly Barker should be addressing Marshallese history and past and current inequities by the U.S. government, working towards correcting them.

      In addition, the ocean levels are rising so that parts of the Marshall Islands are currently uninhabitable. The islands may eventually be completely unlivable.

      1. Sounds like a plausible explanation. I never bothered to look into it further. Never sought out a fuller explanation of the sea creatures environment. I like so many others relied on the suspension of disbelief to get through the episodes. As a side note, Plankton and Squidward, were my favorites.

  3. When I first heard about this article, it didn’t even occur to me that this might be a gag. There must be a word, perhaps in German, that expresses the feeling of frustration when trivial cultural phenomena are overloaded with meaning by being subjected to Theory. A reviewer supposedly once wrote that a work was a book in search of an article. This is an article in search of a cocktail party joke.

  4. Is Mr. Krabs a direct reference to the infections passed to resilient Marshallese women by colonialist oppressor rapist military personnel? #seatoo

    1. They are all tragically flawed. Mr. Krabs is the epitome of the capitalist troll. Plankton even more so, and he famously has an ongoing toxic relationship with a female computer. The squirrel Sandee Cheeks is clearly in hiding, possibly from an abusive partner. I could go on, but I am getting emotional now. I can’t. ‘Just can’t…

  5. Lamentably, other cartoon characters are engaged in the perpetuation of patriarchy and western hegemony. Pepé Le Pew normalizes sexual assault and Francophone nationalism, while enacting violence against other mammalian lifeforms. Yosemite Sam acts as an apologist for gun rights activists and their patriarchal ecological destruction in his attempt to eradicate that “dang varmit,” the hapless Bugs Bunny. Moreover, Porky Pig mocks the differently abled with his grotesque stammer. Worst of all, Donald Duck instantiates the archetype of toxic masculinity by engaging in uncontrolled temper tantrums and threats of violence against Pluto and Mickey. Clearly, we must work to raise further awareness of oppressive ideology in children’s programming.

      1. Poor Goofy was wrongly cited in Minnie and Mickey’s divorce.
        Mickey had to explain to the court that when he said, “She was Fucking Goofy!”
        He actually meant that she had big unattractive teeth!

      2. Hahah that’s hilarious. It is weird too. I always did find it strange that Goody was such a human like dog but Pluto was pure dog. There is no consistency with these cartoons which makes suspending disbelief more challenging than usual.

    1. Yes and Donald Duck’s lack of pants is surely a way for him to assault females he encounters as well as flaunt his toxic masculinity physically and literally.

        1. Yes! Recalling the slut shaming of women who went out with sailors and sailors who took advantage of women from port to port. It always astounded me the work DD went into his top half of his outfit then just didn’t bother with his bottom half at all.

          1. I suppose it wouldn’t be because it’s easy to draw a jacket on the top half of a duck, but kinda difficult to draw pants on the bottom half? 😉

            cr

  6. Sad, but it’s not the first time somebody took this fictional story of a fictional character far too seriously (e.g. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/psychological-analysis-of-spongebob).

    “somebody got paid to do the work that led to this”
    It is customary for reputable journals and authors to disclose the sources of funding and to declare any conflicts of interest, although journals in the “soft sciences” are frequently lacking in those areas. I couldn’t find any such declarations in the abstract or first page visible of the article (and I’m not about to waste good money to “rent” the article); but I do wonder who funded this (“follow the money”).

      1. Fair enough; thanks for the update on lack of published specific funding information.

        As the University of Washington is a public university, it appears (from the 2018 financial report) that overall funding comes from a combination of affiliated medical facilities (revenues exceeding expenses), gifts, grants, and contracts (including from the Gates clan), tuition and fees (although the revenue is less than related expenses), “auxiliary enterprises” (revenues exceeding expenses), investment income, and a chunk of Washington state taxpayers’ money.

        Nothing at the moment on this particular embarrassment, but there’s an article on the UW News site from last year mentioning Holly Barker: https://www.washington.edu/news/2018/03/15/new-minor-recognizes-celebrates-pacific-islander-community/ (so, the paper is almost certainly not a hoax; Barker has a thing about the Marshall Islands (https://anthropology.washington.edu/people/holly-m-barker)).

  7. I’m somewhat sure the author of Spongebob selected “Bikini bottom” for its titillation value, not in reference to the real Bikini atoll.

    OTOH I’m certain that Spongebob is intentionally dense to cultural nuances, because the author has actually stated that: that his series is a story about a naive person surrounded by cynics…just with a crazy kiddie reskinning on it.

    Grammatical aside: PCC, you may want to change “All the tropes of Woke postmodernism, like military horses, march through the pages in line” to “All the tropes of Woke postmodernism march, like military horses, through the pages in line.” Both are correct, but the current parsing makes the reader think “military horses” is a Woke postmodernist trope.

    1. I disagree with your first point, that the author chose “Bikini bottom” for its titillation value. At first I’d glossed over your comment and I expressed my opinion in post 16. below.

      I disagree because she’s obviously ethnically/culturally woke and her paper addresses what she perceives to be wrongs relating to those matters.

      If she were trading on the sexual innuendo (except in passing), she would have criticized that explicitly and could have had a field day. After all, in woke terms, sexual and racial/cultural transgressions are both Cardinal Sins, and she could have gone off the deep end deconstructing “bikini bottoms” as well; then, to be truly masterful with this balderdash, she would have capped it off by discussing the intersectionality of the sexual and the racial.

      Her paper, whatever its thrust, is idiotic.

      Why, I’m beginning to see scatological/sexual exploitation: Squarepants and bikini bottoms. Think I’ll write a paper!

      1. Ah, sorry, my point was unclear (and after I complained that PCC was unclear! Hoist by my own petard :).

        I meant that Stephen Hillenberg, the author and inventor of Spongebob, probably chose “Bikini Bottom” as the setting primarily for it’s titillation value, and only secondarily (if at all) for the tie-in with the atomic tests.

      2. I cannot get access to the paper so cannot determine how she treats the various threads of her paper, so what I wrote re the scope and content of her paper is uninformed speculation and can’t be verified until I’ve read the entire paper, if I can; however, I stand by statement that she didn’t chose Bikini Bottom for its titillation value but because that’s where Sponge Bob resides and precisely because it is based on the Bikini atoll
        https://theconversation.com/spongebobs-bikini-bottom-is-based-on-a-real-life-test-site-for-nuclear-weapons-96687

      3. Isn’t it amazing that we could probably write “better” (which, to us, means worse) papers in these fields than the supposed experts? I’m 100% sure that if you took just a day, you could vomit out a paper that would surpass this one in every way. I bet you could even find a way to work in some of our other favorites, like feminist glaciology, the whiteness of pumpkins, and Isaac Newton’s “rape manual.”

        The sad thing is that this drek was probably several months work.

          1. I would genuinely look forward to reading that! Maybe we should all get together and start our own parody scientific journal.

          1. I have attempted in the past to access the sci-hub website via Firefox web browser but had been unable. Using TOR proved to be a fail safe method of gaining access. Glad to know that both you, and Paul, were able to view the paper.

  8. “It is implausible that Hillenburg and Nickelodeon, the cartoon’s network, envisioned an act of US colonialism as they developed the show…). Yes, it took Holly Barker to discover and expose the insidious dark side of Sponge Bob and his evil band of cohorts.

  9. Back in the 1950s, a French writer called Roland Barthes wrote a book called “Mythologies”, which analysed a number of contemporary French phenomena (like professional wrestling, the Tour de France or red wine) as cultural myths. He was funny, witty and smart. 60 years later, unfortunately, that subtle cultural deconstruction has turned into heavy, humourless blather. I have a certain sympathy for anthropologists: I know some of the old-timers who spent years embedded with “unspoiled” cultures. There are not many of those left, so the modern anthropologist has to pretend to be a stranger in his/her own land, ferreting out the “otherness” of the everyday. There are some good examples of that, but SpongeBob (with which/whom I am embarrassed to say I am completely unfamiliar) is probably not one of them.

  10. I’m sure the article is a hoot, but this retired erstwhile postmodernist doesn’t care to spend $18 for the laughs. OTOH, certainly there is reason to criticize children’s literature for unconsciously fortifying patriarchal white male hegemony.

  11. I’ve been away from this website for months – today I’ve been going through all my old favorites to see what I’ve been missing. Sure enough, the very first article reminds me of how much I love this site. I’ve watched SpongeBob cartoons with my daughters and then my granddaughters and have never seen any harm to him. Are sponges not native to atolls? Are you absolutely sure that this article is not just a big joke? Maybe if the author had not tried to sound all scholarly, she could have made her point (?) without embarrassment: “Hey, you know, sometimes I think that Sponge Bob and his friends took over Bikini Bottom and kicked the natives out. Am I crazy or are we sending the wrong message, people?”.

      1. And she teaches students, which is how we end up with papers that ‘prove’ that horses have ‘always’ existed in the Americas because Native Oral Traditions are ‘always true’ and the ‘knowing’ (Science, reason, logic et.al.) of the ‘Mud People’ (Whites & Jews) is ‘inherently oppressive’ and must be ‘disrupted’.

        Carl Feagans dissected one of these back in July.

        https://ahotcupofjoe.net/2019/07/pseudoarchaeological-claims-of-horses-in-the-americas/

  12. It’s obvious that she’s desperate to make her woke bones and diving deep into the bathypelagic depths in her bathosphere (as in bathos, not a typo) to dredge up something, anything to prove herself.

    She doesn’t get or care about what some would surely see as the crude sexist aspects of the cartoon that happens to be set in “Bikini Bottom.”

    Her research wreck belongs in Davy Jones’ Locker.

  13. I take it from the title of her piece that “unsettling” is a gerund of abstruse meaning among the cognoscenti of Ms. Holly Barker’s circle?

  14. I read with horror the Holly Barker (Ph.D., Anthropology) exposé of SpongeBob’s occupation and reclaiming of the bottom of Bikini Atoll’s lagoon. I’ll hope that this fine piece of scholarship can be expanded into a full PhD thesis by some aspiring “student”. This would allow the crimes of SpongeBob’s friends to be fully examined and revealed. For example, his side kick, Patrick Star a PINK starfish, is an obvious appropriation of gayness without the use of a truly gay character.

    1. Exactly! Why is a straight starfish playing the part of a gay starfish when there are plenty of gay starfish that could take that part?!

  15. Look, its even in the theme song.

    Who appropriated a pineapple under the sea?
    SpongeBob SquarePants!
    Colonialist and racist and sexist is he!
    SpongeBob SquarePants!
    If this post-modernist nonsense is something you wish
    SpongeBob SquarePants!
    Then watch the pseudo-intellectual flop like a fish!
    SpongeBob SquarePants!

    1. I e made some adjustments. Stole your Colonialist line

      Who lives in white privilege under the sea?
      SpongeBob SquarePants
      Colonialist and racist and sexist is he!
      SpongeBob SquarePants
      If oppressing and othering be something you wish
      SpongeBob SquarePants
      Then drop all rationality and gallop like gish.

    1. Man, I loved that show, but every time I watch a clip to look back on it, it’s messed up. I can’t believe it didn’t scare me.

      This clip, with its animation and music and sound effects, is like a terrifying horror movie. Ren kind of reminds me of Jack Torrance in The Shining movie here. He’s gone so crazy and become so filled with rage that he can’t stop going from smiling, to laughing, to grimacing with menace.

  16. It’s possible to write a brilliantly satirical journal article about a cartoon character. Famously, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published one about Peppa Pig and her implications for the National Health Service here in the UK in its (traditionally jokey) Christmas edition a couple of years ago: https://www.bmj.com/content/359/bmj.j5397

    Sadly, that’s not what is happening with poor SpongeBob here, though.

  17. Surely there would be more virtue in writing an article that directly dealt with the Bikini Atoll history than an indirect one via Spongebob. I guess it is just more “fallout” from nuclear testing.

  18. “Not only is it completely stupid, an exaggerated but real example of the degeneration of the humanities since their infection with Wokeness, but somebody got paid to do the work that led to this. And somebody thought it was worth publishing.”

    You forgot the worst part: this person teaches.

  19. Wow. Well I hope she doesn’t ruin Rocky and Bullwinkle by suggesting that Bullwinkle is a victim of the American plot to take Canada’s natural resources and subvert it’s culture, eh.

    1. I would like to see the esteemed Professor Barker write a post-colonial analysis of the t.v. show Gilligan’s Island, a toxic amalgam of white supremacist tropes and 19th century racist stereotypes. In this pernicious “comedy”, a group of elite bourgeois tourists occupy a South Sea tropical island, an unprovoked act of aggression that serves to legitimize White European hegemony and cultural genocide. — And so on. The paper practically writes itself.

      1. You’d have to use hip language like bougie and emphasize their white privilege. Also he toxic masculinity of the Captain and the elitism of the professor not to mention the gender stereotypes of ginger and Mary Ann.

  20. Wow. Well I hope she doesn’t ruin Rocky and Bullwinkle by suggesting that Bullwinkle is a victim of the American plot to take Canada’s natural resources and subvert its culture, eh.

      1. But Rocky and Bullwinkle hail from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, in the US.
        You might be thinking of Dudley Do-Right, Snidely Whiplash, Inspector Fenwick, and his daughter Nell (and, of course, Horse).

  21. To me the media having a field day over this is about the same as the news articles along the lines of “Scientists create glowing kittens! what a waste of time and money”

    Anthropology is meant to study culture and from within a disciplinary and theoretical framework which includes looking at representation and looking at colonialism.

    Sure it may not be the best journal article out there but being thrown to the wolves by Russia Today as part of their ongoing project of trolling the culture wars doesn’t really count as proper peer review in my books.

    1. Further to this point, what’s the end game here? Are we trying to collectively shame anthropologists into not writing articles we don’t like?

      I mean I agree with excoriating the woke authoritarian left when it uses twitter and protests to shut down speakers they don’t like. Are we not in danger of engaging in the same thing ourselves by taking a single academic paper out of context and passing judgement on the author and their teaching and the validity of them getting paid?

      1. By “out of context”, you mean the academic context in which this person writes papers, correct?

        What I object to is the proscriptive attitude this kind of work portrays: if only the world was to pay attention to all these bad connections and eliminate them, the world would be so much better. I doubt this. We would lose much enjoyable art, music, writing, film, food, etc. Carried to its ultimate conclusion, everything would be bland and gray.

          1. If you think the article isn’t prescriptive, you didn’t read it. It talks about using it to develop materials to educate school-age children:

            “A critical examination of SpongeBob thus creates new opportunities to unsettle and surface the legacies of colonial violence on Bikini and to involve young people in efforts to reorient our gaze toward the resilience and tenacity of a community that consistently finds ways to endure.”

            It sounds similar to what the Chinese government are doing to the Uyghurs in their “re-education camps”.

            1. I wonder who should be appointed to arbitrate what texts are allowed to be analysed and in what way they can be analysed. Perhaps we just don’t allow anyone to critique our texts in case they do it in a too “woke” way.

              1. No one is talking about not allowing someone to analyze texts in any way they want. It is all about using that analysis to restrict speech and thought. That’s a very bad idea. If I had kids, I certainly wouldn’t want them being told that they should feel bad about enjoying SpongeBob SquarePants because of colonialism, white privilege, etc. I’d prefer the time be spent teaching them about climate change and its threat to low-lying islands like Bikini.

              2. I actually think it’s much worse. I take a harder line. I think it’s poor reasoning. It’s a lot of reaching and I think badly argued to make such a suggestion and I really can’t see the majority of academics accepting this argument. It seems like an incident where once you know how to use a hammer, you use that hammer on everything. Often fellow academics correct for this through criticism. And nothing stops us, the unwashed hoi polloi from doing the same.

              3. “Perhaps we just don’t allow anyone to critique our texts in case they do it in a too ‘woke’ way.”

                Or, people could attempt to understand a text on its own terms instead of trying to read meanings into it that the creator didn’t intend. Does anyone seriously think that a children’s cartoon contains hidden political messages about Western hegemony? That idea is veering into lunatic fringe territory. It’s not even worth arguing about; ridicule is the only sane response.

    2. It may be overkill to react to this anthropology professor focusing on SpongeBob instead of the peoples of the islands she’s concerned about. Especially since she claims to want to provide a space at U.W. for them to share their cultures and histories.

      Instead of focussing exclusively on colonization by the U.S., atom bomb testing, and not keeping commitments, why is there no reference to colonizations and commitments by the Spanish, English, Germans, Japanese, who preceded us, as well as the Catholic Church and Evangelical Christians?

      Since the islands have experienced both flooding and drouth (affecting availability of potable water and water for growing food crops) in the last 15 – 20 years, aren’t these topics more important? Better to help the islanders who’ve come to the U.S. receive the governmental support needed to go to school, find good jobs, receive medical and dental attention, etc.

      This reminds me of how odd I found it in the 70s for literature courses on Bob Dylan, and Baseball being taught beside Shakespeare, et al. (Although, now that Dylan has received a Nobel prize, maybe I should rethink the course on his poetry and music.)

  22. The oppressive rectilinear geometry of the “SpongeBob” iconography reiterates and activates the dominant bourgeois bias of control. /s

      1. That was great. I got seven utterly perfect Deepak (fake) quotes in a row, and then the eighth was “cats are llamas.”

  23. “Bollocks”

    May I congratulate you on appropriating this beautiful English word which sadly is hardly used by our friends in North America, indeed probably not even understood.

    Please use it more frequently.

    Thank you

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