Stephen Hillenburg: Shaping Minds One Sponge at a Time

by Whitney Fox

“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Who’s absorbent and yellow and porous as he” (“Help Wanted”). SpongeBob SquarePants has become an iconic hero of the 20th century. This happy-go-lucky sponge living his everyday life in the fictional underwater city of “Bikini Bottom”, has become so popular that millions of viewers can pick out this silly song lyric and know that it is from SpongeBob SquarePants.Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob, is an auteur with a body of work that has proven popular and successful in communicating ideologies of equality and acceptance.  Stephen Hillenburg’s influential, heroic characters affect children’s attitudes, proving that SpongeBob SquarePants has displayed a positive effect on social change. 

Hillenburg is originally from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  His father was a designer for aerospace companies, and his mother taught visually handicapped children.  In the 1960’s they moved to Orange County, California, where Hillenburg would later discover his two passions: animation and marine biology (“How Stuff Works Express” 1-3). Hillenburg grew up loving the ocean. Watching Jacques Yves Cousteau’s films about the ocean and learning to snorkel when he was 15 made deciding to study marine biology at Humboldt State University, an easy decision. After obtaining his degree, Hillenburg began to teach marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point, California. Later, Hillenburg enrolled in the master’s animation program at California Institute of Arts in Valencia.  Hillenburg claims that marine biology was his second passion next to animation, but he didn’t want to live his life as a starving artist. (Current Biography Yearbook 1-2).

Hillenburg found success, “faster than a barefoot jackrabbit on a hot greasy griddle” as Sandy the Squirrel from SpongeBob SquarePants, (“Suds”) would say. After earning his degree, Hillenburg began working on Nickelodeon’s cartoon series Rocko’s Modern Life, whose titular character was a wallaby.  During his last three years with the show, Hillenburg was promoted to creative director.  He also served as the series’ executive story editor” (Current Biography Yearbook 1-2). Hillenburg’s status grew as he went from working on Rocko’s Modern Life, to directing it, and later having one of the largest influences as he wrote for it.

Stephen Hillenburg, an Auteur of Cartoons

Although Hillenburg has only created one show, SpongeBob, and greatly influenced another, Rocko’s Modern Life, his style is so unique and distinctive, that he should be considered an auteur and a pioneer of children’s television.
Auteur theory is a way of looking at and comparing structural, aesthetic, historical, and cultural choices and methods in an artist’s creations that identify their craft. In other words, an auteur is established through their characteristic stamp on their work.

An auteur was once thought of as the person who did the most work on a show. The article, “Auteur Criticism” explains that, “Charlie Chaplin…wrote the screenplays and musical scores, financed their production, cast the performers, acted in the production, performed the music, and directed the production” (231).  Because Chaplin had the biggest role in the film, he had the most creative influence and was defined as the auteur of the work.

It can be difficult to define what qualifies a person as an auteur. An auteur is not always the writer of the show, or the executive producer. In film, an auteur is usually the director of the film as he or she has the most creative control (Caughie 35-38). In television, the auteur can be any one of the creative collaborators that conceived of the story (Auteur Criticism).

Auteur theory explains what constitutes an auteur based on their style and signature, and not necessarily the number of shows created by said person.  An interesting argument of auteur theory is that once artists are established as auteurs, they form a genre in itself if they have stylistic choices that are recognizable and consistent (231).  For example, Norman Lear’s work is so distinct, that with the creation of his shows such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, his work is viewed as a genre of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Shows are said to “be like a Norman Lear show”, further pointing out that his work has the credentials to be a genre (235).

Using the concepts of auteur theory, Stephen Hillenburg meets the criteria. Although Hillenburg has only created one show and greatly influenced another, his consistent aesthetics, witty and innocent writing, and his individual humor flooding into his work, show that he is an auteur of children’s cartoons. The examination of Hillenburg’s narrative and aesthetic structure done by Jonah Rice in 2009, show Stephen Hillenburg’s consistent choices and “characteristic stamp” (Auteur Criticism 1).

In both Spongebob and Rocko, Hillenburg’s style of psychedelic surrealism is present. Psychedelic is defined from dictionary.com as, “a mental state characterized by a profound sense of intensified sensory perception, sometimes accompanied by severe perceptual distortion and hallucinations and by extreme feelings of euphoria” (“Dictionary.com”). Psychedelic is used to refer to the colors, setting, and backgrounds of the show. The mise en scène of Rocko and SpongeBob are the most noticeable connection between Hillenburg’s two shows. The colors described as “easy-Pacific islander” by Rice (1100), are like brain bonbons to the viewer or, in other words, very easy to watch. The second half of the term, “surrealism” defined as, “a style of art and literature developed principally in the 20th century, stressing the subconscious or irrational significance of imagery arrived at by automatism or the exploitation of chance effects, unexpected juxtapositions, etc” from dictionary.com (“Dictionary.com”), refers to the writing of both shows. Dream like elements and a lack of rationality ensues in both shows. Rice explains, “Viewers are shown a world unknown and mysterious to most.  While this is no trip to Mars or through time, SB does tap into mythical qualities of fictional TV” (Rice 1100).  A specific example of surrealism in Hillenburg’s writing is found in episode, “Sleepy Time” from SpongeBob SquarePants. Spongebob travels through the dreams of his friends and coworkers because he is curious what they are thinking about (“Sleepy Time”) showing both surrealism and a world unknown.

Audibly, the show combines island noises, old sea melodies, jazz, punk, and even some diluted heavy metal (Rice).   SpongeBob is definitely more experimental with sound versus Rocko, but both shows have elements that break the normal cartoon conventions of booms and splats, crashes and kur-thunks. Pertaining to the writing consistency within SpongeBob and Rocko, both center around an innocent hero with a loyal pet, a best buddy who is male, and an average job which proves to be satisfying (Nickelodeon).Another theme present in all of Hillenburg’s work is postmodernism. For example, James Parker, a journalist from The Atlantic, wrote, “Bikini Bottom is an effortlessly postmodern place, a baby-blue void in which all manner of cultural bric-a-brac drifts and combines” (Parker).  Parker is referring to the irony of the show (squirrels live underwater), playfulness (A sponge has a pet snail), black humor (the happiest moment for SpongeBob is working at a burger joint), magic realism (SpongeBob can milk a jellyfish for jelly), and the feeling of ‘nothing is certain’. In, Rocko’s Modern Life, even the aesthetic is postmodern, as the houses are leaning, and the world is lopsided (Parker).SpongeBob Proves to be Popular

As for where the idea of the hit show came from, Hillenburg explains he, “conceived SpongeBob as an offbeat, dweeby child-man in the mold of Pee-wee Herman” (Poniewozik 1-3).  James Poniewozik, a television researcher, made the comparison that Hillenburg, who sports a surfer appearance and wind-swept haircut at age 40, also fits the profile of a child who never grew up, just like his main character of SpongeBob (Poniewozik 1-3).  Perhaps the inspiration was personal.

The success of the show could be linked to the wide range of audiences that it targets.  Jonah Rice conducted a survey in 2009 to find out just what kind of people watch SpongeBob, and found that, “Everyone from 3 year olds to senior citizens, to doctors, to college students, to celebrities, to the average adult male all have found Hillenburg’s work appealing” (Rice 1105).

Joshua Meyrowitz, professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire claims the story is what draws the wide range of audiences to the show. Meyrowitz writes, “People swim in shark tanks all day at work, in traffic, and at school.  SB relieves such stress by providing easygoing, simple stories with common yet valuable virtues such as, honesty is the best policy, and innocence prevails” (Meyrowitz).  Meyrowitz asserts that the public responds to Hillenburg’s innocent hero by personally relating to SpongeBob, the fictional character.

SpongeBob may be popular due to what genre it is. Hillenburg’s writing fits into several different genres, but some of the more prominent themes are described as, “full of gags and other overt comedy techniques…suggesting slapstick genre” (Rice 1100). By using the timeless slapstick genre with SpongeBob and Rocko, Hillenburg has shown the cartoon world that this type of genre has not died out, and still delivers laughs.  Jonah Rice explores genre theory pertaining to the show and points out that SpongeBob is unlike normal children’s programming and often times is ignorant of how society works, which leads to comedic situations which suggests the typical slice of life type genre (1099).  The versatility of the show allows it to fit into several genres and therefore taps into a wider range of audiences.

The Results Are Swell

The themes and ideologies of equality within Hillenburg’s writing are affecting children socially. Not only does Hillenburg attract the masses of people and children to his show, but he also provides an influence with a pro-social message.

One pro-social message is equality. Within the writing, Hillenburg seems to favor strangeness as a theme. He says, “the characters are intentionally bizarre and have strange shapes and that they all share the same strangeness.  The key word here is same” (Rice 1103).  Once again, Hillenburg reiterates his views on equality. By connecting all his characters by his or her inability to fit into society, Hillenburg empowers every viewer who has ever felt out of place at some point in their life. James Parker, a journalist for The Atlantic, wrote an article in 2009 dissecting the writing of SpongeBob. “Again and again, a kind of innocence triumphs- over fear, over snobbery, and over skepticism”(Parker). The same message is sent within the majority of Rocko’s Modern Life. For example, in the episode “No Pain, No Gain”, Rocko and Heifer join a health center to lose weight and fit in with everyone. After it does not go well and comedy ensues, the message of “you don’t always have to fit in” is present (“No Pain, No Gain”). In the pilot episode of SpongeBob, entitled, “Help Wanted”, SpongeBob is first made fun of for being who he is and then ends up saving the day and gains respect for simply trying his hardest (“Help Wanted”).

Elements not present in Hillenburg’s writing are references to drug usage, sex, or adult topics.  Hillenburg takes pride in the cleanness of SpongeBob SquarePants by saying, “Our characters act silly, even totally ridiculous at times, and most of our jokes don’t come out of pop cultural references…It seems we’re aiming at a child audience, everyone can laugh at the basic human traits that are funny” (Current Biography Yearbook 1-2). Importantly, human traits are the source of the gags in SpongeBob, not the people themselves. The writing abides by the timeless rule, “laugh with me, not at me”. Another notable quality and pro-social message from Hillenburg is the respect he gives to everyone watching his show. Even though the majority of his audience is young, Hillenburg does not dumb down the scripts.  Hillenburg makes a point of saying, “Kids aren’t stupid, and I think that there are some things written…insulting their intelligence” (Current Biography Yearbook 1-2). Nickelodeon as a network also abides by this philosophy, making Hillenburg a natural fit for their team (Nickelodeon).

According to Hillenburg, the overall message of SpongeBob is, “Treat people the way you expect to be treated…and the harsh lessons in life are usually very funny in retrospect” (Current Biography Yearbook 1-2). The backbone message of both Rocko and SpongeBob is positive. It is obvious why people are drawn to these shows and influenced by the good nature of them. Rice writes of SpongeBob, “The show teaches us basic humanitarian values that are cross-cultural and cross-generations” (Rice 1104), and the same can be said of Rocko.

The most debated theme present in Hillenburg’s work is homosexuality.  When Hillenburg was asked about the homosexual undertones, he responded with, “We never intended them [Spongebob and Patrick] to be gay…I consider them to be almost asexual.  SP and Patrick simply love each other very much” (Beatty). Parker points out his reasons for the suspicions about homosexual undertones by saying, “They [Spongebob and Patrick] hold hands.  They blow bubbles at each other, whispering sweet nothings into their bubble wands, exchanging wobbling orbs of pure infatuation.  They’re Shaggy and Scooby, or Rocky and Bullwinkle: a high voice and a low voice, a classic cartoon double act turned yellow and pink” (Parker).  Jeffrey Dennis, the author of the article, “Queertoons”, published in 2003, goes further saying, “SB and his next-door Patrick are paired with erotic intensity” (2).  However, not only SpongeBob has received questions about homosexuality within the writing.

Dennis discusses Rocko by saying, “On Rocko’s Modern Life, the relationship between twenty-something Rocko and Heifer is often coded as unrequited same-sex attraction”(Dennis 1-5). Dennis explains that Heifer expresses no interest in women, only wants to be around Rocko and continues to foil Rocko’s efforts at dating.  For example when you look at the episode, “S.W.A.K.”, Heifer continually thwarts Rocko’s efforts to mail a love letter to a girl he is attracted to.  Dennis points out that in this episode, “a rough-looking elephant with a Mike Tyson voice intercepts Rocko’s love letter and assumes that it is for Heifer.  “You mean you two…?” he begins, drawing the obvious conclusion.  The two quake in terror, expecting a homophobic assault, but instead the bruiser exclaims, “Ain’t that bee…u…tiful!” and embraces them (“S.W.A.K.”). Clearly this is a homosexual undertone, but thankfully, it is in a positive light, and also adds a nice reversal and humor to the script by violating what the audience would guess the elephant’s reaction would be. Hillenburg’s response to the homosexuality comments was simply, “I do think that the attitude of the show is about tolerance…everybody is different, and the show embraces that” (Current Biography Yearbook 1-2). Basically Hillenburg is claiming that the pro-social message being taught to children is tolerance and embracing one another.

Despite Hillenburg’s rating success, some would claim that Spongebob is actually a terrible role model for children. Chris Becker, a television critic states, “although it may look like an irreverent romp of merriment through a cavalcade of stimulating colors, is actually a brutal and chauvinistic condemnation of all proven-correct Marxist principles” (Becker).  By referencing Karl Marx’s philosophy, Becker is referring to SpongeBob’s consistency to agree to his current life. Becker seems to find that the relentlessly upbeat motto of SpongeBob is a negative and unrealistic way of viewing life when SpongeBob is single, works at a burger joint, and can’t even pass a driving test. However, Becker’s statement does not account for some main themes portrayed in Spongebob Squarepants.

Yes, positive thinking is engrained within the show, but hygemy is not present as Becker was stating.  Often times SpongeBob will stand up for himself in the workplace, or seek out justice. For example in the episode, “Squid on Strike”, SpongeBob and Squidward go on strike at their workplace, the Krusty Krab restaurant, to receive better working conditions from Mr. Krabs (“Squid on Strike”).  Another example can be found when SpongeBob and Patrick parade around as the retired superheroes of Bikini Bottom, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, to bring justice to Bikini Bottom (“Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy”). Just the fact that SpongeBob is taking the identity of a more powerful being to seek justice proves that he is not suffering hygemy. To further contrast Becker’s argument, Rice points out that Spongebob Squarepants is not prejudiced or chauvinistic, but is actually one of the most dynamic shows on television, playing no card in condemning race or religion (1092). For example, SpongeBob is so accepting of others, he is willing to be friends with Sandy, the only land-dwelling animal found within the city of Bikini Bottom and Plankton, SpongeBob’s known archenemy (“Best Friends”).

A different example proving that SpongeBob has a positive effect on children comes from an article was published by Dr. Paul Moorehead in 2005. Moorehead is a Pediatrics Doctor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.  Moorehead uses simple logic. He wants kids to like him, so he put a SpongeBob sticker on his badge.  The response is overwhelmingly positive. Moorehead states, “I don’t know much, but I know what kids like.  And what they like is SpongeBob SquarePants.  It’s a rare child, and almost equally rare parent, who doesn’t notice SpongeBob on my ID (Moorehead 290). Even as a sticker, SpongeBob is gaining positive results.

A group of scientists in China examining the cause and effect of children watching TV, conducted a medical examination in 2007. They found that children are more affected by cartoons than adults (ShiHui, Yi, and Humphreys 3371-3375). Knowing cartoons affect children, and knowing how popular the show is, the conclusion can be drawn that Stephen Hillenburg’s ironic hero character impacts children behaviorally and socially. The most unusual positive response to SpongeBob might be the “Church of SpongeBob SquarePants” which is a web based presence and is self-described as “a church that finds joy in the little things of life, and isn’t afraid to do so” (Rice 1103, 1093).

Astoundingly, after surveying groups ranging from kindergarten to college age, Rice also found, “The parallels to the K-4 group are striking. The top responses are remarkably similar, exhibiting altruistic and compassionate qualities” (1107). Meaning, the K-4 group understood the meaning of the show, and took away positive attitudes from it. Rice further points out, “ Children, and for that matter adults, are attracted to SB, a show that seems to promote highly pro-social messages” (1110).
Conclusion 

Regardless of the trendy, “in vogue” mentality of “keeping kids from watching too much television because it rots their brains” (Marian), SpongeBob SquarePants remains a popular show with an endearing message of innocence, heroism, equality, and positive thinking. SpongeBob SquarePants is not a traditional educational show (i.e. Dora the Explorer), but it does help children develop social ideas. A little checking into Hillenburg’s shows might make parents feel better about letting their kids watch television. Hillenburg’s work could also affect future animated kids shows, especially pertaining to the style of humor Hillenburg employs of “laugh with me, not at me” and humor that comes from basic human traits as opposed to mocking who a person is. In conclusion, “If nautical nonsense be somethin’ ya wish, then drop on the deck and flop like a fish” (SpongeBob SquarePants), or in other words, check out SpongeBob.

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