Interesting Ideas

Squidward, the new Spock

It's admittedly a stretch to identify parallels between Star Trek and Spongebob, but the affinity is stronger than it might first seem. The cartoon's core emotional triad contains powerful echoes of the anxiety-ridden three-way that gave Star Trek its homoerotic frisson.

Spongebob's niceness obviously sets him apart from Kirk, even if it is as aggressive in its way as Kirk's eternal belligerence. Where Kirk puts everyone around him in peril -- and slaughters his adversaries -- with his triumphalist will to power, Spongebob's niceness dominates the daily life of Bikini Bottom.

As with Spock and Kirk, Squidward feels a justifiable superiority to the uncomplicated Spongebob yet finds his naive self-confidence irresistibly attractive. Their certainty may be infantile, but it enables for both Spongebob and Kirk an awesome progression from triumph to triumph.

Squidward and Spock, both uptight intellectuals, also are both jealously incredulous at the privileged intimacy between their job-obsessed love objects (Spongebob/Kirk) and regular guy sidekicks (Patrick/Dr. McCoy). But where Spock tries to hide his pain under a guise of amused, if bitchy, superiority, Squidward is just constantly irritated.

The sexual undercurrent in these relationships cannot, within the context of kid-oriented TV, speak its name. On Star Trek it was largely displaced into Kirk's promiscuity, Spock's hyper-rationalism and the mockery by Kirk and McCoy of the obviously superior (and anguished) Spock, raillery that closed many episodes.

With censorship much decayed in the years since the first Star Trek, the sexual issues sit closer to the surface on Spongebob Squarepants. Unlike Kirk, Spongebob does not over assert his heterosexuality. Where Kirk was put above suspicion by bedding every female who crossed his path, Spongebob's only close relationship with a woman is explicitly non-sexual.

Squidward, meanwhile, leads a lifestyle that in most contexts would be considered patently gay, while Spock's supposed lack of emotions simply excluded the concept of lifestyle. As for the feeble Patrick and McCoy, they are mostly sexless losers, often in the way, but also always there to comfort their "best friends."

Despite the atmosphere of repression, no amount of rationalization or bad acting could hide the sparks that flew among the three Star Trek principals. There was a reason the series' most satisfying emotional peaks included the boyish brawls in which the latent tensions between Kirk and Spock resolved periodically themselves. This reflected a bond that even McCoy could not disrupt.

Similarly, when Spongebob and Squidward are together, Patrick typically recedes into a foil, regularly used by Spongebob as a way to get at Squidward. It's the Spongebob-Squidward relationship that is at the show's heart. Spongebob is always trying to insert himself into Squidward's life while Squidward, terrified of intimacy (never a problem for the nice), cannot keep himself from fixating on Spongebob and his antics.

The relationship remains forever unresolved, however. This being TV, there is no real possibility for growth.

(Thanks to the July 1988 edition of Crow magazine for insight into the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship.)



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  • The evil nice (Spongebob version)

    It's dangerous to say it, but nice people are a nuisance, constantly imposing their values and preferences on others. And they usually get their way.

    Because they are extremely aware of their own feelings, though, nice people come off as highly sensitive. That makes it seem obligatory to treat them with tender regard. Who wants to do or say anything hurtful to someone so pleasant? It doesn't matter how impervious they actually are to the feelings of others (especially others deemed not-so-nice) or how imperious they are in asserting their own point of view. Deference is due the nice lest their feelings be hurt.

    Worse, most people are too intimidated to say "no" because the nice, when they don't get their way, get their pound of flesh. If you resist you are branded as mean, and you probably carry an inward load of guilt as well for stepping on such delicate toes.

    Nice people know this, consciously or otherwise, and they use it. It's not a case of passive-aggressiveness, it's pure aggressive.

    A great study in how nice people get away with murder can be found in Spongebob Squarepants. Spongebob is classic nice, insisting that everyone conform to his view of what they should be doing or how they should be acting and feeling. In the process, he deeply insults his (platonic) friend Sandy the squirrel, lands his driving instructor Mrs. Puff in jail, constantly invades Squidward's privacy, takes horrible advantage of good-natured Patrick and regularly puts bystanders and the entire town of Bikini Bottom in physical peril. In fact, he will stoop to anything to get his way. But the havoc he wreaks is excused by all. People can't help but favor someone so forcefully sweet and sensitive.

    Only one character, Squidward, openly objects to Spongebob's awfulness. But Squidward's evident preference for the life of the mind wins him little favor relative to Spongebob's mindless extroversion. For holding Spongebob to ordinary standards of behavior, he is made out to be a cantankerous bully. Like anyone who stands in the way of the nice, he is bludgeoned with the specter of ostracism and loneliness and made to appear an arrogant fool. People would rather accede to Spongebob's self-centered and platitudinous view of the world than deal with the moral complexity of Squidward's truth telling.

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