Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? That is a great question? Who in the hell?
SpongeBob SquarePants is someone’s acid trip come to life, one hallucinogenic-laced-joint-induced creative endeavor. Yet, this show is marketed to children on a kid’s channel.
Insert puzzled shrug here.
Aside from the obvious weirdness of a talking, pant-wearing sponge whose best friend is a starfish with minimal IQ and irate neighbor is a clarinet-playing squid, SpongeBob’s content begs a lot of questions (besides what are the ingredients in a crabby patty). Its innuendo is lost on children, and maybe, that is where parents get a subtle nod, a subliminal shout-out from writers that says, “Hey. We get it. We’re here for you, too.”
Occasional inappropriateness for children aside, SpongeBob isn’t the only program that makes me go, “Huh?”
My son is four, and with four comes toddler TV. Yes, I am aware of the arguments backed by both scientific evidence and remarkably judgemental parents (who have nothing to do but demean other parents’ choices). Ezra does not get more than two hours of screen time, but in the collected hours of viewing, I have come to wonder a great many things. While my son enjoys the bright colors and compulsory talking animals, I ponder both the creative decisions and remarkably strange content of children’s TV.
Did I not notice this stuff when I was a kid?
Anthropomorphism, for one thing, is rampant, in the shows my tot watches. Defined as the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object, humanity in the non-human is a standard trope. This, to me, is nothing new. Of course shows I watched as a kid had animals that did human things. The great Mickey Mouse, who must have been perpetually cold, wore gloves, but he did (and still does) live his life as a human. That, on the surface-level, is an odd choice for Disney to make, but it’s pretty innocuous. But what about Donald? Aside from his clear lack of anger management, his fashion choices are mind-boggling. He can manage to wear a gold-buttoned Navy-like top, but lacks pants. If I were to walk around with only a top, I would get a few glances cast in my direction, if not also arrested. Pants are a requirement for being in public. Who wants to sit in a chair after Donald? That’s just gross.
The inconsistencies in anthropomorphism is one thing, but another is the social dynamics and hierarchies amongst the characters. I genuinely don’t understand who gets to be top dog, so to speak, in the social structures of anthropomorphically-rich television. Again, let’s consider Mickey Mouse. This human-like rodent has a pet dog, Pluto, who demonstrates the same kind of loyalty to Mickey as we would expect man’s best friend to do. His girlfriend Minnie (who he still hasn’t married after sixty years – Minnie, move on!) has a pet cat, Figaro. This role-reversal is confusing and unnatural, and repeated throughout children’s programming.
Peppa Pig, the adorably pretentious sow, irks me. She’s such a snob, a know-it-all, yet children adore her. Maybe it’s her British charm juxtaposed to her bossiness, but her empire has been built on immovable foundation. Although kids dig her, there is some plain weird shit that happens in this show. Her friends are incredibly diverse, a veritable zoo of baby animals: goats and zebras and rabbits. Why, then, does Peppa have a pet turtle, Tiddles? She has somehow outranked a turtle on the hierarchy of Peppadom. Apparently, all animals are not equal, and speciesism abounds, and while Peppa and her select animal friends frolic off to primary, Tittles swims helplessly in a bowl. Poor Pluto and Tittle, languishing, resigned to their caste.
There aren’t just animals who demonstrate human-like qualities, but also foods lik a potato. Yes, a spud. A talking tot – for tots. Assuming, he is based on Mr. Potato Head and ‘healthy eating’ mascots that inspire children to view good food as not only edible and worth eating, it’s disturbing. He is so friendly, too! Who wouldn’t feel bad submerging him in a vat of frying oil?
Is this counterproductive? Does any of this anthropomorphism make kids more or less likely to eat? Would they eat pork if they they associated it with Korean Barbecue Peppa? Miss Piggy chops?
Again, this is a nod to parents: “Our show is good! We teach your kids to eat healthy.” The moral authority, existing parallel to the oddities of anthropomorphism, is supposed to make us confident in allowing children to watch television. If we are going to let our kids watch TV, at least let them learn about healthy food options (as if we can’t teach them ourselves), and cooperative diversity between species – some species.
Our role as parents is under constant scrutiny, most so by other parents. At least Peppa has parents that care about what she eats. They are present in their piglet’s life, and at least this mimics the idealized notion of a nuclear, human family.
Where, then, are all the other parents?
Take, for example, Paw Patrol. The main characters are five rascal pups, heroic in their deeds, steadfast and brave in their actions. Chase, Rocky, Rubble, Zuma, and Sky (along with Tracker and Everest, occasionally), assist a young human, Ryder, in overcoming obstacles in Adventure Bay. Something gets lost? They’ll find it. Someone is stuck on a mountain? Don’t call for Lassie. Paw Patrol is on a roll. As their clever slogan suggests, “Yelp for help.”
The character traits modeled, the courage, the perseverance, the selflessness, are positive attributes I’d want my child – heck, I want for myself – to possess. Yet, as Ryder manages leading his five pups and caring for them, his independence is terrifying. As he speeds on to city streets – on his hovercraft, mind you – where in the hell are his parents? There are other grown-ups present on the show, the mayor, the guy who fixes stuff, or someone selling ice cream, but who is responsible for Ryder? Who is making sure he eats his potatoes? I wonder if he even brushes his teeth at night. I can feel my overprotective instinct of worry kicking in, and I cannot focus. Ryder is in danger, and no one is helping him! He has a helicopter, but no helicopter parents. I cannot abide!
Parents, I know you are thinking the same thing, especially now that I’ve brought it up. If you’re not, the next time your child tries independently rescue your neighbor’s cat from a tree with nothing but a pair of chopsticks and a grappling hook, blame Paw Patrol.
But TV cannot be the scapegoat. Obviously, I wouldn’t rely on a device to raise my child, but I can’t help but wonder about the underlying messages that are communicated in the time he is exposed to programming.
Or maybe I’m reading too far into things. I tend to do that. Until then, the “Free Tiddles” shirts I’m screen-printing are $10, shipped. Let me know if you’re interested.