Media

Cartoon Madness

Christian conservatives classically over-reached when they launched their amphibious assault on SpongeBob SquarePants – and harpooned themselves squarely in the foot.
It was the perfect gesture at the perfect time.

On March 11, 2002 – six months after the world changed forever – the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and PBS stations across the country simulcast a three-minute, 11-second music video in which more than 100 beloved children's characters – from Kermit the Frog and Winnie the Pooh to Barney and SpongeBob SquarePants – came together to perform a decidedly animated version of the '70s hit song "We Are Family." No fanfare preceded the broadcast, no money was made from it. Rather, the event – an unprecedented collaboration among broadcast giants and cartoon-and-felt TV stars – was intended solely as a message of healing in the wake of 9/11.

The men behind the project – producers Nile Rodgers and Christopher Cerf – were clearly well-suited to their task. Rodgers, the renowned music impresario and co-founder of the group Chic, had written the disco anthem 22 years earlier for Sister Sledge; and Cerf (son of legendary Random House founder Bennett Cerf) had racked up a shelf full of Emmys for his work on Sesame Street and the popular literacy-preparedness program, Between the Lions.

In other words, these were guys who clearly knew a thing or two about children, music and the magic of humanity.

So positive was the feedback from the broadcast that the project instantly became the cornerstone of Rodgers' We Are Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes diversity, understanding and multiculturalism. In March, a revised version of the video will resurface when it is sent to 61,000 U.S. elementary schools as part of a campaign designed to demonstrate to children "the importance of togetherness," while keeping an eye out for those who are "victims of intolerance."

Message to the We Are Family Foundation: Consider yourself the latest victim.

Last week, Christian conservatives launched an attack on the video, specifically targeting SpongeBob Sqaurepants, Nickelodeon's bright yellow superstar who for six years has captivated kids (and grownups) from his modest pineapple digs under the sea. The amphibious assault on Bob was led by Rev. James Dobson, founding blowhard of the über-conservative Focus on the Family organization. In what can only be described as an outright effort to become a cartoon himself, Dobson chose inaugural week to publicly finger the happy, hapless Sponge as the ringleader in what he deems a "pro-homosexual" agenda within our popular culture.

What fueled Dobson's preposterous broadside is the fact that the We Are Family Foundation has posted a "tolerance pledge" on its web site that makes reference to respecting a person's "sexual identity" (along with his or her beliefs, culture and race). This clearly doesn't sit well with the Reverend, who insists that such an inclusion "crosses a moral line" – especially, it seems, in a music video that flaunts interspecies, puppet-cartoon miscegenation.

"We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids," Dobson's press rep told a slack-jawed media last week. "It's a classic bait and switch."

Quicker than you can say, I can't believe they're going after a cartoon sponge, Dobson's cronies in the holier-than-thou contingent weighed in on the underwater turbulence.

"Tolerance" and "diversity" are part of a "coded language that is regularly used by the homosexual community," said a spokesman from the reliably over-caffeinated Family Research Council; while Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association and reigning Chicken Little of moral depravity, warned parents everywhere to be on the lookout for the sinful video making its way into their kids' classrooms.

Short of a perverse aversion to seafood, why on earth would these men carry such an ample supply of venom for the Spongester? Perhaps it's because SpongeBob occasionally holds hands with Patrick, his starfish buddy, or that the show itself has reportedly become something of a fad among gay adults (sort of like an aquatic Judy Garland).

Or maybe it's simply because the moral crusaders – buoyed by the turnout of the evangelical vote in November, and interpreting that as a mandate to go on the attack – have finally lost their minds. (As a dumbfounded spokesman for Nickelodeon aptly commented: "It's a sponge, for crying out loud. He has no sexuality.")

Over the weekend, I called Rodgers at his home in New England to ask him about about the firestorm surrounding his project. He was holed up from the blizzard outdoors, while fielding nonstop calls from a fascinated national media. Genetically incapable of succumbing to negativity or hot-headed retaliation (the guy is genuinely sunnier than SpongeBob), Rodgers finally did admit to a certain sense of frustration over the brouhaha.

"The only thing that gets me mad," he admitted, "is when someone has the chutzpah or audacity to speak on behalf of my organization – to make up their own interpretation of our efforts and then present those opinions as fact.

"As much as I appreciate the support we're getting from all over," he added, "I think the one thing that's been missing from all the coverage is a discussion of the video itself, and how all of these organizations joined forces to create a spirit of unity. Naturally, kids don't understand – or even care about – all the behind-the-scenes work it took to get giant entertainment corporations to pull together like this. But they will see Barney and Kermit and, yes, SpongeBob, on the same screen together, and they'll immediately understand the message: that even though we're different, we're really all the same."

When the dust – rather, seaweed – finally settled on last week's silly debacle, a few salient facts bubbled to the surface of the brine. As it turns out, the whackos who originally led the attack on the We Are Family Foundation had logged onto the wrong web site in their search for ammunition. Rather than boot up the Foundation's site – www.wearefamilyfoundation.org – they'd mistakenly gone to the home page of the similarly named We Are Family organization (www.waf.org), which is, indeed, a gay and lesbian resource site. But instead of fessing up to messing up – especially now that the media was running with (and laughing at) the story – the resourceful Christians doubled back onto the Foundation's site, found the tolerance pledge, and had the smoking sponge they needed.

Never mind the fact that the pledge is a wholly separate entity on the site, and won't be part of the music video campaign. Those are just little details. And if there's one thing the Dobsons and Wildmons of the world hate, it's details.

The only good thing to come of SpongeGate, of course, is that, in classic style, Dobson and company over-reached, and in the process of chumming for anti-gay outrage among Americans, wound up sinking their own dinghy. It's a small victory for the good guys, but a pretty darn sweet one just the same.

Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder to myself what SpongeBob himself might say about the Bible-thumping band of bullies who briefly had him on their sonar. Good guy that he is, he'd probably rather dry up and float away than say anything negative. Mr. Krabs, however – Bob's cranky boss and proprietor of the Krusty Krab – might have this comment:

"I smell the smelly smell of something that smells smelly."
Bruce Kluger writes for National Public Radio, and is on the Board of Contributors for USA Today.
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