Alan Attwood, Ed#481, April 2015
IN the Basque language he’s Bob Belaki. In Croatian, Spu×va Bob Skockani. Czech: Spongebob v kalhotách. Danish: SvampBob Fyrkant. French: Bob l’éponge. German: SpongeBob Schwammkopf. Polish (deep breath): SpongeBob Kanciastoporty. When in Iceland, meet Svampur Sveinsson. The animated character called SpongeBob Squarepants (in English) has gone global. As the father of three adult children – one of whom still occasionally unwinds with The Sponge (see p17) – I know a little about this. Enough to know that we’re talking about a phenomenon. The scale of it became apparent in January when I caught some highlights of a charity day event before the Australian Open. There they were, some of the world’s best-known tennis players – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, Victoria Azarenka – on court with SpongeBob. You can be confident, too, that kids in all of their home countries (Switzerland, Serbia and Belarus, respectively) would have recognised him, even if they were unsure about some of the people present.
The best children’s stories and characters are universal; their origins end up forgotten or ignored. This applies to Lewis Carroll’s Alice (England), folk tales from the Brothers Grimm (Germany), Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (Denmark) or Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (USA – also SpongeBob’s place of birth). Whether some or all of these are, strictly speaking, aimed at children is another question. The most successful creations appeal to several generations. This is true of, say, The Simpsons and also SpongeBob. Barack Obama is a fan; something that doesn’t surprise me at all. Before he was President he was Dad to two young girls; that insidiously catchy theme song (Who lives in a pineapple under the Sea? SpongeBob Squarepants…) wormed its way into his brain. This happens. Because of what my own kids watched I have been sprung, in serious gatherings, humming Wiggles and Play School songs. That can damage one’s credibility. As can being told off for laughing too loudly at a screening of Madagascar, ostensibly a children’s film. Katherine Smyrk, who wrote our cover story (p14), has confessed to feeling a little awkward attending a preview screening of the new SpongeBob movie without having a child with her as cover. But kids shouldn’t get to have all of the fun.
Kids are kids all over the world. The same things appeal to them. Which is why, however his name is written or said, SpongeBob has a universal message – even if it’s just a reason to laugh. It’s grown-ups, with their petty disputes, who cause all the problems. Something I first saw and heard long, long ago has stuck with me: a very wise man named Herman Munster asking plaintively, “Why can’t life be the way it is in Mary Poppins?” Why indeed? We’d all be better off if it were…
What’s that? Both Herman Munster and Mary Poppins are fictional characters, aimed at kids? I refuse to believe it. Why, next you’ll be claiming there was a human inside a sweaty SpongeBob suit on court with Federer at the Open in January.
» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.
This article appears in Ed#481 of The Big Issue magazine.