Stephen Hillenburg, Creator of Spongebob, has passed away

Stephen Hillenburg, Creator of Spongebob, has passed away

The first time I let my kids watch Looney Tunes, they were horrified.  My daughter asked in a quavering voice, “Why is the rabbit being so mean to that man?”

That’s the kind of cartoons my generation grew up with.  Sociopathic a-holes like Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Donald Duck reigned.  Pretty much everyone was trying to kill each other all the time and the good guys, if present, were naive goody-two-shoes practically begging to be outwitted, FrankBurnsian rule-followers who deserved their comeuppance, or roadrunners.

My kids grew up watching Spongebob Squarepants instead.

Spongebob Squarepants, of course, is that sweet and silly show that served as a refutation of the pessimism and mindless violence that surrounded Generation X, a rejection of the nihilism that tainted our childhoods and the precocious pop-culture worldliness that forced us to grow up before we were ready.  Spongebob restored the faith of those of us who were taught by the generations before us to be faithless, who wanted something not-hopeless and not-terrible to share with our children.  Stephen Hillenburg, who passed away November 26, created not only a beloved character in Spongebob Squarepants, but a downright subversive one. With Spongebob, Hillenburg wrested control of the narrative from the cynics and curmudgeons and restored a much-needed spirit of innocence to childhood.  And he did it without condescending to children, without insulting their intelligence, and most importantly, without boring them.

I’ll state an unpopular opinion: growing up, I never liked Mr. Rogers.  I thought Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was dull as dishwater, and while I didn’t have the word “pedantic” in my vocabulary, I saw Mr. Rogers as another busybody grownup telling me what to do.  That’s probably what appealed about Looney Tunes – it was utterly devoid of moral instruction.  But even though I enjoyed a well-placed anvil to the head and found Mr. Rogers to be an insufferable milquetoast, I perceived a chronic and depressing lack of sincerity coming from the TV.  (As a true Gen-Xer, the TV talked to me far more than any human being ever did). The characters who seemed sincere, like Mr. Rogers, nearly always ended up to be hypocrites and were always always preachy.  And the others – Bugs and his ilk – mostly seemed to care about being cool – edgy, before edgy was even a thing. Once I aged out of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, nearly every kid-friendly protagonist I encountered was sarcastic and uncharitable and snarky.  Most beloved characters of the ‘70’s and 80’ were egomaniacs like Daffy Duck, future criminals like Bart Simpson, or like Pee-Wee Herman, their innocence was played tongue in cheek, as a joke for grownups.  The world presented to me as a child appeared strangely binary – devils or angels, with little in between, and for some reason, the devils were supposed to be the good guys. The children’s show where the characters behaved like decent people without being overly saccharine didn’t seem to exist.

Spongebob is the kind of character I needed but never had growing up – he is sincerity, personified.  Despite his geometric proportions, Spongebob is not edgy, and he doesn’t even try to be. His innocence is celebrated, not denigrated.  In most cartoon universes, Spongebob would be the butt of the joke, not the star of the show. Spongebob Squarepants performs the rare trick of blending straight talk (kids crave straight talk) about how the world works with entertainment, and somehow does so seamlessly.  Spongebob Squarepants isn’t preachy, it isn’t mean-spirited, AND yet it’s still freaking hilarious.  Spongebob is neither obsessed with coolness nor is it a thinly veiled morality play the adults are putting on to teach the kiddies a lesson.  No one in Bikini Bottom is too good to be true, not even our hero.

No one is too bad to be true, either.  The mustache-twirling villains of most cartoons whose evil is a handy plot device, are not present in Spongebob.  There are no villains in Bikini Bottom at all, really.  While the characters all have negative personality traits, they’re the kind of traits where you actually know people who have them.  They’re relatable, believable, familiar. Take Mr. Krabs, for instance. We’ve all worked for Mr. Krabs a time or two – not necessarily a bad guy, you actually kind of like him, he looks out for you when he can – he just loves money.  We all have a friend like Sandy, who’s so gung ho that she never stops to realize she’s inflicting her passions on everyone else. And Squidward – well, I think most of us not only know Squidward, but ARE Squidward at times. Even Plankton is just a guy that desperately wants to succeed and doesn’t think it’s fair that Mr. Krabs has the secret formula when he doesn’t (#inequality!)   Most of the conflict in Spongebob comes not from the nonsensical machinations of a supervillain, but from the seemingly mundane interactions of realistic archetypes.  It’s the minor drama of everyday life – trying to be a good person, trying to do your job, trying to stay cheerful when everything is going wrong, trying to put up with your friends and coworkers even as they drive you crazy – in a funhouse mirror.   We see ourselves there, both adults and children alike, and we can’t help but laugh hysterically at our reflections.

I seriously doubt that when a marine biologist named Stephen Hillenburg donned a Hawaiian shirt and went in to pitch an animated show about a talking sponge at Nickelodeon, that he envisioned an entertainment juggernaut that would be as culturally important as Spongebob Squarepants has become.  I seriously doubt he knew he would be helping to make the world a happier, brighter, more joyous place for two generations of children (and counting).  But he did. Steven Hillenburg’s positive and upbeat vision gives even us adults a cultural touchstone to share in these divided times. Spongebob brings people together in a world that feels like it’s coming apart at the seams.  We may feel miles apart from each other, but we all laugh at a Spongebob meme.

The day Stephen Hillenburg passed away, my children turned on Spongebob Squarepants like they’ve done dozens of times before.  I sat down to watch it with them like I often do.  They sang along with the theme song and laughed uproariously at the hijinks of Spongebob and Patrick and Gary and the rest of the Bikini Bottom gang.  And regardless of what adults think about Spongebob’s importance in the grand scheme of everything, that’s really what matters.  Children enjoy what Stephen Hillenburg created.  It’s the best tribute there could possibly be – making millions of kids happy now and for many years to come.  

Thank you, Stephen.






Photo by roldanace Stephen Hillenburg, Creator of Spongebob, has passed away

Photo by Neo-grapher Stephen Hillenburg, Creator of Spongebob, has passed away

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Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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16 thoughts on “Stephen Hillenburg, Creator of Spongebob, has passed away

  1. Great piece. I loved the old Looney Tunes cartoons (they were my introduction to classical music and opera), but I also love Spongebob. It’s a great cartoon for children and adults: it’s smart, funny, and doesn’t rely on dated cartoon tropes.

    I was sad to see that the creator died-thanks for writing this.

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  2. I’ve never seen Spongebob Squarepants, so I can’t comment on the show.

    I do agree with your assessment of (most of)* the cartoons and kids shows you (and I) grew up watching. I liked Looney Tunes as a kid, but you’re definitely correct about the mean streak.

    I didn’t like Tom & Jerry, in large part because most of the shows were about the mouse doing something horrible to the cat (I forget which was Tom and which was Jerry) and the moral seemed to be, “because the mouse is weaker, it doesn’t matter what he does to the cat, because the cat is stronger.”**

    That was, come to think of it, the moral behind a lot of the Looney Tunes cartoons. But I liked Looney Tunes better. Perhaps it was more artfully done? Or perhaps there’s no accounting for taste?

    I think I agree about Mr. Rogers. I did like him as a kid, but I think I liked him in large part because I thought the grown ups in my life expected me to like it. So it was kind of a “forced liking.” I don’t know if that makes sense. I chose to do that a lot when I was younger and even into my early to mid-20s. And then I found out that the “grown ups” tended to like and have more respect for those who were more assertive and honest about their preferences.

    Thanks for writing this post, Kristin. I really enjoyed it.

    *There were exceptions, though. Plenty of cartoons featured good guys who foiled bad guys. True, the bad guys were almost always the mustache-twirling stereotypes you mention. But the good vs. evil aspect lacked the sarcasm, usually. Even so, I agree that it was simplistic.
    **There were, however, a few Tom & Jerry shows where they were friends.

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    • the moral seemed to be, “because the mouse is weaker, it doesn’t matter what he does to the cat, because the cat is stronger.”

      I do realize, by the way, that stories with that moral have a long history and aren’t necessarily something to be condemned. They could work as one of the “weapons of the weak” that James C. Scott* (for example) has talked about or that Eugene Genovese**documented in his study of slavery (I haven’t read it, but I understand that’s part of his argument).

      *James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, 1987.

      **Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, ca. 1976.

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      • See, I have a different read on this. I don’t think it’s so much that it’s ok the mouse wins because the cat is bigger. I think it’s that the mouse (or the bunny) wins because he’s smarter – and more importantly cooler. People who are gullible or uptight or dumb or lame DESERVE getting taken down by their “betters”. People who are cool have a right, even an obligation, to rip those who are uncool, to shreds.

        And that – I think that’s an unfortunate message and is what a lot of us really took away from the Looney Tunes cartoons in particular.

        You can see the evolution in Hawkeye vs. Frank Burns and in Jim vs. Dwight Schrute. At some point it isn’t punching up any more. Bugs, Hawkeye, and Jim have powers that their nemesis-es lack and it really seems more like they’re punching down to me. They’re the bullies. Yet it goes on and on and on, because it’s funny when it’s on TV, but not so much when it occurs in real life.

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              • To expand on that a little bit (but also to add an ad hoc point to your very good point), there is a sense in much of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry (I didn’t watch Woody Woodpecker all that much and don’t remember it well) that the game is overly simplistic.

                The good guys and bad guys are too distinct, most of the time. There’s very little nuance. Wile E. Coyote hunts the roadrunner and gets his comeuppance. But it’s in his nature to hunt for food. He’s not bad for doing that. (That said, a cartoon where he got the bird and where the viewer would be expected to find that success funny would convey a vicious message.)* For Tom & Jerry, as I said it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it strikes me that the mouse baits the cat more than serving as the cat’s potential victim.

                That (in my view) overly simplistic portrayal of the good vs. the bad seems to give way to a more nuanced and more believable (and therefore, better) view of human traits we see in Spongebob (by Kristin’s account… I’ve said, I’ve never seen the show). At the same time, I guess we see some nuance in Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, such as the shows where Tom & Jerry work as a team and where Wile E. Coyote and the bird (Foghorn Leghorn?) clock in to work where the coyote chases the bird, but once they clock out, they’re friends again

                I don’t want to make too much of my distinction. It might not be worth the number of words I’ve just written. And I admit my comment here has a “butwhatabout” quality to your very good point about the “rules” making what I see as bullying more about self-defense.

                *Notice I left out Elmer Fudd. He seems more legitimately dressed as “bad” than, in my opinion, Wile E. Coyote.

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                • See, I’d say that it’s not only in Wile E Coyote’s nature to hunt food, but it’s also in Elmer’s nature to hunt food. Unless we’re vegetarians, we are all Elmer Fudd really. It’s a guy who needs to eat vs. a guy who doesn’t want to be eaten. Unless you’re a strict vegan, Elmer isn’t morally or ethically wrong for wanting to eat to survive. It’s not a case of an evil supervillain trying to rule the world or anything, it’s just a guy who wants to live and needs to eat to do that.

                  And Bugs also takes down some people who are fairly innocent, like the guys who are trying to put up a building where his hole happens to be. He also sells out Daffy – he’s totally cool with Daffy getting shot by Elmer, as long as it isn’t Bugs. So I have a hard time accepting Bugs Bunny as a shining warrior of justice taking on the bad guys.

                  Even if he was a pure and noble avenging angel going only after those who done him wrong, his response is so off the charts that it feels cruel. Like the guy who kicks their opponent in the ribs once they’re down. At some point who cares if the other guy looked at you funny or hit on your girl? The response is so much more than the situation required, it still amounts to bullying.

                  Bugs Bunny is a bully. Even if the other guy started it, and even if the other guy had it coming, he’s still a bully.

                  I really feel like we’re seeing a lot of Bugsism lately. “This person is bad, problematic in some way, so any level of response, no matter how extreme, is not only acceptable, it’s warranted.” It really seems to be an unfortunate trend that has come to fruition the past decade or two or three, that all means are justified if the other guy is wrong/dumb/uncool or maybe, oh, I don’t know, golly gee whiz – voted for a different political party than you.

                  Of course it’s just a children’s cartoon, maybe I’m reading too much into it all, but then again Pepe Le Pew is certainly seen in a different light now than he used to be.

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                  • For some reason, I think I see Elmer differently, but I can’t really put my finger on it. I’m definitely not a vegetarian, and hunting is a much more ethical way to get meat than the factory farmed methods that probably create most of the meat I use.

                    That said, I agree with the rest of your comment, especially the penultimate one. There are so many things I could add to your list of “wrong/dumb/uncool or…voted for a different political party than you.”

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    • I had to do some picking and choosing for the readability of the piece – I did indeed think about several “good guys” who didn’t really fit the “cool a-hole” trope – Bullwinkle, Superfriends, Scooby Doo – and had a little bit about that, but it just didn’t flow. You’re right though, plenty of exceptions.

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