Postmodernism in Children’s Animated Television: Squidward And SpongeBob Squarepants

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In Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, he discusses how the status of knowledge has changed in more advanced economies. Applying his insight to the world we live in today, the focus is on the information overload emerging from web-based sources and multimedia platforms. This explosion of information that children nowadays are exposed to goes against the traditionalist view that a child should be exposed to authorized and pre-selected knowledge at certain points in childhood, Traditionally, parents of the child would be in control of most of the child’s sources of knowledge, and would have the biggest influence on their child’s ideas of their own reality. In the modern age, children are exposed to more influences than ever before and thus are exposed to social pressures, ideas of social norms and trends. They are open to the influence of competing ideologies at a much earlier age than what was normal for their parents. Just as postmodern childhood demands a merging of boundaries between childhood and adulthood, postmodern art involves the merging of boundaries between different genres, different kinds of subject matter and even different types of media, such as video games, television and computers. Postmodernist work is usually self-referential and self-reflective in nature, using accepted conventions of older cultural genres in playful or distorted ways, as a form of ironic observations on these conventions. Pastiche, homage, parody and irony are key fundamentals of postmodernism. If children in this day and age are living out a postmodern childhood, then it’s no surprise that the forms of media they are exposed to are filled with elements of postmodernism also. Shows such as Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Teen Titans Go! have all incorporated the classic conventions of their genre, in self-reflective, ironic and surreal forms. The attractiveness of these shows is that the audience is familiar with such elements of postmodernism but enjoys seeing them in a twisted, exaggerated or ironically misused way. This postmodern method was taken even further by SpongeBob Squarepants by, to put it simply, playing it straight. Having its modern references take place in such a retro and surreal environment added to the appeal, but SpongeBob Squarepants maintained its silly and innocent ways. SpongeBob Squarepants is a primary example of a show that became popular with an adult audience, despite being originally aimed at children, displaying characteristics of postmodernism throughout its seasons such as the metanarrative, self-referentiality and theories of deconstruction. Spongebob Squarepants is littered with references to itself and even to high culture. An example of the show exploring the metanarrative is in the episode ‘Squilliam Returns’, wherein Spongebob goes insane after reading the book ‘How to Become a Fancy Waiter in Less Than Twenty Minutes’. After Squidward instructs him to forget everything except ‘fine dining and breathing’, Spongebob’s mind is broken down into a vision of mini Spongebobs destroying his brain’s files. An interaction between the mini Spongebobs ensues wherein the ‘leader’ instructs one of the miniatures to hurry up, and the miniature responds; ‘You don’t pay me. We don’t even exist. We’re just a clever visual metaphor used to personify the abstract concept of thought.’ The whole show is very aware of itself and its own conventions, especially in the episode Frankendoodle, wherein Spongebob draws himself with a magic above-water pencil. The drawing comes to life and Spongebob dubs him ‘Doodlebob’, soon enough, Doodlebob develops his own agenda and steals the pencil from Sponegbob, creating his own reality. Spongebob Squarepants is full of sly self-references, and it doesn’t stop there. It goes on to include references to high culture too. For example, in the episode ‘Artist Unknown’, Spongebob recreates a perfect render of Michelangelo’s David. It’s a subtle tip of the hat to art history, as well as Squidward’s whining of; ‘It’s too hot! Too cold! Toulouse-Lautrec!’, accompanied by an animation of Squidward being carried on a bed by Spongebob and Patrick, a direct reference to a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec.

As per postmodern ‘tradition’, Spongebob Squarepants comments on the surreal and abstract concept of existence, and as a postmodern show, it has its nihilistic moments too. In one episode of season three, ‘Doing Time’, Spongebob and Patrick attempt to break out boating instructor Mrs Puff out of jail. Mrs Puff is adamant that she does not want to leave the jail, and Spongebob begins to wonder if she had just forgotten what it was like to live in the outside world. The scene cuts to a dreary montage of a typical working man’s day; he goes to work in a cubicle with a deadpan expression, among many others looking the same, sitting in blocked up traffic with the same expression, and dejectedly gazing out the window while his wife asks off-screen if he’s coming to bed. It is a comment on the dangers of routine in life. A concept that one would imagine would go completely over a child’s head, delivering an alternative message to them that being an adult is just boring.

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