Are SpongeBob's Pants Really Square?

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SpongeBob
SquarePants is gay! Or is he? And why is there so little information
on a matter everyone is discussing?

The
scandal surrounding the sexual orientation of the cartoon character
SpongeBob looks like a media creation. The snickers directed at
the ultra-conservative James Dobson of “Focus
on the Family”
– the man "credited" with questioning
how square SpongeBob’s pants actually are – seem intended to
obscure the issue and vilify the man.

The
issue is: should the public school system be used to encourage sexual
attitudes in children, especially attitudes to which their parents
might object?

Dobson
ignited the current furor two weeks ago during a speech in which
he blasted a video that was slated to be distributed to 61,000 public
and private elementary schools on “We Are Family Day,” March 11.

The
video uses popular cartoon characters to promote the concept of
"diversity," which Dobson identifies rightly or wrongly
with a “gay agenda.” In the video, cartoon characters – including
Barney the Dinosaur, Winnie the Pooh, and SpongeBob SquarePants
– sing and dance to the ’70s disco hit “We are Family.”

The
first point at which lack of information becomes a stumbling block
is trying to find out what Dobson actually said about the video.
In the absence of a transcript, I accept his account. Dobson did
not call SpongeBob “gay,” as the media has widely reported. He objected
to the use of the school system to spread a “pro-gay message” and
he was personally offended by the use of cartoon characters to make
that message more palatable.

Indeed,
Dobson’s main criticism was not directed at the video but at the
"lesson plans" accompanying it. For example, according
to Dobson, the lesson plan entitled “Uncovering Attitudes About
Sexual Orientation” allegedly includes the following definition:

“Heterosexism:
A system of beliefs, action, advantages, and assumptions in the
superiority of heterosexuals or heterosexuality. It includes unrecognized
privileges of heterosexual people and the exclusion of nonheterosexual
people from policies, procedures, events and decisions about what
is important.”

Dobson
continued by offering an indication of what he called the “curriculum
booklet” that accompanies the “We Are Family” DVD includes.

This
is another point at which a dearth of information converts discussion
into speculation. The guide seems to be unavailable, raising questions
about the source of Dobson’s information. Why soon-to-be distributed
material is not provided to concerned parents is also not clear.

Moreover,
Dobson (and others) contend that the website
of the organization producing the “offending” material has been
edited since his remarks to remove its “overtly
pro-homosexual content.”

The
producer of the video contends that Dobson is “confused”
and simply visited the wrong website. And, so, speculation replaces
fact.

The
pro-Dobson site CitizenLink basis its speculation
on the contents of a 2003 manual, which, they claim, is “also associated
with the ‘We Are Family’ cartoon-character video.”

The
2003 guide states, “The institutionalization of heterosexuality
in all aspects of society includes the idealization of heterosexual
orientation, romance, and marriage…. Compulsory heterosexuality
leads to the notion of women as inherently ‘weak,’ and the institutionalized
inequality of power: power of men to control women’s sexuality,
labor, childbirth and childrearing, physical movement, safety, creativity,
and access to knowledge. It can also include legal and social discrimination
against homosexuals and the invisibility or intolerance of lesbian
and gay existence.”

If
there is a media story in the SpongeBob furor, it is this: why has
no one examined and provided a detailed analysis of the material
surrounding the video? The story has clearly ignited national interest.
Why has discussion been relegated to snickers and conjecture?

There
are at least two contributing factors.

First,
Dobson has been foolish; he has played into the hands of his critics.
If there is a lesson here, it is this: never pick a fight with a
cartoon character. As one commentator observed,
“It’s like trying to outswim Flipper. Bad idea.” The cartoon wins.

Second,
the media clearly wants to ridicule Dobson rather than discuss the
serious issue he raises. Even a subsequent public
rebuke
to PBS from the new Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
for using tax money to produce school materials in which cartoon
characters “promote” homosexuality has not produced serious media
discussion.

What
is there to discuss? Again, because it bears repeating, the issue
is whether a government institution should inculcate sexual attitudes
into children, especially attitudes to which their parents might
object.

The
discussion need not be sympathetic to Dobson.

For
example, one of the first questions I would ask is whether he would
object to cartoon characters being used to inculcate sexual values
with which he agrees. Frankly, I doubt he would protest Winnie the
Pooh being used to advance the traditional family or the choice
of women to become mothers and housewives.

Yet
those choices, no less than homosexuality, are politically charged
and offensive to some.

Such
discussion is as unlikely to occur. The facts of the brouhaha are
equally unlikely to emerge even though the material in question
should be readily available.

And,
so, those in the media will continue to discuss a speech they did
not attend regarding materials they have not examined in order to
have a good snicker, while repeating statements that were never
uttered.

As
for me, I’ll wait to find out what is actually in the material before
commenting. If anyone ever releases it to non-schoolchildren, that
is.

February
3, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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