L. Neil Smith's
Number 305, February 6, 2005

"An Unhealthy Obsession"

Are SpongeBob's Pants Really Square?
by Wendy McElroy

Special to TLE

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.

Copyright © 2005 Wendy McElroy.
Wendy McElroy Home Page
Wendy McElroy 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" [paperback and hardcover from Amazon.com] (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).


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