The SpongeBob SquarePapers: Race

Sometimes fascinating failures inspire more thoughts to explore than straightforward successes. Such is the case for the SpongeBob SquarePants Broadway musical, a show that indirectly touches upon a wide range of subjects regarding the state of theatre (and other topics). In the coming days, I’ll excavate some of these ideas in a series dubbed The SpongeBob SquarePapers

Both The Greatest Showman and the SpongeBob SquarePants Broadway musical  superficially explore racism through subplots that feel like afterthoughts, and I’m not sure such a significant issue should be handled so insignificantly.

In The Greatest Showman, because of their race, the black characters played by Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II are treated as social outcasts in the same way as P.T. Barnum’s  “circus freaks” around them. Though such treatment was probably true to the time, likening the discrimination of genetic mutations with the historically systematic oppression of the black community is well-intentioned but a little ignorantly simple, especially since Abdul-Mateen is given nothing to do on the page except be black, turning him into a symbol instead of an actual three-dimensional character.

But at least The Great Showman actually addresses race explicitly, unlike the SpongeBob SquarePants musical’s confusingly metaphoric approach. When Bikini Bottom (the setting of the beloved Nickelodeon animated series) faces an imminent apocalypse, some of the underwater townsfolk blame Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel and the only land creature in sight. The allegory is clear, and contains as many original and probing insights as this sentiment: “We don’t want your kind around these parts.” Which is to say, not many.

The fact that Lilli Cooper and her understudy, both black women, play the role emphasizes the sociopolitical parallels, which are unfortunately underdeveloped . Case in point: She ends up forgiving her temporary oppressors after only TWO LINES OF DIALOGUE, suggesting racism can be solved that quickly and easily. Further contributing to these undercooked racial undercurrents: Since there are also — thankfully — black actors in the chorus who never experience prejudice (at least none that we see), it seems like race doesn’t actually exist under the sea?

You might think that I’m being overly critical of material intended for children, but just because a piece of art’s prime demographic is prepubescent does not justify a mindlessly immature perspective. Some of the most successful kiddie fare throughout human history has also appealed to adults due to the deep resonance of their ideas. Heck, the Academy Award-winning Zootopia tackles racism in a manner that subtly challenges the beliefs of both tikes and geriatrics alike, as does the animated Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, released in theaters just a few weeks ago.    

On one hand, youth entertainment touching upon serious themes is a positive; the earlier we can indoctrinate the young with progressive acceptance, the better off the world will be. But that’s why it’s so important to interrogate the precise meaning and societal utility of the messages. Are such flippant presentations of topics that are anything but the best means to combat the problem? Or are we justified to want, or even need, more?            

As a white guy, I’m not the best person to answer these questions. I just thought I’d ask them, in the hopes someone else sheds some enlightenment on these matters.

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