This post was inspired by a riveting conversation I had with Claire Houston about a week ago. I first brought up a “critical disability analysis of Spongebob Squarepants” as a joke, but then quickly realized that one of the wildly popular show’s best episodes –– Tea at the Treedome (S1) –– is perhaps the best conveyance of the social model of disability and solutions to access barriers other than “cure” I have ever seen on childrens’ television.
If you’ve forgotten the plot to this iconic episode, I’d like to direct you to Spongepedia for a full description. The part of this episode I am going to focus on is that which occurs while and after Spongebob meets Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel and proud Texan who is fairly new to Bikini Bottom.
Sandy’s air helmet is a conspicuous reminder of the fact that Bikini Bottom exists under water –– something the show as a whole allows us to forget, as all of its characters can live safely below. Sandy, a native to land, not sea, throws into focus the basic condition of Bikini Bottom life, a condition that other characters have no need to acknowledge. To them, living surrounded by water is as normal as breathing air is to mammals. It is only the existence of people who are unable to breathe underwater without assistive tech (like a helmet) that reminds us that our everyday conditions are based on a limited, exclusionary definition of normalcy.
When encountering difference, our beloved sponge behaves better, I would say, than the average able-bodied (so-to-speak) person (also so-to-speak). He immediately understands that the fact that he’s not sure what to make of Sandy’s equipment is on him, not on Sandy. Although it may have been wiser for him to politely ask what “air” was instead of pretending to know what it was in order to impress the squirrel, young viewers of the show receive an important model for interaction with people who are different from oneself. That is, one of polite curiosity and openness to learning as opposed to studied ignorance.
The implicit “temporary” in Spongebob’s able-bodied status reveals itself once he enters the Treedome, Sandy’s air-filled home*. He is only “able” to move through his watery world as a normal, “healthy” individual when surrounded by water –– something he didn’t even notice before realizing Sandy needed to breathe air. As he slowly dries up, he feels an implicit pressure to “suck up” (he’s a sponge, so the pun is a little bit intended) his pain and fake normalcy. In our world and in Spongebob’s capitalism’s insatiable demands for productivity encourage this behavior both inside and outside of the work environment. Spongebob feels he has no other choice than to pretend to be okay –– even if that means suffering irreparable bodily harm, or even risking death –– as he’s never lived under social conditions in which it’s acceptable to admit to being not okay. This is only further suggested by his unflinching devotion to the Krusty Krabs, his place of employment.**
He is only “able” to move through his watery world as a normal, “healthy” individual when surrounded by water –– something he didn’t even notice before realizing Sandy needed to breathe air.
When Spongebob finally decides he can no longer take a moment without water, he drinks the water from a vase of flowers and calls himself a “quitter” for having done so. Like Spongebob, disabled people, especially those who have become disabled, feel compelled to understand themselves as “quitters” or “not trying hard enough.” Spongebob isn’t simply drinking the water because he isn’t trying hard enough to breathe air, though: he physically cannot, and no amount of effort will make him able to breathe oxygen like Sandy, a squirrel, can. Soon after, when Patrick enters the Treedome (thinking that Sandy’s physical differences from himself and Spongebob have scared Spongebob off) he begins to dry up as well: realizing that it was nothing inherent in Sandy that bothered Spongebob, but instead the fact that Spongebob had been rendered disabled by a change in physical environment as well as social environment (insofar as he was too embarrassed to ask Sandy for water and felt like a failure for drinking from her vase).
The resolution of this brief episode is a brilliant message for child and adult viewers alike: instead of Spongebob, Patrick, and Sandy letting their differences stop them from spending time with each other, they work together to develop more assistive devices to accommodate all of them. Sandy brings Spongebob and Patrick water-filled helmets so that they can safely spend time in the Treedome, without judging either of them for not being able to breathe air. Likewise, Sandy’s use of an oxygen helmet outside the Treedome is completely normalized after this episode, to the extent that, as a child and viewer of the show, I was rarely consciously reminded of how “weird” it was for a squirrel to live underwater.
Ultimately, this episode suggests that neither Sandy’s inability to breathe underwater nor Spongebob’s inability to live outside the water without drying up are problems inherent to their respective bodies. They’re simply evidence of the disabling conditions of inaccessible environments. The lesson provided in that short, eleven-minute episode could be applied to understanding dyslexic kids who use audio over the printed word, or hard-of-hearing kids who use transcripts of things other students listen to. By applying the logics of this episode to everyday situations, the opportunity is created to see differences normal, even essential parts of a happy life.
Furthermore, and most importantly, it provides disabled kids a medium through which to understand disability that neither fixates on its negative aspects nor pushes “treatment” as the only solution. If Spongebob and Sandy can solve access barriers without changing their bodies and minds, so too can disabled people as we move through the real world.
*This is a contested term, but useful for my purposes.
**Although outside the scope of this particular post, the way Spongebob’s religious devotion to his job as a fry cook is played for laughs is an example of the subtle and subversive possibilities that exist on children’s TV.