, January 26, 2005

    Cartoon Madness
    Christian conservatives classically over-reached when they launched their
    amphibious assault on SpongeBob SquarePants—and harpooned
    themselves squarely in the foot.

    By Bruce Kluger

    On March 11, 2002, six months after the world
    changed forever, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon
    and PBS stations across the country simulcast a
    three-minute, 11-second music video in which more
    than 100 beloved children's characters—from
    Kermit the Frog and Winnie the Pooh to Barney
    and SpongeBob SquarePants—came together to
    perform a decidedly animated version of the '70s hit
    song "We Are Family." No fanfare preceded the
    broadcast, no money was made from it. Rather, the
    event—an unprecedented collaboration among
    broadcast giants and cartoon-and-felt TV stars
    was intended solely as a message of healing in the
    wake of 9/11.

    The men behind the project, producers Nile Rodgers and Christopher Cerf, were
    clearly well-suited to their task. Rodgers, the renowned music impresario and co-
    founder of the group Chic, had written the disco anthem 22 years earlier for Sister
    Sledge; and Cerf (son of legendary Random House founder Bennett Cerf) had
    racked up a shelf full of Emmys for his work on Sesame Street and the popular
    literacy-preparedness program, Between the Lions.

    In other words, these were guys who clearly knew a thing or two about children,
    music and the magic of humanity.

    So positive was the feedback from the broadcast that the project instantly became
    the cornerstone of Rodgers' We Are Family Foundation, a non-profit organization
    that promotes diversity, understanding and multiculturalism. In March, a revised
    version of the video will resurface when it is sent to 61,000 U.S. elementary schools
    as part of a campaign designed to demonstrate to children "the importance of
    togetherness," while keeping an eye out for those who are "victims of intolerance."

    Message to the We Are Family Foundation: Consider yourself the latest victim.

    Last week, Christian conservatives launched an attack on the video, specifically
    targeting SpongeBob Sqaurepants, Nickelodeon's bright yellow superstar who for
    six years has captivated kids (and grownups) from his modest pineapple digs under
    the sea. The amphibious assault on Bob was led by Rev. James Dobson, founding
    blowhard of the über-conservative Focus on the Family organization. In what can
    only be described as an outright effort to become a cartoon himself, Dobson chose
    inaugural week to publicly finger the happy, hapless Sponge as the ringleader in
    what he deems a "pro-homosexual" agenda within our popular culture.

    What fueled Dobson's preposterous broadside is the fact that the We Are Family
    Foundation has posted a "tolerance pledge" on its web site that makes reference to
    respecting a person's "sexual identity" (along with his or her beliefs, culture and
    race). This clearly doesn't sit well with the Reverend, who insists that such an
    inclusion "crosses a moral line"—especially, it seems, in a music video that flaunts
    interspecies, puppet-cartoon miscegenation.

    "We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating
    and potentially brainwashing kids," Dobson's press rep told a slack-jawed media
    last week. "It's a classic bait and switch."

    Quicker than you can say, I can't believe they're going after a cartoon sponge,
    Dobson's cronies in the holier-than-thou contingent weighed in on the underwater

    "Tolerance" and "diversity" are part of a "coded language that is regularly used by
    the homosexual community," said a spokesman from the reliably over-caffeinated
    Family Research Council; while Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family
    Association and reigning Chicken Little of moral depravity, warned parents
    everywhere to be on the lookout for the sinful video making its way into their kids'

    Short of a perverse aversion to seafood, why on earth would these men carry such
    an ample supply of venom for the Spongester? Perhaps it's because SpongeBob
    occasionally holds hands with Patrick, his starfish buddy, or that the show itself has
    reportedly become something of a fad among gay adults (sort of like an aquatic
    Judy Garland).

    Or maybe it's simply because the moral crusaders—buoyed by the turnout of the
    evangelical vote in November, and interpreting that as a mandate to go on the
    attack—have finally lost their minds. (As a dumbfounded spokesman for
    Nickelodeon aptly commented: "It's a sponge, for crying out loud. He has no

    Over the weekend, I called Rodgers at his home in New England to ask him about
    about the firestorm surrounding his project. He was holed up from the blizzard
    outdoors, while fielding nonstop calls from a fascinated national media. Genetically
    incapable of succumbing to negativity or hot-headed retaliation (the guy is
    genuinely sunnier than SpongeBob), Rodgers finally did admit to a certain sense of
    frustration over the brouhaha.

    "The only thing that gets me mad," he admitted, "is when someone has the
    chutzpah or audacity to speak on behalf of my organization—to make up their own
    interpretation of our efforts and then present those opinions as fact.

    "As much as I appreciate the support we're getting from all over," he added, "I think
    the one thing that's been missing from all the coverage is a discussion of the video
    itself, and how all of these organizations joined forces to create a spirit of unity.
    Naturally, kids don't understand—or even care about—all the behind-the-scenes
    work it took to get giant entertainment corporations to pull together like this. But
    they will see Barney and Kermit and, yes, SpongeBob, on the same screen
    together, and they'll immediately understand the message: that even though we're
    different, we're really all the same."

    When the dust (rather, seaweed) finally settled on last week's silly debacle, a few
    salient facts bubbled to the surface of the brine. As it turns out, the whackos who
    originally led the attack on the We Are Family Foundation had logged onto the
    wrong web site in their search for ammunition. Rather than boot up the
    Foundation's site——they'd mistakenly gone to the
    home page of the similarly named We Are Family organization (, which
    is, indeed, a gay and lesbian resource site. But instead of fessing up to messing
    up—especially now that the media was running with (and laughing at) the story
    the resourceful Christians doubled back onto the Foundation's site, found the
    tolerance pledge, and had the smoking sponge they needed.

    Never mind the fact that the pledge is a wholly separate entity on the site, and won't
    be part of the music video campaign. Those are just little details. And if there's one
    thing the Dobsons and Wildmons of the world hate, it's details.

    The only good thing to come of SpongeGate, of course, is that, in classic style,
    Dobson and company over-reached, and in the process of chumming for anti-gay
    outrage among Americans, wound up sinking their own dinghy. It's a small victory
    for the good guys, but a pretty darn sweet one just the same.

    Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder to myself what SpongeBob himself might say
    about the Bible-thumping band of bullies who briefly had him on their sonar. Good
    guy that he is, he'd probably rather dry up and float away than say anything
    negative. Mr. Krabs, however—Bob's cranky boss and proprietor of the Krusty
    Krab—might have this comment:

    "I smell the smelly smell of something that smells smelly."

    (SpongeBob SquarePants created by Stephen Hillenburg; click here to read online version of this article.)