Alternet.org, January 26, 2005
Christian conservatives classically over-reached when they launched their
amphibious assault on SpongeBob SquarePants—and harpooned
themselves squarely in the foot.
By Bruce Kluger
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
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—www.wearefamilyfoundation.org—they'd mistakenly gone to the
home page of the similarly named We Are Family organization (www.waf.org), 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.)