After Its Creator’s Death, What a Generation Learned From SpongeBob

“With the death of SpongeBob’s creator, it appears the Krabby Patty recipe will forever remain a secret.” Jon and Kento

And so, an entire generation of Millennials and their parents mourn the passing of Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the quirky Nickelodeon cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants. Mr. Hillenburg, who was a marine biologist turned animator, died on November 25, 2018 at the age of 57 of ALS.

The legacy of SpongeBob
Life lessons from SpongeBob

The show premiered in 1999 and an entire generation was raised on it. In 1999, I was in the thick of child rearing and anything that kept my two young sons riveted for even 5 minutes was an ally. Even though well-meaning friends warned that every watching of the show would lower my children’s IQ by 10 points, we persisted. And, judging by the fact that my son just achieved “Genius” level in the New York Times word game, Spelling Bee, I propose that fears of SpongeBob’s IQ lowering potential were vastly overstated.

The show is set underwater in the city of Bikini Bottom. The protagonist is a yellow sponge who flips burgers at the Krusty Krab, a local burger joint run by Mr. Krabs, a cheap, curmudgeonly crab. SpongeBob and his pet snail Gary (who meows) are joined in their adventures by Sandra Cheeks (Sandy), who must wear a diving suit with a glass dome because she is a squirrel in water, Patrick a dull-witted, pink starfish and Squidward a grumpy squid.

Every episode begins with two essential questions, “Arrrrre you ready kids?’ and the theme song which once heard will rattle around your brain until the end of time, “Whooooooo lives in a pineapple under the sea?”

So what exactly was it about this mélange of utterly unique characters that mesmerized legions of kids, inspired a movie, a Broadway show  and an entire meme culture?

Maybe it is was fact that the characters are gentle and silly and don’t try to be cool. Perhaps it was the outright absurdity of the whole endeavor. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the sweetness of the friendships between the characters. SpongeBob is relentlessly upbeat and generally his cheery view of the world ends up being corroborated. And despite his doom and gloom demeanor we know that even the ever-dour Squidward really does care.

In the end, as a recent article in Vanity Fair points out, we hope that this will prove to be SpongeBob’s most enduring life lesson,

“… it’s easy to be a Squidward—to expect the worst from a senseless world, to shut everyone out and pass the time playing your clarinet. But as this series argued time and time again, we’d all be better off if more people played the SpongeBob.”

So kids, here is the takeaway, in a world of Squidwards, be a SpongeBob. As SpongeBob quips in season three, “What could be better than serving up smiles?”  What indeed?

Thank you for the smiles, Mr. Hillenburg.


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About Helene Wingens

Helene Wingens has always been passionate about painting pictures with words. She graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in psychology and three years later from Boston University School of Law with a Juris Doctor. In a year long clerkship for an appellate judge Helene honed her writing skills by drafting weekly appellate memoranda. She practiced law until she practically perfected it and after taking a brief twenty year hiatus to raise her three children she began writing a personal blog Her essays have been published in: Scary Mommy, Kveller, The Forward, and Grown and Flown where she is Managing Editor. You can visit Helene's website here

More by Helene Wingens:

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