For the past four months, my college-aged brother has been studying in South Africa. This means, in addition to feeling like I?m losing control of my life every time our schedules line up, we mostly communicate via instant message. A while back, we were talking about an idea I had regarding the possibilities of liberal politics in cartoons (coming soon), so I wasn?t terribly surprised, yesterday, when he asked me what makes a cartoon character black.
The topic has been addressed to some degree, using both history and close readings of coded clues found in certain works. Vox explains that the earliest cartoons descend from minstrel shows, and that, specifically, the gloves many early cartoon characters wear are a holdover from that racist past. Similarly, Black Girl Nerds, Black Nerd Problems, and Vice/Noisey have all weighed into the debate, citing characters who are Otherized, like Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z, films with R&B soundtracks, such as A Goofy Movie, and even characters who don?t get the credit they?re due, like Panthro from Thundercats, as examples of black cartoon characters.
After more research, I confirmed what I already knew; there simply are not a lot of black cartoon characters. Much like most American art forms, blackness was integral to animation?s creation and development, but black bodies themselves were left out of most productions. As a result, black cartoon fans have latched onto many characters that while not explicitly black, were not definitively coded white either (Skeeter from Doug comes to mind).
After some thought, we mostly agreed on a set of criteria that made cartoon characters black. To be black, a character must be one or more of the following: a) the original trickster characters that were pulled from minstrel shows or descendants thereof (Bugs Bunny, Tweety, and Jerry, but not Mickey Mouse, because he starred in a cartoon playing an actual minstrel); b) characters that were not explicitly black, but Otherized through backstory and cartoon skin colors (Piccolo and Skeeter, but not The Simpsons from the eponymous show, because they are explicitly white in their universe); c) actual black cartoon characters (like most of The Boondocks and Jodie & Mac from Daria); d) characters the black community has claimed over time (the race of anthropomorphic dogs in Disney cartoons and Panthro). So, my brother asked me, is Plankton, from SpongeBob SquarePants, black?
It?s a fair question. SpongeBob is one of the most memed pieces of media ever, and memes are inextricably linked to both Black Twitter and 21st century black culture as a whole, so we thought it wasn?t a total waste of our time.
We went back and forth for a while, and eventually decided that Plankton?s blackness was entirely predicated on the racial identities of the rest of Bikini Bottom. So, the first thing we had to figure out was what the racial make-up of Bikini Bottom was. Bikini Bottom, according to the SpongeBob wiki is located directly under Bikini Atoll, which would make the SpongeBob universe Polynesian. We doubted this pretty strongly, since all examples of society in the show seem to more closely reflect the Western world. Besides, after US nuclear tests, Bikini Atoll has a population of five. My brother pointed out, in the SpongeBob movies, the characters surface and interact with humans. The nearest habitable land to Bikini Atoll is either Papua New Guinea or Hawaii. After reviewing the scenes in question, and noting that most people were white, and no one spoke with an Australian accent, we determined they must be set in Hawaii.
This means that Bikini Bottom is most likely based on an American town. This makes sense, as the creators are American. The definitive proof for us came in the episode ?The Lost Mattress?, where Mr. Krabs is ejected from his hospital bed for not having insurance. The US is the only Western country where that would ever happen. Bikini Bottom supposedly had a medieval period in its history, and the God-King Neptune appears to function as a head of state for the ocean. But, given that the town also has a period reminiscent of the American frontier, Bikini Bottom has a mayor, and several parodies of American cities exist in-universe, it seems that Bikini Bottom functions mostly like America, if it were a constitutional monarchy. This would mean whites are probably the largest ethnic group. So, now that we knew what the norm was, we had to figure out which characters, if any, deviated from it.
In this, his very blackness is in question and situational?
Eugene & Pearl Krabs
One thing we knew right off the bat was that Mr. Krabs had a daughter of a different species, so at least one of these characters was a person of color. Eugene is a crab man with a whale daughter. Pearl has a mother, but she?s never appeared on screen. It?s implied Mrs. Krabs (AKA the Mother of Pearl, the joke for which she is named and Eugene?s exclamation of surprise) is a whale, as no mention is made of adoption or that Eugene is her stepfather, so we can reasonably assume Pearl is mixed race (her presentation as fully whale could be attributed to a sort of undersea ?one drop rule?). We also know that Mr. Krabs was born in 1942, and he served in the Navy. If Bikini Bottom?s history is anything like ours, this would mean Krabs likely fought in Vietnam (or an equivalent) and met a wife (or sexual partner) while he was over there. Whether she came back to Bikini Bottom, or stayed wherever she was, is unclear. Bikini Bottom is occasionally portrayed as a large city, but it has a population of about 538, according to the wiki, so it?s more of a small town. It?s very plausible that there?s only one sperm whale in town, as we have never seen another one. This makes Mr. Krabs likely white (He?s also probably Irish/Italian/Eastern European. He grew up poor, and speaks with an accent. He?s likely new to whiteness) and Pearl East Asian, probably Vietnamese.
Mr. Krabs and Pearl were the easiest, because Pearl is very nearly the only whale in the show, and we worked backwards from there. For the rest of the characters, we had to look at their species at large to see how race could be determined. Squidward was probably the simplest of these cases. One of the only real-life parody characters in SpongeBob is Kelpy G. a professional saxophonist, based ?of course? on Kenny G. who is Jewish in real life. If this weren?t enough, most octopi in Bikini Bottom live in their own neighborhood where they can be solely amongst each other. They seem to mainly wish to date each other, as evidenced in ?Love that Squid?. They also have a social club based around being cephalopods. This is without even mentioning their obvious affluence and their noses. Squidward is a Jew who moved away from his segregated community to live in Bikini Bottom and make it as an artist.
We?re going to get intertextual with this one. Sandy is explicitly from Texas, and she came to Bikini Bottom to study sea creatures. She is often coded as Other by herself and the other characters as a ?land mammal?, or just ?mammal?, but we weren?t sure that this was enough to prove anything without any discernible movement IRL for her to be seen as black. SpongeBob the Musical, however, changed our minds. I happened to see it a few months back, and Pearl, Mrs. Puff, and Sandy were all black. We?d already come up with a pretty convincing reason why Pearl wasn?t black, but Mrs. Puff and Sandy definitely could be, the latter especially. The musical characterizes her as smart, strong, and hyper-competent, yet never listened to by anyone in charge. If that doesn?t sound like a black woman, I don?t know what does.
We got Patrick the same way we figured out Squidward. In ?Pest of the West? Patrick reveals that he?s related to Patrick Revere, a parody of Paul Revere who was white in real life, making Patrick almost certainly white as well. Furthermore, he?s has relatives named Cletus and Maw, so I feel safe in assuming he?s coded white. He could theoretically have some other ancestry mixed in, but his family tree provides no evidence of this. We double checked with the musical, where Patrick was white, and we also remembered that he?s definitely gay. It?s long been a fan theory that Patrick was gay, even one espoused by queer theorist Jeffrey P. Dennis, and this was all but confirmed when the musical treated Sandy like SpongeBob?s best friend and Patrick much more like a love interest. The two even share a breakup song.
SpongeBob, was harder to categorize, but at the end of the day, we mostly agreed with Vice. SpongeBob is a light-skinned black character who may be able to pass as white in some situations. Why? SpongeBob hits my first criterion for a black cartoon character almost to a tee. He is a trickster directly descended from minstrelsy, but with one key difference. Like a minstrel character, he can do some light bending of reality when he?s the antagonist of the story, such as when he bothers Squidward or Mrs. Puff. Also true to form is a near-total suspension of his powers when he?s the protagonist. This is called toon physics, first explicitly addressed in the 1988 classic, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Toons (here referring to those descended from minstrelsy) can warp reality, but only when it?s funny to do so. The difference is in how he does it.
While most toons use no logic at all to warp reality, SpongeBob mostly does so through his unique biology. His porousness allows him to absorb water, he can regrow limbs, and a litany of other toon-like abilities. This logic adds a verisimilitude, if only a small amount, to his antics. This places him somewhere between a character like Bugs Bunny and one who operates more on conventional logic. In this, his very blackness is in question and situational, possibly even making him mixed race. What is clear, however, is that SpongeBob is black.
This was clinched for me when I remembered Rock Bottom. Rock Bottom is a neighboring town to Bikini Bottom, introduced in the first season. The town is south of Bikini Bottom, and the inhabitants are considered scary by Bikini Bottomites. The town?s buses run infrequently, and everyone speaks a language that seems to be like English, but slightly different. On his first visit, SpongeBob is fearful of this obviously coded ghetto, but the lesson he learns in that episode is that the people of Rock Bottom are good people, if you give them a chance. He even learns to speak their dialect (a coded African-American Vernacular English). The city returns in the tenth season, when Squidward is forced to make a delivery there. He attempts AAVE, but the inhabitants (living in a literal hole in the ground, surrounded by barbed wire) don?t buy it. SpongeBob shows up to save the day by code-switching between the white Squidward and the black Rock Bottomers.
Sheldon J. Plankton
Our final entry caused the fiercest debate. My brother initially thought that Plankton had to be black, thinking that there were no other plankton that appear in the series, but I reminded him of the cousins that are featured in ?Plankton?s Army?. These cousins are, to an organism, country folk. So, I argued that Plankton had to be white. He was surely Otherized, but I chalked that up to an urban-rural divide rather than a racial one.
We were ready to call it, when he noticed that in addition to cousins named Doug and Enis, he has two named Julio and Rainchild. If Plankton has both Latino and Native American cousins, then he?s likely at least part LatinX himself (and possibly from Texas). This would also make him, likely, the only LatinX character in Bikini Bottom proper.
So we?re almost two thousand words in, and you might wonder why I?ve spent so much time telling you all of this. Is SpongeBob SquarePants actually a woke masterpiece? Is it really a story about a community of marginalized people living under Bikini Atoll, a literal expression of the US? abuse of people of color, in a community made of scrap and found items trying to make lives for themselves in the shadow of power? Maybe, but whether it is or not, I thought this exercise was useful for two reasons.
Firstly, because representation is important. People need to have characters that look like them in media, so they can feel like they are a valued group within society. But more than that, this piece is about how art can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. With only a few clues, we were able to come up with reasonably plausible racial codings of these characters, based only on evidence SpongeBob?s creators provided for us. What matters isn?t if my brother?s and my analyses are what the creators intended, but that these interpretations are valid ones that a marginalized fan could reasonably hold.
All art exists in a context, even a silly one, and just because the Other is not explicitly depicted in a work, does not mean that It won?t be coded in one way or another, consciously or not. I chose a piece of art where no character explicitly has a race, to show that this phenomenon is everywhere. So, in works that do use real-world races, it behooves creators to represent a diverse range of characters, and to do so explicitly. This is doubly true in cartoons, where race is totally malleable.
Marginalized people are going to latch on to characters they see as representative of their experience either way, but examples like Jodie from Daria or the characters of Black Panther deeply resonate with audiences and enrich the experience for everyone.
[Post Script Did you know Gary is Patrick Star?s first cousin? I know it was for a one-off joke, but that?s even worse than the Goofy/Pluto thing. SpongeBob owns Patrick?s cousin. I don?t even know what to do with that.]
All images: Nickelodeon Animation Studios & Rankin/Bass Entertainment