As the world becomes more progressive, traditional concepts like masculinity are being reconsidered more and more. Generally speaking, “masculinity” is merely the behavior of men as expected by their societal structures. A man’s job was once solely to be the bread winner and provide for his family, but now he may be the stay-at-home parent while the woman goes to work. This is but one example of how our view on masculine roles has changed. While it is difficult to narrow down one specific definition of this vague concept, we can learn a thing or two from an old favorite cartoon of mine.
In The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, SpongeBob’s mission is to retrieve King Neptune’s crown from across the seas. His journey, though, is to become a man. But that does not mean being the strongest, or masking emotions, or any other generic and foolish ideas of what makes a man. SpongeBob’s journey is deeper than that.
First, let’s look at why he needed to become a man in the first place. Based on the show, we know that he is old enough to work powered equipment like a grill and work night shifts. According to the United States Department of Labor, he must be at least 16 to legally do both. We also can assert that he is no longer in school (grade school, not boating school), so he must be old enough to have graduated from high school at least. We also know that he is living on his own, presumably not renting because we never see him answering to a landlord. Therefore, SpongeBob would have to be at least 18 in order to own his pineapple. His first episode debuted in 1999, and so if he were at least 18 by then, then by the airing of the first movie in 2004 he would be 23. However, a quick Google search for the Nickelodeon character shows that his birthday is July 14, 1986, which would only put in at 18 by 2004. By that math he would have been working the Krusty Krab kitchen, working late nights, going to boating school, and living independently since 13.
His official age does not line up with what we see in the show’s earliest episodes, but for the purpose of the movie he would have been between the ages of 18-23, within his legal limits to do the adult activities in which we see him engage. In the eyes of the law of the United States, SpongeBob would be considered a “man,” but Mr. Krabs still denies him the position of manager for the Krusty Krab 2 because he is supposedly still a kid. This subjective assessment is supported by the fact that SpongeBob still cannot drive, jelly fishes, and generally behaves like a child—his actions further show his immaturity when we see him become intoxicated (in a manner of speaking) at an ice cream bar, showing all the signs the next day of having a hangover: Slurred speech, dizziness, bloodshot eyes. Indeed, he even wakes up in the parlor after his excursions! SpongeBob clearly makes no effort to hide his immature behavior, and while he embraces this characteristic by the end of the film it leads the town of Bikini Bottom and his employer of five years to view him as a child. Therefore, SpongeBob’s journey to become a man is driven in the interest of proving everybody wrong. What’s fascinating, though, are the steps he takes to prove his masculinity to himself and to others.
It is not enough for others, like the two hillbillies SpongeBob and Patrick meet at the gas station, to just hear our protagonist announce that he is a man, it is in his actions. When they lose their car for the second time halfway through the movie, Patrick suggests they go down into the chasm that swallowed the vehicle. Here, SpongeBob enters into doubt about his own masculinity and abilities, giving into what others have told him of his own maturity. It is not until Mindy, King Neptune’s mermaid daughter, pretends to turn them into men by granting them faux mustaches. This visual symbol of manliness gives SpongeBob and Patrick the will and confidence to continue their perilous quest to rescue the king’s crown; they now believe themselves to be men because a real man has facial hair apparently. However, we the audience know that their “mustaches” are nothing more than seaweed attached to their lips, proving the strength the two had within themselves the whole time. This confidence pushes them forward to Shell City, prompts SpongeBob to stand up against Dennis, a “hitfish” hired by Plankton to kill our two heroes, and ultimately defeat our antagonist’s villainous plan to take over the ocean. Despite SpongeBob’s acceptance of his childlike tendencies, his behavior is “manly” enough to prove his worth to the town and earn him the position of manager.
SpongeBob is not stoic, serious, or particularly professional, qualities we see in other men in Bikini Bottom. What makes SpongeBob a man is not an acceptance of how others expect him to act, but rather lessons of how to be strong and selfless. SpongeBob is the only one who stands up for Mr. Krabs and the first to offer to rescue Neptune’s crown in exchange for not killing his accused boss. He may have moments of discouragement (as when his “patty mobile” is stolen) but is able to recover from them stronger than before. In his final showdown with Dennis, he stands his ground; in fact, he even takes the diplomatic approach of negotiating with his killer over fighting aggressively. Maybe this is because a sponge is no match for a fish who wears spikes on his shoes, but nevertheless he does not try to push his limits. Instead, he has enough wisdom to play to his strengths. Now, a “man” might have opted to fight aggressively—we see Patrick crack his knuckles when he tries to stand up to Dennis, a clear indicator that he had aggressive intentions. Because he tries to use abilities beyond his means, he loses. SpongeBob tries to negotiate, and in the end, he taps into his inner child to blind his enemy with bubble soap.
A man according to The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is not necessarily a stoic, aggressive person. Rather, our porous pal teaches us that a man is loyal and strong-willed. He is willing to face his fears as well as his emotions. In addition, a man does not sacrifice who he is to grow up, but rather uses his favorite characteristics of himself to his advantage and plays off of his own personal strengths. He becomes a man on his own terms. It is not for a man to be permanently and consistently firm, as we see SpongeBob succumb to and grow from moments of weakness. We know that he has aspirations, as he is all too eager to accept the role of manager in the end, but he is not vengeful or vindictive, as he says earlier on, “Being manager isn’t worth killing Mr. Krabs over.” A character like King Neptune is consistently on edge, believing that an aggressive, powerful, and vengeful route is the right one for all situations. The king learns in the end through the compassion of his daughter how to be a better ruler, but that same compassion is a trait which SpongeBob has had all along.