“Squidward, don’t you see? Waiting and watching? That’s not what the box is all about! It’s about… [makes rainbow with his hands] …imagination.”
~ Spongebob Squarepants
I remember as a kid watching cartoons with my sister and laughing when Bugs Bunny outwitted a foe. Then we’d hear our dad in the background busting a gut. “Why are you laughing so hard, Dad? What’s so funny?” He’d compose himself and say “It’s hard to explain. You’ll understand when you are older.” My sister and I would shrug our shoulders and return to our regularly scheduled programming. He was right though. When I got older, I realized many cartoons had messages that only adults understood.
When Spongebob Squarepants debuted in the late 1990s, there was a movement by some parents who believed the cartoon was bad for children and dumbed down the intelligence of all who watched it. If those parents really watched some episodes and understood their significance, they would have heard messages of morality embedded in some shows. (And yes, many more episodes are just slapstick humor, but not everything has to have meaning.) Spongebob creators used metaphor, symbolism, satire, and allegory to shine a light on issues such as bullying, swearing, and media manipulation.
As I started to plan my sophomore unit on Lord of the Flies, I needed to teach allegory. I looked for allegorical songs or images that resonated with students to teach the concept. One rainy day, I invited students to spend brunch in my class, and I noticed a lot of Spongebob, Patrick, and Squidward drawings left on my white boards. That’s when I got the inspiration for my lesson: Spongebob as Allegory. The one episode I knew would hit home was Idiot Box – not because of the name but its iconic meme.
Here’s how the lesson shaped up …
Essential Question: What is allegory and how is it used to convey hidden meaning and messages about morality?
Definition of allegory: A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
“Lord of the Flies” is an allegorical novel about how the desire for power can overpower and destroy the structure of a civil society.
Get students thinking
Look at advertising images for visual metaphors. Make a note of what details you notice. Pair-share with a partner: What hidden meaning do you think the picture is trying to convey?
1. Smoke baby – anti-smoking message
2. Puma leaping over Addias – Puma is a better brand
3. Light bulb – provides energy; also a symbol of a “bright idea” to save energy
Class share out and discussion.
Spongebob as Allegory
Look at allegory in “Idiot Box” (season 3, airdate: 3/1/2002). We’ll stop along the way and look at particular moments to discuss the meaning in each scene.
- Stop 1: Patrick and Spongebob receive a delivery of a large box. They unwrap it to reveal a large screen TV. They pull it out and throw the TV to the curb as a dumbfounded Squidward watches on and asks: “Let me get this straight, you two ordered a giant screen television just so you could play in the box?” What happened? Why did they throw the TV to the curb like garbage? What does that action represent?
- Stop 2: Squidward starts to watch the new big screen TV when he hears what sounds like Spongebob and Patrick exploring in the mountains when they get caught in an avalanche. What do we hear? Is it more interesting than what is on TV? Why?
- Stop 3: From outside the box, we hear another action scene play out with Spongebob and Patrick. Squidward gets mad and asks to get in the box with them. Inside, he only sees and hears Spongebob and Patrick making beeps and sounds with their eyes closed, not the full-blown action scenes heard from outside the box. Why? What does Squidward’s viewpoint represent?
- End of episode: What happens when Squidward finally gets in the box by himself? What happens to his imagination?
Class discussion: Add up all the scenes and talk about the overall meaning of the episode.
- Watching television erodes young people’s ability to use their imagination for play and creativity. That’s why Spongebob and Patrick throw the TV away, jump in the box and play.
- Squidward represents the adult point of view; Spongebob and Patrick the child’s point of view. As an adult, Squidward has lost his ability to imagine and play while Spongebob and Patrick can amuse themselves for hours in a large, cardboard box.
- Spongebob is a television cartoon and the creators are telling young viewers to “throw away the TV” and go out and use their “imaaaaginaaaation.”
Students enjoyed this lesson. They got a kick out of watching a cartoon in English class. By watching something most of them had seen or knew about, it engaged students in conversations. We did discussions where each table group took on specific scenes and they had to break down the meaning. I heard great interactions as students went from laughing about something in the episode to analyzing its meaning. Each class came to at least one of the three conclusions above.
Looking back at this lesson, there’s a lot to change and build on, such as examining the use of imagery, symbolism, and irony in this episode. By showing students how to identify and analyze literary devices in mainstream media, I saw them develop skills around speaking and listening (CCSS SL.9-10.1) as well as interpretation (CCSS RL.9-10.2). When it came time to teach allegory in Lord of the Flies, I had a memorable lesson I could refer back to when students struggled to finding deeper meaning from the symbols and actions in the novel.