Subversive SpongeBob

I showed a picture of a children’s clothing display to the audience at a recent talk and asked if they were looking at clothes intended for boys or girls. “Boys,” they all agreed. I asked, “How do you know?” Answers came readily — athletic wear, dark colors, etc. — and then one man in the back said, “The absence of pink.”

I loved that he thought about what is absent. I have to confess that I am not the best person to argue for letting boys wear pink, because I don’t understand why they can’t. It has to be the most bizarre place to locate societal angst ever and the oddest sort of folk belief. But so it is — wearing pink will make boys gay or (perhaps even worse?) turn them into girls. Never mind that boys regularly wore pink in the US in earlier times, that boys in other cultures wear pink (and flowers, and dresses) and still grow up to carry guns just fine, that it magically becomes ok for men to wear pink again once they’re grown (I’m loving all the pink accessories in the NFL this month).

But do you know what’s funny? If you go into the toddler section of the boys’ clothes (2-4 years) there will reliably be ONE spot of pink to be found — on SpongeBob Squarepants clothing. One of the most popular licensed characters in children’s clothing, SpongeBob (from the Nickelodeon show of the same name) graces shirts and pajamas galore, as well as socks, backpacks, and other accessories. SpongeBob clothes are almost always bright yellow, fun and silly, and not aggressive. In addition, they very often feature SpongeBob’s closest friend and buddy, a plump pink starfish named Patrick Star.

Tom Kenny, who does SpongeBob Squarepant voice, said in a 2007 interview:

“There’s a lot of kids’ shows that are really popular ratings-wise, but they don’t sell a lot of stuff. A character on a backpack just doesn’t have the same appeal as watching it on TV. And SpongeBob seems to be this rare thing, and I had some experience with it with Powerpuff Girls, where even people who aren’t that familiar with the show or the character will buy stuff with him on it. I don’t know what goes into that. I guess it has something to do with the graphic pleasingness of the design. Who knows what weird subconscious buttons get pushed to make one character design work more on merchandise than another one.”

How, despite his being soft and plump, sweet and loving, PINK, and even despite persistent online arguments for and against SpongeBob and Patrick being gay, did Patrick shirts make it into the market? Maybe boys have a weird subconscious desire to enjoy fun, silly, sweet, loving, pink stuff. What a concept.

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