Opinion | Dissecting SpongeBob as an anti-capitalist narrative

By Sarah Liez, Staff Columnist

Our generation was raised on SpongeBob, an animated cartoon that — at its surface — appears to be an innocent, silly tale about sea creatures and their underwater adventures. As a child, I watched this program almost religiously, enjoying the foolish predicaments the characters got into. As an adult, I still enjoy the show. However, with more experience, knowledge and wisdom, I’ve noticed many adult elements interwoven throughout various episodes, plot lines and characters.

Watching my favorite childhood cartoon today, it is clear how SpongeBob makes an argument as an anti-capitalist narrative. The show suggests an aversion to capitalist systems — in which trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit with little outside regulation — by pushing a number of anti-capitalist ideas throughout subtle, nuanced methods that become more apparent with age.

Some of these elements are more obvious than others, and one personality stands out above all else — Mr. Krabs. The owner of the Krusty Krab is characterized as greedy and power-hungry. He underpays his workers, enforces inhumane working conditions and prioritizes the pursuit of wealth over all else. In Krabs’ mind, customers, workers and products are only valuable for the money they provide, and he views people only as sources of money. Krabs treats cash as if it were some godly entity worthy of unwavering respect and devotion — more valuable than sea creature lives.

Throughout the show, however, we see Krabs unceasingly punished for his selfish actions. He continuously pursues irrational undertakings that put himself, his workers and others in danger for the sake of either adding to or maintaining his wealth. In “Squid’s Day Off” from season two, Krabs becomes so invested in locating a dime that he loses both of his arms and suffers a severe head injury. His unquenched lust for financial gain only causes him pain, woe and the intensification of his already miserly attitude.

His character exemplifies the immorality of ruthless financial pursuits with no restraints or legal mandates to keep his actions in check — and thus, the immorality of a capitalist system that does the same.

There are also a few episodes that particularly stand out because of the negative light they cast on capitalism. One is “Jellyfish Hunter” from season two. In this installment, Krabs discovers the unparalleled allure of jellyfish jelly. After watching his frycook and renowned jellyfish hunter, SpongeBob, serve krabby patties with this jelly and his customers’ subsequent, joyous reactions, he resolves to mass-produce this all-natural condiment.

In order to accomplish large-scale manufacturing of jellyfish jelly, SpongeBob is manipulated into capturing as many of these sea creatures as possible — until he erases Bikini Bottom of its jellyfish population. Upon discovering Krabs’ factory, SpongeBob witnesses the inhumane treatment of these creatures. Countless jellyfish squeezed into tanks, moving in orderly lines on conveyor belts, tortured into releasing their jelly and then discarded like trash.

This episode is a commentary on factory farming — the mass industrialization of the breeding, raising and slaughtering of animals for human consumption. Like this industry, Krabs turns simple hunting and animal agriculture into an industrial operation — and, in the process, abuses and subjects the jellyfish to cruel conditions.

Another particularly telling episode is “Selling Out” from season four. This episode details Krabs’ decision to sell his small business to a large corporation in exchange for a substantial retirement settlement. The Krusty Krab is subsequently transformed into a family-oriented restaurant and sports bar functioning within a large-scale restaurant chain. Their workers are forced to have positive attitudes or else they will be beaten by “human resources.” The iconic Krabby Patties are synthetically engineered — appearing gross, slimy and gray — and the business loses all of its personal touch.

These exaggerated elements of an impersonal restaurant chain is illustrative of the shifts within America’s economy from small, modest businesses to wide-reaching, unethical corporations. The workers are subject to inhumane conditions, the food is mass-produced with little taste or nutritional value and customers are distracted by superficial gimmicks. Take, for example, adding the ending “O’Mondays” to the restaurant title to make it appear more approachable or making the workers wear suspenders, bowties and colorful pins as part of their uniform.

At the conclusion of the episode, amid Krabs’ rampage after seeing how his small business transformed, we even hear the new restaurant’s manager contact his boss, stating “code red — free thinker.” The finality of this line, coming at “Krabby O’Mondays” destruction, illustrates the tendency for capitalist systems to control people’s minds and attitudes, taking away their ability to think and act freely.

Under America’s free-market system, chains may take advantage of financial hardships to “swallow up” independent restaurants. This is especially prevalent in our pandemic-centered economy — where fast-food giants, such as Domino’s and Chipotle, took advantage of real estate opportunities from family-run restaurants struggling to stay open.

While SpongeBob SquarePants is a silly television cartoon that raised Generation Z, it’s also an argument against financial corruption, the abuse of a free-market economy and, overall, a testament to the evils of a capitalist system. The next time you tune in to watch your favorite undersea sponge, pay attention to the nuanced — and more obvious — suggestions for a gentler economic system in which wealth is acquired through fair, ethical business and trade. SpongeBob has much to teach us about our economy’s immoral ways.

Sarah Liez writes primarily about gender issues and social phenomena. Write to her at [email protected].