Is SpongeBob SquarePants gay? Or is he asexual? Or is he, in fact, just a simple sponge?
Nickelodeon set off a frenzy over the weekend with a Pride tweet that proudly displayed the famous little pore-bearer alongside queer characters including Legend of Korra’s titular bisexual lead. For many amused and elated fans on Twitter, this was proof positive of long-running theories regarding SpongeBob’s sexuality. (Namely, that he is gay.) As others noted, Spongebob creator Stephen Hillenburg once described the suspender-clad fry cook as asexual—though even that statement seemed less like a description of one character’s sexuality than a blanket assertion that Bikini Bottom, as a town, exists outside the scope of sexuality. So what is the truth?
The question of SpongeBob SquarePants’ sexuality harkens back to a more than decade-old controversy, ignited by anti-gay Christian panic that took aim at several children’s shows. In a transcendentally absurd moment, SpongeBob was effectively “outed” in 2002. And as trivial as questions about cartoon characters’ sexualities might seem, the debate around SpongeBob’s identity in particular is a lasting remnant of the culture wars that overtook a surprising amount of the cultural conversation in the 1990s and early aughts.
Queer characters abound in children’s television today. Series from Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network, PBS and more feature queer characters, married couples, and even leads. It’s a step in the right direction—but that bounty arrived only after a series of heated debates about various fictional, often non-human characters’ sexual orientations.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, youth programming became a somewhat improbable nexus for increasingly vicious culture wars. In the absence of canonically LGBTQ+ characters, queer viewers have long identified mascots of their own within pop culture—including some kids’ show characters, like the Peanuts’ Peppermint Patty, Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, purple Teletubby Tinky Winky, and Nickelodeon’s indefatigable sponge. In the ’90s and aughts, however, Christians and the right fought to make sure that no character telegraphing even a modicum of queerness could appear on kiddie TV without a fight.
Children’s television as we know it is still relatively young; Nickelodeon sprang up as the first children’s cable network in 1979, followed by Disney Channel in 1983 and Cartoon Network in 1992—the same year Pat Buchanan centered morality in his bid against George H.W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination.
“There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” Buchanan said at the time. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” Among the most incendiary issues of the time were gay rights—and as a result came fierce debates over kinder-programming.
Consider, for instance, Bert and Ernie. As Vox notes in a detailed history of the controversy surrounding the characters, 1993 saw locals in Tupelo, Mississippi reportedly whipping themselves into a frenzy over the puppets’ scheduled tour date at a local arena. Specifically, parents demanded to know if the characters were gay. The next year, Pentecostal pastor Joseph Chambers rallied to get poor Bert and Ernie banned under North Carolina’s anti-sodomy law, railing against the characters’ condemnable acts—such as vacationing together—and their audacity in displaying “effeminate characteristics.”
“In one show Bert teaches Ernie how to sew,” Chambers sputtered. “In another they tend plants together. If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”
Sesame Workshop and its surrogates have fallen back on the same response to such arguments since 1993. As Sesame Street Workshop CEO Gary Knell put it in 2007, “They’re puppets. They don’t exist below the waist.” That explanation was last repeated in 2018—though as many are often quick to point out, someone might want to inform the horny porcine Miss Piggy of that fact, because her desire for Kermit the Frog certainly seems to extend below the waist.
But the bizarre fascination with fuzzy fictional characters’ sexual orientations did not end there. In 1999, televangelist and self-appointed children’s TV ombudsman Jerry Falwell went so far as to out a Teletubby.
In an article titled “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet,” Falwell railed over Tinky Winky and his little red purse. “He is purple—the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle—the gay pride symbol,” a scandalized Falwell fumed.
As Slate’s Ruth Graham noted in an amusing history of the controversy, many mainstream rebuttals to Falwell’s position treated the idea that Tinky Winky could be gay as absurd. But such arguments actually ignored the fact that in the U.K., where the series first premiered, Tinky Winky was already making hay with the gays—a distinction that followed the character across the pond. The Advocate even bestowed upon him the coveted title of “gay icon.”
“Apparently Tinky Winky’s purse is meant to show kids that it’s OK to take an interest in the accoutrements of the opposite gender—that identity is something we should claim for ourselves and not have thrust upon us,” pop-music critic Barry Walters wrote. “This is all well and good, but Tinky Winky still comes across as a big, fabulous fag.”
A similar phenomenon befell SpongeBob SquarePants just a few years later. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the show’s grown-up fans: “Something About ‘SpongeBob’ Whispers ‘Gay’ to Many Men.” Adults seemed to be watching the show—and buying its merchandise—in droves, the Journal reported. Ironically enough, earlier that year the Sundance Film Festival had already debuted Ernest and Bertram, an eight-minute film about a gay couple inspired by the very same Sesame Street characters whose flamboyance had sent Chambers and his flock reeling years before.
It was then that Hillenburg called SpongeBob and his friends asexual. The statement was not, it seems, meant to bestow upon the absorbent and yellow and porous protagonist a specifically asexual identity, but to assert the show’s inherent sexlessness.
“I do think that the attitude of the show is about tolerance,” Hillenburg told the Journal. “Everybody is different, and the show embraces that. The character SpongeBob is an oddball. He’s kind of weird, but he’s kind of special.” Of his characters, Hillenburg added, “I always think of them as being somewhat asexual.”
A few years later, in 2005, conservative Christian groups including Focus on the Family railed against a video from disco-era hitmaker Nile Rodgers, who wrote Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” In the PSA, which ran on various networks and was also released on DVD by the We Are Family foundation, a bevy of kids’ show characters covered the hit song as a plea for tolerance and community. The video never discusses homosexuality, but included SpongeBob SquarePants and linked to a website whose tolerance pledge dared to name sexuality alongside race, beliefs, abilities, and culture.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and other conservatives were not pleased. “Their inclusion of the reference to ‘sexual identity’ within their ‘tolerance pledge’ is not only unnecessary, but it crosses a moral line,” Dobson insisted. That led Hillenburg to, once again, assert his characters’ asexuality as a defense.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re trying to do,” Hillenburg said at the time. “We never intended them to be gay. I consider them to be almost asexual. We’re just trying to be funny and this has got nothing to do with the show.”
The timing of this incident is, retrospectively, fascinating. Earlier that year Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had already condemned an episode of Arthur spin-off Postcards from Buster before it aired—effectively preventing it from airing in most of the country. The episode, “Sugartime!,” found the show’s central rabbit visiting Vermont and meeting a series of bunnies with lesbian parents. And just two years later, in 2007, J.K. Rowling would publicly proclaim, after the completion of her Harry Potter series, that the late Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore was gay. In 2008, various celebrities participated in the Think Before You Speak campaign, which ran on several youth networks, on the radio, and in magazines, urging against homophobic language like, “That’s so gay.” Within that context, the torch-and-pitchfork response to SpongeBob purportedly working to, as conservative paranoia suggested, “recruit” children to The Gay Agenda feels like the last gasping breath of a dying cultural movement.
It was only after all of this that LGBTQ+ characters began to appear in mainstream children’s media across several networks in the 2010s. In 2014, Legend of Korra ended with its lead character pretty much literally walking off into the sunset holding her close friend Asami’s hand—an ending that clearly indicated that they were more than friends. (And for anyone who doubted the obvious meaning of the moment, the show’s creators also confirmed as much.) The Loud House introduced an interracial gay couple in 2016. The next year Disney’s Andi Mack kicked off its second season with a central character coming out of the closet. In 2019 Arthur aired a gay wedding. And that’s not even mentioning Rebecca Sugar’s exquisitely queer Cartoon Network series Steven Universe.
All of these landmarks should be celebrated. But at the same time, the wonderful abundance of canonical representations and acknowledgements of queerness in kids’ programming today should not erase or even take precedent over the queer readings that preceded them. In other words, I will simply say this: SpongeBob Squarepants was always queer, and always will be. Not because any network said so, but because our community claimed him as one of our own a long time ago. That is enough.