Opinion | SpongeBob SquarePants as an exploration of Existentialism

To find happiness in this world, live authentically.


Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

Existentialism is a philosophical system that contends existence is the antecedent to essence. This means that there is no innate guiding principle for humanity. Rather, humans are just agglomerations of matter that just exist.

SpongeBob SquarePants is a children’s cartoon about the misadventures of anthropomorphic sponge and his fish friends in the fictional Bikini Bottom. Its early seasons are also pop culture’s best representation of existential philosophy, in particular Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential nihilism.

The dynamic between SpongeBob, his best friend Patrick Star, and their next door neighbor Squidward Tentacles, communicates to viewers what Sartre was communicating to us. With the help of our friends, we have to find our own individual purposes and happiness within the universe.

In the episode SB-129, Squidward wants to play the clarinet, but he is pestered by SpongeBob and Patrick, who want him to go jellyfishing with them. In an attempt to escape from SpongeBob, Squidward accidentally locks himself in the Krusty Krab freezer and finds himself in the future.

Discerning that he needs to get back to his own time, Squidward finds a time machine. However, Squidward ends up breaking the time machine and enters a white void. Noticing that he is finally alone, Squidward starts to play his clarinet. However, he realizes in the void that he has no real purpose and desperately wants to get back to SpongeBob.

His wish is granted, and the time machine returns him to his present where he shows his affection to SpongeBob and Patrick.

The episode harkens to Sartre’s ontological teachings by explaining that there is no order to the universe. Rather, it is through our ability to connect with those around us that gives humankind its purpose.

In other words, Squidward needs the friendship of SpongeBob if he is to avert a crisis of nihilism.

While Sartre emphasizes the notion of community in his philosophy, he is by no means a conformist. The episode “Squidville” shows the dangers of conformity as the episode examines Sartre’s material ideas.

The episode starts with SpongeBob and Patrick acquiring leaf blowers, which they use to destroy Squidward’s house. In a fit of rage, Squidward choses to move out of the neighborhood and into Squidville, a community of squids that are similar to Squidward in every way.

Initially, Squidward is enthralled to be living in a community where everyone is a carbon-copy of him. However, Squidward becomes depressed as time progresses with the monotony of his life in Squidville.

That is until he sees an unguarded leaf blower. Remembering SpongeBob and Patrick playing with their leaf blowers, Squidward reaches an epiphany and begins to tinker with the device.

In that moment, Squidward truly begins to appreciate SpongeBob’s — and by extension Sartre’s philosophy: to find happiness, be yourself.

What the episode is meant to show is that in seeking to find meaning in his life, Squidward pursued a destructive and inauthentic way of living as he was more concerned with what others thought of him.

In Squidville, Squidward does not actually have any friends he can relate to. Contrast this with SpongeBob who has Patrick. SpongeBob remains true to himself. Because of that, SpongeBob is able to build lifelong friendships and find happiness.

SpongeBob SquarePants is often criticized by people who cannot appreciate intelligent humor as being harmful. Yet, this is an unfair characterization of Nickelodeon’s flagship cartoon.

The show teaches children and adults that there is no authority within the universe that forces you to conform to the ideas and values of your peers. In other words, have fun and just be yourself.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.