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Last summer, Nickelodeon made major waves with a Pride Month tweet that identified everyone's favorite animated sea sponge, SpongeBob SquarePants, as an LGBTQ+ ally. The Bikini Bottom-dwelling, Krabby Patty-flipping SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) was prominently featured alongside the network's other established LGBTQ characters: Korra from the hit animated series, The Legend of Korra, and Henry Danger star Michael D. Cohen, who described his transgender journey to Time magazine in 2019.
And Kenny couldn't be happier that his animated counterpart has officially come out as an ally. "I am proud that people of all stripes — including people who might at times feel disenfranchised — look to SpongeBob as someone they can identify with and who is inspiration," the actor tells Yahoo Entertainment while discussing the third SpongeBob feature film, Sponge on the Run, which premieres on Paramount+ on March 4. The always-animated Kenny can't resist breaking into his alter ego's adorable voice to signal his approval. "That really warms my little holy heart." (Watch our video interview above.)
— Nickelodeon (@Nickelodeon) June 13, 2020
At the same time, SpongeBob's inclusion in Nickelodeon's social media post reignited the decades-old debate over the character's own sexual orientation — a debate that makes Kenny roll his eyes. "It's just such nonsense," he says of conservative critics like Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson, who accused SpongeBob of appearing in a "pro-homosexual video" in 2005. "It's not even really a part of it. I understand in a different kind of show it would be an issue, but when it's just a comedy? Like when you see the Three Stooges laying in a bed together, you aren't like, 'Wow I wonder if Larry and Moe are an item?' It's just so outside the universe that it's kind of ridiculous. But we do live in a world where anything that can be used as a distracting culture war dividing wedge will be."
Kenny's castmates agree that life is much simpler in their version of life under the sea. "There's no culture war in Bikini Bottom, c'mon," scoffs Clancy Brown, who voices the crusty Mr. Krabs. Adds Bill Fagerbakke — the voice of SpongeBob's best pal and one-time co-parent, Patrick Star — "The world of Bikini Bottom is such its own universe that it's only natural that people are going to latch onto it and bring it into their own universe. That's what good entertainment does, I guess."
Carolyn Lawrence credits SpongeBob creator, Stephen Hillenburg, with creating an animated world that was inclusive and diverse from the show's 1999 premiere. "It still blows my mind just how amazing he really was," she says of Hillenburg, who always maintained that his characters were asexual. (Hillenburg died in 2018 after being diagnosed with ALS.) "How much life he gave everything, not just in his writing and characters and art, but in how he cast the show, too." For his part, Kenny describes his character's creator as a "warm and loving person," adding: "I think that came out in the show. He created this place that people want to go to and hang out in. It's like the bar in Cheers!"
Sponge on the Run writer/director Tim Hill is one of the artists tasked with carrying on Hillenburg's legacy, and he says that he purposefully avoids the culture war trap. "People are going to think what they think, and they're going to drive some opinion forward — especially in the echo chamber of social media," he says. "These things get blown out of proportion... and don't really matter that much for me. I'm kind of gender blind or whatever when it comes to the character: It's more about what's in their heart for me." And, like Hillenburg, Kenny notes that SpongeBob's heart doesn't have room for romantic feelings anyway. "SpongeBob doesn't really feel lust: He's not like Pepé Le Pew! It's not a part of who he is."
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