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SpongeBob Squarepants and the Terminator are modern heroes

They mock convention, make their own rules, and nothing gets them down.

July 12, 2009|Martin Miller

One serves up the glorious Krabby Patty; the other metes out pitiless death. You might think that a gregarious sponge who is fond of red ties and speaks crystal clear English underwater has little in common with a time-traveling, red-eyed killing machine whose default language setting comes with a heavy Germanic accent.

And that's where you would be wrong. Spongy, dead wrong.

Despite their obvious differences, like for instance, a backbone and a penchant for murder, SpongeBob Squarepants and the Terminator are actually brothers from different mothers, as the kids might say. The two are alike in surprising ways that has everything to do with why there are SpongeBob ceiling fans at Target and a newly opened roller coaster called Terminator Salvation: The Ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Although the two-dimensional characters share a host of traits -- ferocious dedication to work, extreme mood swings, a distinct fashion style and an ambiguous sexuality -- it is their mutual ability to emerge unbreakable from nearly all circumstances that helps explain their colossal worldwide appeal to three-dimensional humans. What mortal among us, subject to the blings and arrows of our consumerist, post-9/11 world, wouldn't like to plow through the day with the relative ease of either of these two fine fellows?

SpongeBob, who heartily soaks up the juice of life, feels everything. The Terminator (I'm talking strictly about the 800 Series, Model 101 here; subsequent portrayals in sequels are all mere commentary on the 1984 original) feels nothing. But whether it's a spotlight moment of acute social shame or a torrent of shotgun blasts, you can't bring this pair down, at least not for long.

Both mega-merchandised figures are marking notable cultural milestones this summer on television and at the movies. SpongeBob is a still vibrant 10 years old, a birthday Nickelodeon is celebrating with a weekend long marathon that begins on Friday and culminates on Sunday, the actual anniversary of the pilot episode's first airing.

Meanwhile, the Terminator franchise chalked up its fourth major motion picture in May, a few months before its official 25th anniversary in October. The film has performed well internationally but only lukewarm domestically, foreshadowing perhaps that the unit may be nearing the end of its life span. Still, no matter how the future may look for either one, they haven't done too badly for an invertebrate with a name tag and a cyborg that looks a lot like California's governor.

The world crushes us all. No one more than children. Don't get me wrong, I have children, and with 6.7 billion inhabitants on the planet, everybody needs a little crushing now and then for society to function. (No, you cannot throw your spaghetti in the waiter's face.)

And yet SpongeBob and the Terminator are not cowed by the world's huge pile of petty conventions. SpongeBob laughs at the tsunami of rigid societal rules, while the Terminator fills them full of blazing hot lead -- two coping techniques more than a few of us may have fantasized about.

Time and again, SpongeBob defies the established custom and instead of being punished is rewarded. In "Idiot Box," one of the television series' more memorable episodes -- and that's saying something -- the Stephen Hillenburg creation and his dimwitted sidekick Patrick Star excitedly open a giant box, which contains a television. The two promptly discard the device and hop into the big box, where they use their imaginations to create a new and more entertaining world of avalanche rescues and pirate adventures. (The friends are promptly ridiculed by Squidward, a sarcastic and naysaying octopus and stand-in for parents, who later tries to join in the box fun but can't.)

"We don't need television. Not as long as we have . . . our imagination," explains SpongeBob, who summons a tiny rainbow in his hands. The message is clear -- don't be bound by the narrow vision of others and revel in the power of your own mind. Like the person who dreamed up the SpongeBob ceiling fan.

Another classic episode, which requires no imagination to understand its larger appeal, is called "The Bully." It sounds more like Terminator territory, but bullying is a theme frequently explored in the undersea world of Bikini Bottom. (Imagine television writers who were picked on as children and then working through their issues as adults -- and getting paid for it!)

SpongeBob gets a new classmate named Flatts the Flounder, who despite earnest attempts at friendship is interested in only one thing -- pulverizing the sponge. SpongeBob runs, hides, even tries to form alliances, but all to no avail. Finally, SpongeBob surrenders to his fate and Flatts pounds away.

Suddenly, SpongeBob realizes something everyone in a similar situation wishes they could -- "I'm absorbing his blows like I was made of some kind of spongy material." It doesn't hurt, and eventually the bully is utterly exhausted and defeated by the rope-a-dope.

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