Updated: Sep 6, 2020
Today we’re going to deconstruct a construct called “normal.”
To do this, we’ll look at “Not Normal,” an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, in which SpongeBob chooses to become “normal” at the behest of a Mr. Squidward Tentacles. Are ya ready kids?
Aye! Aye, Captain!
Alright then, let's begin...
At the top of the episode, SpongeBob is joyous and carefree, singing and dancing around his house. This wakes up Squidward, who angrily confronts him:
What are you trying to do?
I’m not trying to do anything; I’m just having a decent morning.
This response shows SpongeBob’s alignment with the flow of the Universe—he understands that, in true Yoda fashion, there is no trying—only doing.
This means that he doesn't have to try and enjoy himself; by simply doing things he enjoys, he is successfully enjoying himself.
Squidward’s understanding is that people have to try--that they have to do things for a desired outcome instead of for the sake of simply doing them.
There are two kinds of people: there are people that are normal—[The screen cuts to recorded footage of real fish swimming in a tank]—and then there’s you.
Though Squidward speaks with conviction, we know his statement to be untrue—the creatures of Bikini Bottom are anything but “normal” as Squidward has just defined: they are walking, talking, two-dimensional, sentient beings, more interesting and magical than the fish he describes. What's more, the beings of Bikini Bottom are definitely not restricted to the confines of a tank.
From Squidward’s perspective, however, they are—he is. The cut to the footage of enclosed fish represents the cage of conformity in which Squidward keeps himself imprisoned. He doesn’t see the normal (or rather, the natural) state of his world, teeming with personalities ranging from a talking, kung-fu fighting squirrel to a dazed and amused starfish.
What’s more, Squidward does not realize he is free.
Squidward is caged by his conformity, which is why he finds SpongeBob’s presence so triggering-- the things we resist in others are often the very things we resist in ourselves. The pleasures we deny others from having are the very pleasures we deny ourselves.
After this confrontation, SpongeBob, alone and on the verge of tears, says in shock:
“I’m not normal?”
By Squidward’s definition, no.
But by Bikini Bottom’s definition, SpongeBob is completely "normal"—he is a walking, talking, sentient being with his own wants, wishes, and outrageous personality. By Squidward’s definition, he is absurd. But in a world where a crab can have a whale for a daughter without even raising questions of paternity, absurdity is the norm.
This is true in our world as well, from a cosmic perspective.
From the perspective of the cosmos, we are all unique and essential beings.
If we were all the same, we would be redundant; we would be unnecessary; we would not yield expansion—the ultimate goal of the Universe.
As facets of the Universe, if we had one purpose, it would be to expand individually so that as a collective we continue to grow—continue to learn—continue to evolve.
Because that’s all expansion is at its core—evolution.
And when we resist the truth of our own existence through conforming, we resist our own expansion—our own evolution—both on an individual and collective scale.
Evolutionarily speaking, SpongeBob is more advanced than Squidward because he embraces the qualities that make him unique; he embraces his difference.
This embrace gifts SpongeBob with the traits that make him so endearing: his openness towards others, his acceptance of others, and his acceptance of himself. It is this openness that makes way for his continued expansion, which we experience as the SpongeBob SquarePants series.
SpongeBob remains true to who he is and as a result, he gets to embark on outrageous adventures as he continues on his path. Critters like Squidward, on the other hand, remain on the sidelines.
Critters like Squidward don’t have their own shows.
How could they, when they resist the very thing that would make their show worth watching: themselves?
In order to discover how to become “normal,” SpongeBob turns to a video recording titled, "How to Be Normal for Beginners."
This harkens to the how-to videos of Post World War II America, which aimed to teach people how to operate in their newly constructed world. These videos, called Social Guidance Films, were often targeted at youth and shown as part of school curricula.
Check out this video clip to learn more...
Though one could argue we have moved past these kind of videos in in modern times, we can still see how media is used to perpetuate constructed ideas of normality in order to keep people in line with that very narrow definition.
Think back to the media you consumed as a child—the films and TV shows that really stuck to you—those were the models in your early life that taught you what was "normal" and what, by contrast, was not.
For example, I grew up watching Lizzie McGuire on ABC's One Saturday Morning. Lizzie McGuire and its contemporaries portrayed high school as a socially segregated world where there were popular people, "normal" people, and the freaks who loved them. This was my Social Guidance Film.
In high school, I perpetuated those same ideas about social segregation, trying my darnedest to be anything but abnormal.
I wished so hard to be "normal."
I remember picturing my high school experience as a 90s teen romcom. I didn't see myself as the lead--that seemed like aiming waaaay too high--and I didn't want to be a "freak"--I had played that role in middle school and the pain from that experience was much too high.
I wanted to be "normal." Because as one of a handful of non-white students in my high school, I had felt everything but.
I remember picturing myself as one the extras who got to go to the cool parties and with a normal date in hand. They didn't have any lines and they didn't have any troubles; they didn't draw attention to themselves; they were just there. "Normal."
The more I tried to be "normal," however, the more pushback I seemed to get. It seemed like my friends at the time would take every opportunity to point out the abnormal things I did, much like Squidward does to SpongeBob.
But there are no mistakes in the Universe, no victims or villains. My difference had to be pointed out by those around me so that I would release the resistance I had towards it--the resistance I had towards myself.
Back to Bikini Bottom...
SpongeBob’s foray into “normal” seems to be working—Squidward no longer antagonizes him and he is able to produce Krabby Patties at record speed, by switching out his spatula for a cubicle. He is automated and automatic:
I smoothed out the edges of my personality and the rest just followed suit…now, I am utterly normal.
Only, things aren’t quite as smooth as they appear. After a customer takes a bite out of SpongeBob’s automated Krabby Patty, we learn that they’re actually made of paper and are driving customers away.
Always the shrewd businessman, Mr. Krabs goes to talk some sense into SpongeBob.
You can’t make Krabby Patties with ink and paper—you gotta put your heart into it, boy. Now get back to making them Krabby Patties the right way, and stop acting so dull.
What you call “dull,” I call “normal.”
Well, ’til you decide to start making them patties the way only you can, I want you out of my place.
Unlike SpongeBob, Mr. Krabs sees and understands the intrinsic value of SpongeBob's individuality, which has been diminished by his conformity.
On the walk back home, SpongeBob bumps into Patrick, who, upon seeing him, asks:
What happened to you?
I got normal.
Whatever that means.
Patrick, SpongeBob’s best friend and accomplice, doesn’t subscribe to the construct of "normal," understanding that the word has no fixed meaning."Normal" is always fluctuating, shifting based on the user's perspective.
SpongeBob, still dedicated to conforming, suggests “normal” activities the two can do together, all of which Patrick declines.
Out of options, SpongeBob pays a visit to his "normal" pal Squidward. Only there, he realizes Squidward isn’t so "normal" after all--at least by his definition--the definition given to him by the film, "How to Be Normal for Beginners."
SpongeBob shares this with Squidward who, at first, laughs it off:
You know, SpongeBob, it’s okay to be a little different.
And you know what is abnormal, too? Your nose—it’s all bulbous and flappy. . . .Your eyes are a little odd, too. Looks like your whole face could use some work.
SpongeBob goes too far with his attempt to rearrange Squidward’s face, and Squidward kicks him out of his house.
Huh, what happened? I lost my job, my best friend, and now I’m too normal for Squidward.
The best thing about SpongeBob in this moment is that he is self aware. He is willing to question his actions because he is not receiving his desired outcome.
Taking it back to Yoda, we know that SpongeBob is aligned with the philosophy:
Do or do not. There is no try.
Because of this, SpongeBob can see that in trying to make himself "normal," which should yield social acceptance and success, he has achieved the opposite of that, thereby proving that "normal" on him is actually abnormal.
SpongeBob turns to Patrick for help in finding his old normal.
It won’t be easy.…but I’ll do it!
SpongeBob's first task is to go outside wearing only underwear. As the people around him laugh, SpongeBob recoils:
Patrick, I’m feeling very self-conscious right now.
SpongeBob's self-consciousness is a byproduct of conformity. Because he has heretofore held himself to the constructed and constricted idea of "normal," he is hyper aware of what happens when he no longer fits that ideal.
Patrick, who does not buy into normality, does not care how others look at him--and why should he? Patrick is the one who gets to slide down a giant water slide, frolic in the jellyfish fields with his best friend, and live out his soul's desires. Patrick gets to expand.
That's not how the other fish see it, however:
RANDOM FISH MOTHER
(To her child)
Those are undesirables, honey; we only talk to normal people.
She and her children proceed to walk away. See how easy it is for social conditioning to be passed down? I guess that's why we call it conditioning..
After a day of “strange” behavior, SpongeBob is heartbroken to find that he is still "normal."
I’m permanently normal.
He and Patrick mourn the loss of SpongeBob's uniqueness, which is, in essence, the loss of SpongeBob himself.
It is in that moment that SpongeBob discovers the cost of conformity, which he directly pays by undervaluing himself. Had SpongeBob seen and honored his individuality, he would have realized that who he is authentically is worth more than anyone or anything he could ever try to be.
All hope is not lost, however; Squidward, more affected by SpongeBob's criticism than he initially lets on, appears completely changed-- "normal."
The sight of Squidward--a mirror of SpongeBob's own conformity-- repulses him so much, he is able to snap back into his natural state.
Throughout the course of this episode, we see SpongeBob succumb to the pressures of conformity and then work to consciously overcome them. We see that "normal" is loosely defined, and that one can never be "normal" enough.
What's "normal," anyway?
And ultimately: a choice.
This episode reminds us that we have the power to operate from a place of conformity or from a place of authenticity; no one can force us to abandon or to stand for ourselves: the choice is entirely ours. The choice is SpongeBob's. The choice is yours.
So. Should you ever find yourself questioning all that you are and lamenting over all that you are not--I hope that you'll remember SpongeBob; I hope that you'll remember his lesson; I hope that you'll remember you.
All my love,