Some people want to be artists, but they work a day job for money. The receptionist who paints in his spare time, the software developer who wants to be a novelist, or the psychologist who wishes she were a famous singer. Having both a passion and a job is a good thing. But working a low-paying job you hate in the hopes that one day you will be recognized for your true talents, is a mundane tragedy. It describes the life of Squidward Tentacles, sometimes-antagonist and always chew-toy of the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon.
Squidward is the antithesis of the show’s early ideal, the naive but talented SpongeBob SquarePants. While Squid hates his job and rarely exhibits any sort of talent, SpongeBob is deft with every task that falls before him, and works as a fry cook because it is his legitimate passion. SpongeBob’s humility and commitment to self-fulfillment are his main virtues, and that has been a huge part of his appeal. He gets into plenty of trouble in the early episodes, but if Squidward has a large role to play in one, he’s usually the more sympathetic.
So what changes? Why do people say they grew up sympathizing with SpongeBob, and feel that they ultimately became Squidward? You could point to the fact that more recent episodes paint Squidward in a more sympathetic light, but the really memorable episodes are the early ones.
For one thing, SpongeBob’s optimism goes too far. It’s one thing to love your job, but SpongeBob’s salary is bare-bones; he even mentions paying Mr. Krabs 100 dollars per hour! His positivity is toxic within the show’s own logic. As we grow up, it’s a hard thing to take with us in conscience.
SpongeBob was a figure who inspired children to chase their talents and see things with a smile. But the show’s own wackiness, and decline into negativity and cynicism, prevent those lessons from feeling real. It just comes off as a bunch of weird gags.
Squidward’s anger is exaggerated, but sometimes we like to exaggerate. Squidward faces consequences for his actions, but unfortunate events are a fact of life. “Don’t be like Squidward”, the show says, but sometimes we have no one else to be.