Ableism and Spongebob

There has been a meme making the rounds recently, featuring a screenshot of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.  Briefly, the purpose of the meme is to mock an idea by juxtaposing someone expressing the original idea with the image of Spongebob making a funny face and, comic-style, repeating the original idea uSiNg aFfEcTeD wRiTiNg.

tHe iMaGe In qUeStIoN

It seems to already be on its way out, if the fact I haven’t seen it show up on my feed for a few days now is any indication.  But I wanted to take a moment and point out that the meme, while frequently used to ridicule toxic or absurd ideas, is inherently ableist.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar, “ableism” is discrimination against those with disabilities — be they mental or physical.  An example of ableism is eugenics, i.e. the suggetion that those with disabilities should not be allowed to reproduce.  This is the extreme example, but there are other, more subtle ways in which the disabled are relegated to second-class status.  A lack of handicapped access is ableism, as is denying someone a job based solely on a mental handicap.

A more subtle, insidious, ubiquitous form of ableism, however, is “disability coding.”  Much like Disney villains are often “queer coded,” i.e. portrayed using behaviors and mannerisms common to SAGA/LGBT folk, so are “humorous” characters portrayed using behaviors and mannerisms common to, say, autistic people.  Sheldon, from Big Bang Theory, is an excellent example of this — the character’s foibles and eccentricities, obviously intended to portray an autist, are played for laughs.  They are presented explicitly as an object of mockery, a pattern no different than the minstrel shows of the last century.  “Disability coding” is “here, look at this weird character and how funny he is!  Go on, laugh at him!”

With that out of the way, let’s go back to Spongebob.  Now, it’s true that in the episode the screenshot was taken from, Spongebob is pretending to be a chicken.  That’s fine; the screenshot itself isn’t the problem.  The problem is the affected, mocking speech pattern.  It’s disability coding.

See, it’s a common thing to make fun of someone, or mock what someone says, by repeating back what they say with a lisp, or a high-pitched voice, or other “baby talk.”  It’s everywhere.  I’ve seen it twice this week, one in the South Park movie and once in an episode of Dilbert.  It’s pretty clear that the unconventional form of writing used in the meme is meant to suggest this kind of “baby talk repetition” mockery.

But ask yourselves: why is that mockery?  Why is it funny or derogatory or dismissive when you repeat someone’s words back to them using a speech pattern that calls to mind an autist, or someone with Down’s Syndrome, or some other form of speech impediment?

It’s “funny” because we’re conditioned to laugh at and dismiss those people.  It’s “funny” because our culture still asserts, subtly, maliciously, that people with disabilities are subhuman.  They aren’t people — they’re either “inspirational stories” if they happen to make their way in a world that does not accommodate them as it does the abled, or they are “a burden” if they cannot or do not.

Using these speech patterns to mock an idea is signaling that the idea isn’t to be taken seriously because it’s coming from someone with a disability, not because the idea lacks merit.  It’s ableism, it’s dismissive, it’s toxic, and we need to knock it off.

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