06 Feb What is military colonialism? in the Marshall Islands and Hawaiʻi? Why and how does U.S. military power depend on mechanisms of culture, the symbolic, and the creative use of
What is “military colonialism” in the Marshall Islands and Hawaiʻi? Why and how does U.S. military power depend on mechanisms of culture, the symbolic, and the creative use of language?
Due Monday 3pm. 300-word response. Remember to focus on certain quotes and key concepts. Please do not submit in white-colored font.
Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom
Holly M Barker
The Contemporary Pacific, Volume 31, Number 2, 2019, pp. 345-379 (Article)
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The Contemporary Pacic, Volume 31, Number 2, 345–379 © 2019 by University of Hawai‘i Press
Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom
Holly M Barker
Popular culture influences the ways that millions, and perhaps billions, of people worldwide think about the word “bikini.” Consumers of popu- lar culture likely associate “bikini” with the bathing suit, and those who watch the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants encounter Bikini Bottom as the aquatic home of the eponymous bright yellow sponge and his friends (Barker 2018). Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob, passed away in 2018, a year that extended the cultural tsunami of his creations to even larger audiences and wider public acclaim than ever before, includ- ing a Tony Award nomination for SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical (2016). Social media lit up with messages about Hillenburg’s passing, not- ing it as a sad day for Bikini Bottom and fans of the show. Missing from the obituaries and tributes to Hillenburg’s legacy, however, was any discus- sion about the normalization of colonial and military violence engendered through his cartoon depiction of Bikini Bottom. Despite being presented as a nonsensical and harmless cartoon, SpongeBob shapes global percep- tions of the actual place called Bikini. The cartoon desensitizes viewers to the violence of settler colonialism, normalizes and erases the displace- ment of the Bikinian people from their ancestral land, and whitewashes US military rampages on the islands in the history and narratives of Bikini. It renders a particularly pernicious harm on Marshallese women, who are frequently both sexualized and erased (Teaiwa 2010; Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill 2013), through the cartoon’s appropriation of their homelands. The settling of SpongeBob SquarePants and his friends into Bikini Bot- tom is connected to broader entanglements of military colonialism in the Marshall Islands that include dispossession from and destruction of the land, exploitation of the people and their resources, and an othering of the Bikinian and Marshallese people.
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Seeking to address these erasures and displacements, this article exam- ines the symbolic erasure of the real-life people of Bikini Atoll through SpongeBob and considers the costs of maintaining a singularly submerged viewpoint that disconnects the lagoon bottom from holistic Marshallese constructions of place, which, rather than seeing the air, land, and sea as separate domains, as represented in the cartoon, maintain the intercon- nectivity between these realms. The discussions that follow disrupt the normalization of violent settler behavior in Oceania by exposing the ways that SpongeBob’s encroachment on Bikini Atoll maintains an American military hegemony that erases intergenerational violence against the Mar- shallese people.
I argue that despite the settling in of SpongeBob on the bottom of Biki- ni’s lagoon, which effectively removes our gaze from the Bikinians living within the context of their land and seascapes, the Marshallese people assert their presence in the face of settler colonial efforts to “eliminate the native” (Wolfe 2016) by consistently incorporating the bottom of the lagoon into their cosmologies and the domain of the Bikinian people on the surface. A diverse array of Marshallese cultural practices—including lan- guage, storytelling, weaving, and the sailing of outrigger canoes—embody the strength and resilience of the Marshallese people, who endured the equivalent of nuclear war on their islands and transmit their resilience to successive generations.1
Insinuation as a Form of Resiliency: Bikini Bottom Is Not a Fictional Place
Oceanian scholar Vicente Diaz acknowledged the tenacity and resilience of Pacific Islander culture and its ability “to reclaim a space for itself even if it must insinuate itself within the stories of others who have come to the island for their own interests and machinations” (2001, 175). This idea is intriguing to consider as it applies to the people of Bikini Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the possibilities that Bikinians envi- sion and enact for reclaiming space. As Diaz noted, “Indigenous culture and history and memory occur in and on (and even against) terms estab- lished and maintained by American hegemony as manifest in postwar discourses” (2001, 175). As I will discuss, Marshallese maintain numer- ous cultural forms that reclaim ancestral connections to spaces American postwar discourse attempted to eradicate by designating the area as the “Pacific Proving Ground,” a phenomenon that lingers through the settler
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existence of SpongeBob on Bikini Bottom. Together, Marshallese culture, history, and memory work against the global phenomenon of Sponge- Bob, demonstrating “enduring indigeneity” and Marshallese intentions to “exist, resist, and persist” (Kauanui 2016).
Russell Hicks, Nickelodeon’s president of content development and production, boasted that “the show airs in 170 countries, and they tell me that every half second, somebody somewhere in the world is interact- ing with SpongeBob in one way or another. Every half second! It blows my mind. . . . And it’s not just the 75 million Facebook likes or the 1 million followers on Twitter. SpongeBob gets around. He’s played soc- cer with Michelle Obama and David Beckham, and brightened up Phar- rell’s feet. Not bad for an invertebrate, right?” (quoted in Beck 2013, 11). Hicks was correct that SpongeBob, his quirky friends, and the other residents of the fictional town of Bikini Bottom have achieved massive global recognition. In sharp contrast to the pervasiveness of the Ameri- can hegemonic discourse of SpongeBob, people worldwide know little, if anything, about the nonfictional residents of the real-life Bikini Bottom, or Bikini Atoll.
For SpongeBob audiences, Bikini Bottom appears as an amalgam of token objectifications of Oceania; it is a place where characters reside in buildings shaped like pineapples, Easter Island statues, and tikis and are surrounded by Hawaiian-shirt motifs and steel-guitar music.2 This cultural appropriation of iconic Pacific Island representations is not a new prac- tice, as can be seen across every facet of global popular culture, including restaurants, hotels, cocktails, film, literature, and video and board games (Beck 2013). These practices allow the specificities of Pacific Islanders to go unmarked and unaddressed (Teaiwa 2010; Diaz 2002), reducing the cultural diversity of Oceania to symbols of tourist engagements with the islands (Kahn 2011). Native Hawaiian filmmaker Anne Keala Kelly called the removal of Pacific Islanders from representations of their own cultures “the narrative equivalent of ethnic cleansing,” in which people get erased from their own storylines (quoted in Herreria 2017). This erasure of the people from their own storylines is evident in the case of Bikini Atoll. The violences against Bikinians are not common knowledge outside of Oceania, as the world’s collective stories and histories about World War II and its aftermath in Oceania frequently focus on the engagements of military powers at places like Pearl Harbor, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima but fail to acknowledge the experiences of Pacific Islanders like the Bikinians (see Camacho 2011).
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The Violent Appropriation of Bikini
During World War II, US troops engaged in protracted combat to expunge Japanese soldiers from the Marshall Islands (Camacho 2011; Falgout, Poyer, and Carucci 2008) and, with the assistance and support of Mar- shallese scouts, defeated Japanese forces. Like Japan, the United States recognized the strategic value of an outpost in the northern Pacific Ocean, west of Hawai‘i and east of Asia. In the reordering of world governance that took place after the war, the US government convinced the United Nations to give it administrative authority for an area that colonial pow- ers carved out of Oceania and designated as Micronesia,3 including the Marshall Islands. With the blessing of the United Nations, US settler colo- nialism began (Wolfe 2006; Veracini 2010). American settlers—primarily military but also non-military government contractors and their families (Dvorak 2018)—laid claim to the Marshall Islands as transient, but con- sistently aggressive, influences on the islands. The US government estab- lished the structures of settler colonialism, as described by J Kēhaulani Kauanui (2016), through a permanent base on Kwajalein Atoll, today known as the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site, where it destroys, erases, and replaces Marshallese renderings of place with the construc- tion of institutions, names, and practices that privilege colonial objectives. Military leaders and their families come and go on Kwajalein, but from the base, they coordinate and maintain control of Marshallese land, air, and sea to enact US military objectives.4
Once established on Kwajalein, the US government unfolded its plans for Cold War nuclear weapons experimentation in the islands. As a form of settler colonialism, in which imperial powers settle into new locations to enact dominance (Wolfe 2006), the predatory, nuclear, and military colonialism spread its violence to Bikini, Enewetak, and other commu- nities. The US government removed the people of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls from their ancestral islands to conduct top-secret military detona- tions and experiments, documenting the human and biological impacts of radiation exposure (Barker 2013; Johnson 2013; Horowitz 2011; John- ston and Barker 2008; Niedenthal 2001).
Bikini, the first site chosen by the US Navy as a ground zero for weap- ons testing, became a global phenomenon long before SpongeBob. French designers of new post–World War II swimwear regaled the splitting of the bathing suit into two pieces, similar to what scientists did with the atom to provide energy for the atomic detonations that took place on Bikini
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(Barker 2015). At the time, the bikini reflected the Western world’s abil- ity to resume leisure activities, such as spending time at the beach, and its post–World War II love affair with the weapon credited with defeating the Japanese.
The frivolity associated with the bikini certainly does not characterize the firsthand experiences of the Japanese and Marshallese people who understand the genocidal nature of these weapons designed for mass destruction. The bikini emerged from a twelve-year firework display of US military superiority above, below, and on Bikini and Enewetak atolls—all of the domains that make up the Marshallese notion of place. The United States detonated sixty-seven nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands from 1946–1958, including the 1 March 1954 Bravo detonation on Bikini Atoll, a thermonuclear explosion that was the equivalent of one thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs. The bikini thus became the first global disasso- ciation of Bikini from this violence: It deflected gazes from the vaporizing of entire islands and the banishing of countless generations of Bikinians from their ancestral home. In a similar way, SpongeBob shifts viewers’ contemporary gaze from the Bikinian people who live on the surface of the islands, or the bikini top, to Bikini Bottom, the lower portion of the bathing suit, or the proverbial backside.
The symbolic violence of SpongeBob’s setting in a place called “Bikini Bottom” threatens to erase the cultural meaning of the surface of the coco- nut to the Marshallese. “Bikini” is the anglicized word for “Pikinni,” or “surface of the coconut,” in Marshallese (“pik” means “surface” and “ni” means “coconut”),5 and Marshallese culture, like other Oceanian cultures, places great value on this part of the coconut. While a tourist encountering a coconut while on vacation or even in a grocery store might think of the surface of the coconut as unimportant and dispensable, for the Bikinian people, the hair attached to the outer part of the coconut is a building block for a community, not a disposable item. Marshallese have tradition- ally rolled that hair into the sennit that hoists and holds the sails and binds the hulls of canoes, allowing some of the best navigators in the world, including the Bikinians, to navigate ancient oceanic pathways by reading minute, barely perceptible wave patterns (see Genz 2018; Genz and others 2009). The sennit also hugs together the materials for cultural fortitude, such as buildings, tools, dance implements, and clothing. The surface of the coconut is essential to a resilient Marshallese culture that continues to thrive today despite four centuries of colonial onslaught, including twelve years of military experimentation to perfect nuclear weapons. There is no
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greater testimony to the resilience and fortitude of the Marshallese than the ability to endure repeatedly a weapon of mass genocide—a device with the potential to extinguish all life on this planet. Weapons of mass destruc- tion cannot make the Marshallese disappear, nor can SpongeBob.
How Is This History of Nuclear Testing Incorporated into SpongeBoB SquarepantS?
Online discussions of fan theories abound regarding the “true meaning” of SpongeBob (FrancisDollarHyde 2012; Bradley 2015). For example, there is speculation that the seven major characters of the show repre- sent the seven deadly sins: the amorous SpongeBob represents lust; Krusty Krab, the money-loving owner of a hamburger joint, personifies greed; and Patrick Star, the large, pink sea star, embodies sloth. Another popular theory—one more closely related to this article—suggests that the char- acters in the show are malformed and bizarre because they are mutants exposed to radiation from the atomic detonations at Bikini, and charac- ters like Sandy Cheeks the squirrel don diving suits and masks to stay safe from the radiation.
This second fan theory is not farfetched, given the insertion of live- action footage of detonations at Bikini Atoll into the franchise’s televi- sion programs and movies. However, the point of this article is not to support fan theories or to expose the intentionality of the show’s creator. Regardless of Hillenburg’s original motivations for the cartoon, Sponge- Bob’s squatter existence at Bikini enables a powerful media influence to lay claim to and settle into Marshallese lands. SpongeBob’s assertion of residence as part of fictional entertainment suggests that the United States’ taking of Oceanian land is natural and even comical. The real-life story of Bikini evokes tears and anger from the people who fail to come into focus in SpongeBob’s storyline, in which the fictional Bikini Bottom serves as a mirage that clouds viewers’ ability to see and acknowledge the nonfic- tion reality. Kelly opined about this kind of disassociation created by the media: “The tough part is that most people would give a damn. Most people would care if they heard the truth. Most people do care about jus- tice, . . . but they’re being entertained into not caring about it” (quoted in Herreria 2017). In this regard, by separating the human tragedies of Bikini from the atoll’s media representation, SpongeBob diminishes opportuni- ties to create viewer empathy and understanding about the plight of the Bikinians.
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Although the US government removed the people of Bikini from the atoll above the surface, this does not give license to SpongeBob or anyone else, fictitious or otherwise, to occupy Bikini. SpongeBob’s presence on Bikini Bottom continues the violent and racist expulsion of Indigenous peoples from their lands (and in this case their cosmos) that enables US hegemonic powers to extend their military and colonial interests in the postwar era. However, in order to dismantle hierarchies of oppression, including in its popular culture forms, it is necessary to amplify Marshal- lese notions of land.
Marshallese Insistence on an Interconnected Notion of “Land”
The everyday rhythms of life on coral atolls underscore a Marshallese vision of interconnected domains, including areas below the sea. Like marine biologists observing, gaining knowledge of, and acting on theories about sea-based life, the Marshallese envision the domains of sky, land, and sea, including areas below the sea, as intertwined; they recognize that their lives on the surface of the islands are possible because of the skel- etons of marine invertebrates growing on top of submerged volcanoes. The lagoon, with its quiet waters surrounded by a ring of islands, is at the heart of Marshallese community life. Given Marshallese worldviews and notions of the land, sea, and sky as interrelated and symbiotic, it is hardly surprising that Marshallese mythology, like stories from across Oceania, tell of fishermen who snag giant islands from below the surface, pulling them above the water so that humans can create their homes.
Numerous Marshallese origin stories exist that describe the emergence of both humans and deities from the heavens and the seas (Tobin 2002), such as the legend of Wullep, the first deity who emerged from a giant clamshell from the depths of the ocean (Erdland 1914, 310–311). The interconnectivity of the Marshallese world is paramount in the atoll envi- ronment that SpongeBob tries to parcel into distinct sections. The ter- restrial and marine interweaving is a central component of the legend of Ājinkōj Eo (The Gifts), first published in 1976 during US occupation of the islands.6 In the story, fishermen search for food to feed the hungry people, ultimately pulling in a giant island filled with food-bearing trees— literally gifts that emerge from beneath the seas. The story, as well as the accompanying illustration by Marshallese artist Iso Lan̄inbelik (Gideon 2011, 95; see figure 1), reinforces an insistence on reaffirming a Mar-
Figure 1 Artwork by Iso Lan̄inbelik depicting Marshallese stories about the islands and terrestrial life emerging from the sea. Reproduced with permission of the Instructional Services Center, Marshall Islands Ministry of Education.
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shallese worldview that emphasizes the interconnectivity that SpongeBob bifurcates.
The concept of “land” is a Western construction that does not equate with a traditional Marshallese worldview; one’s land is not simply dry acreage to stand on, and it certainly is not a commodity that any one per- son or generation can own (Johnston and Barker 2008). The Marshallese call their world—again, not just the land—“aelōn̄ kein ad,” frequently translated as “these islands of ours.” Sometimes Marshallese refer to their nation, the Marshall Islands, as “Aelōn̄ in Majol,” a vestige of colonial naming practices honoring the initial “discoverer” of the location, British Captain John Marshall. Despite the similarities in sound, “island” is not a translation for “aelōn̄” (pronounced long-i sound + luhng); the word “island” focuses on the terrestrial realm above the ocean and does not capture the expansive Marshallese version of place embodied in “aelōn̄,” in which “ae” refers to the currents or the seas and “lōn̄” to the heavens or the skies above (Ahlgren 2016). As the concept of aelōn̄ communicates, there is no separation of realms because Marshallese notions of land are expansive and holistic, extending to the bottom of the ocean and lagoons, as far as the ocean currents flow, and as high as the stars and heavens.7
In addition to the volcanoes that support coral and human life, atolls throughout the Marshall Islands include prominent seamounts, or under- water mountains that are rooted to the seafloor and do not reach the sur- face. There are forty-three seamounts in the Marshall Islands, which have proper names identifying them as important cultural features that connect to the daily lives of people on the surface (Johnston and Barker 2008, 69). At Bikini, as with every atoll of the Marshall Islands, the multidimensional cosmos maintains the relationships between lagoon, land, and air. Bikini Atoll comprises the skies above, the seas and currents around, and the volcanoes and lagoon below, including Bikini Bottom, where the colonial squatter SpongeBob and his friends reside. Unlike in the cartoon, the bot- tom of the lagoon remains actively joined with Marshallese daily life on the surface, as is evident in the language, mythology, and Lan̄inbelik’s artwork.
Songs and Place
Song is another medium through which Marshallese assertions of their own history and memories of place challenge any efforts to usurp people from their lands. Imagine the silence that would emerge from asking a
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room full of young people to discuss their knowledge about US activities on Bikini Atoll. Now imagine the voluminous response you might receive to the lead question in the SpongeBob theme song: “Who lives in a pine- apple under the sea?” (Waller 2010). This discrepancy should be unset- tling to everyone.
In the theme song, the songwriters, including Hillenburg, ask kids if they are ready to sing along, or, put another way, to join the community of SpongeBob fans. The first act of the song is to have children identify who resides in the pineapple house. The children’s response, repeated exten- sively throughout the song, affirms that the house and Bikini Bottom are the domain of SpongeBob. The song’s directives, ensconced in humor, pro- vide the viewer with an active role in defining Bikini Bottom as a place of nonsense, as the audience is instructed, “If nautical nonsense be something you wish . . . drop on the deck and flop like a fish” (Waller 2010). The viewer becomes an unwitting participant in the co-opting of Bikini’s story and the exclusion of the Bikinian people from the postwar discourses that Diaz illuminated (2001).
It is implausible that Hillenburg and Nickelodeon, the cartoon’s net- work, envisioned an act of US colonialism as they developed the show, but it is disturbing that it did not occur to them that Bikini Bottom and Bikini Atoll were not theirs for the taking. Since millions of viewers worldwide hear about Bikini Bottom through SpongeBob without being offered a deeper understanding about Bikini Atoll or its people, it is essential to con- sider how the show shapes viewers’ worldviews, ideologies, and under- standings. As critical media scholar Stuart Hall noted: “In modern socie- ties, the different media are especially important sites for the production, reproduction, and transformation of ideologies. . . . Institutions like the media are . . . part of the dominant means of ideological production. What they ‘produce’ is, precisely, representations of the social world, images, descriptions, explanations and frames for understanding how the world is and why it works as it is said” (2003, 90). In line with Hall’s ideas, mil- lions of children who view the show become acculturated to an ideology that includes the US character SpongeBob residing on another people’s homeland as a framework for how our world operates. A colonialism that settles SpongeBob and his friends into Bikini Bottom is thus produced, reproduced, and normalized through the cartoon series.
The SpongeBob theme song stands in stark contrast to the song “Bikin- ian Anthem,” which was written in 1946 by a member of the Bikini com- munity, Lore Kessibuki. It expresses Kessibuki’s “overwhelming” feeling
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and “great despair” of being ripped away from his home islands as an immense power destroys the tranquility of life on Bikini. The song remains a staple at annual commemorations of the nuclear legacy on the 1 March anniversary of the Bravo detonation, reaffirming the memories and his- tory in Marshallese terms and often accompanying a multitude of tears. The anthem is sung in Marshallese government buildings; on the islands of Kili, Ejit, and Majuro, where the community resides; and in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Salem, Oregon, Enid, Oklahoma, and other locations in the United States where the community’s fragmentation and migration serve as constant reminders of the violent separation of the people from their land. All of this is embodied in the song:
Bikinian Anthem No longer can I stay; it’s true. No longer can I live in peace and harmony. No longer can I rest on my sleeping mat and pillow Because of my island and the life I once knew there. The thought is overwhelming Rendering me helpless and in great despair. My spirit leaves, drifting around and far away Where it becomes caught in a current of immense power— And only then do I find tranquility. (quoted and translated in Niedenthal 2001)
Kessibuki’s creation emotes and documents the Bikinian people’s hard- ships and strongly refutes any American hegemonic efforts to erase or cleanse the atoll of US sins. For Kessibuki and the Bikinians who have continued to sing the anthem since his death, leaving Bikini was akin to ripping the soul of the people from their bodies, as their islands and the life they once knew were gone. In an interview with Jack Niedenthal, Kes- sibuki recalled his motivation to compose the song, which came on an extremely challenging day for the Bikinians, who were experiencing near starvation after their forced relocation from Bikini:
I vividly remember that one day many of our people were walking around vomiting, and having a terrible time with their stomachs, because they had forced themselves to eat a lot of the poisoned fish. These fish were the only available food for us to eat at the time. It was mid-afternoon and extremely hot when I myself felt nauseated and I slowly slumped to the ground beneath a coconut tree. All of a sudden, a burst of images rushed into my mind about Bikini. I recalled the memories of what wonderful lives we had lived when we were on our islands. It was at that moment that I began to compose a vision in
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my soul about my homeland—Bikini, Bikini, Bikini, Bikini—the dream was so beautiful: I remembered the endless, white beaches where I used to take long walks with the sands rising up between my toes; and I thought about the lush jungles that had provided me with countless adventures as a child; and I tasted the delicious fish that could be easily caught—even by a small child—in the lagoon; and I imagined myself touching the tombstones in the graveyard of the elders; and I envisioned myself sailing across the lagoon in a canoe which was loaded down with fresh tuna; and I recalled how I used to talk with my fam- ily, peacefully and quietly, long into the night. These recollections caused me, when coupled with my weakened state, to become quickly, and embarrassingly, reduced to tears right there under the tree—in the daytime! I was supposed to be a leader, yet, I was crumbling, crying. My god, I thought, was I losing my mind? That was when I began to construct a powerful song that seemed to flow out of the depths of my being. My mouth felt like it was uttering the words on its own, as if they were coming from an unknown source. (quoted in Niedenthal 2001, 137–138)
The nuclear songs of the Marshall Islands communicate experiences that are in many ways beyond comprehension (Schwartz 2012). When the Bikinians sing their anthem as a collective, they call attention to the profound pains of nuclear colonialism that have been rendered invisible through global discourse, including through television shows like Sponge- Bob, that erases US violence and the hardships of the Marshallese people. Kessibuki’s song makes the inaudible audible (Schwartz 2012, 14). While Sponge Bob gets children to laugh and imagine wriggling around like fish, contemporary singing of “Bikinian Anthem” ensures that the histories and narratives of the community remain firmly entrenched in the lives of the Marshallese people. At the same time, songs like the anthem garner tears and articulate the continued traumas residing in the community; they carry the history of the people as they are taught to children and passed to successive generations of Bikinians and Marshallese.
People do not laugh at the SpongeBob theme song and cartoon because they ar