Do you watch “SpongeBob Square Pants”? I don’t either. It doesn’t matter. Meet Patrick Star.
Patrick Star is a lazy, overweight, dimwitted starfish, and while I can’t claim to know how well starfish typically fare on any of those fronts, Patrick is advanced enough in all three to qualify for village idiot status in his underwater hamlet of Bikini Bottom. Which is to say all of us know a Patrick — and some of us are Patrick.
Many of the most beloved figures in cartoon history attained their iconic status through the enduring and easy relatability of the aggressively stupid. From Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin to Pinky, Olaf, Dory, Beavis, Butt-head, Dopey, Goofy, and a litany of other clearly-dumb-sounding names, we’ve long been drawn to the chronically, lovably dense.
Maybe it’s because they make us feel smarter (albeit a low bar). Or maybe because it’s in our natures as humans to sit and watch disasters unfold before our eyes. Or maybe it’s because there’s something non-threatening about the broken brains of others. (Putting momentarily aside the image of Homer asleep at the reactor.)
All of those maybes should help to explain the outsize popularity of SpongeBob’s BFF Patrick. And within the context of the cartoon itself, they do; Patrick’s reliably effortless grasp of the worst possible idea at the worst possible time is often what sucks the already limited oxygen out of the room from one episode to the next.
But Patrick has emerged as a star in another ecosystem entirely, the Internet. Patrick has enjoyed a second, third, and fourth coming across social media as one of the most meme’d cartoon characters in history.
Patrick memes stretch back to 2007, when “Push It Somewhere Else Patrick” started trending (where such things were even possible). Employing two frames and a common “Let’s take all the [blank] and put it in [blank]” caption format, it was one of the more elastic vessels for the late-aughts growth spurt of Internet humor.
Since then we’ve seen the subsequent rise and fall of memes like Surprised Patrick (commonly deployed to express a wide range of emotional subsets of shock and dismay) and Things Are Gonna Get Crazy Patrick (commonly deployed to indicate . . . well, it says it right there).
The former — a still image of bizarro Patrick with a menacing grin — is designed to plumb into and preserve some reeeeally dark impulses that we won’t go into here.
But the latter seems to have legs (more than five). It plays out a discussion from the show between Patrick and series villain Man Ray over a (hypothetical) lost wallet, which naturally goes screwy (since Patrick isn’t quite equipped to follow hypotheticals). Retrofitted with new subtitles (an example of an easily generated meme form known as an “exploitable”), the eight-panel exchange has come to serve as a universal Mad-Lib for capturing all manner of contradictions — from IT desk and techie frustrations to glaring political doublespeak and full-blown cognitive dissonance.
It’s nice to see Patrick hitting it big — and that’s not a dig at his figure. What’s strange is to see how Patrick — as emblematic of pure, wide-eyed idiocy as any contemporary character I can think of — is being used out of his usual underwater context, where his hijinks seldom result in a ripple on the surface.
Patrick has become an Internet stand-in for how we tend to imagine the other side, whichever side that may be to you.
It’s not (just) that he’s dumb; he’s simply unable to process the world the same way you do — imagine trying to breathe water. The typical Patrick’s Wallet meme doesn’t end with any whiff of vindication for Man Ray and his futile logic, nor for whoever is posting the meme in the first place. If anything, they tend to end in a kind of sad acquiescence of the growing rift between knowledge and belief (and also with Man Ray losing his mind).
It’s hard to see Patrick the same way these days. In meme form, robbed of his innocent, mouth-agape wonder at the world, as well as the usual charm of his blockheaded ideas, Patrick has been repurposed into a sock puppet of our worst instincts (seriously, those Savage Patrick memes can get pretty ugly) or recast as a reminder of the unbridgeable divide cleaving a polarized nation. It’s hard not to see shades of Pepe the Frog in this prolonged character assassination, as hijacked Patricks parrot the talking points of Nazis and nationalists. I liked it better when he was just reading about counting.
It’s as though his once-lovable stupidity has been weaponized into something a lot more dismissive and dangerous. If Patrick Star truly represents the way one half of the country views the other, we’re all in deep water.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.