Cancel culture may feel like a new phenomenon, but people have been trying to discredit content that they feel is "controversial" for years. SpongeBob SquarePants has been hit with protest a number of times over the years, especially regarding its Season 2 episode "Sailor Mouth." In the much-debated episode, SpongeBob learns a bad word from the back of a dumpster where someone had written "Krabs is a _____," with the alleged expletive being censored by a dolphin noise. Not knowing what the word meant, SpongeBob uses it around other residents of Bikini Bottom and causes quite a scene. SpongeBob ends up learning 13 other forbidden words, but they're never revealed. Viewers were left to wonder if there was a real-world curse word that the show used or if it was a word made up for the show.
When the episode aired in 2001, Parents Television Council accused the production team of promoting and satirizing the use of profanity among children, fearing that children might begin to use swears due to Spongebob's influence. The episode drew protest and was part of the Parents Television Council's first study on children's television titled, "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing: A Content Analysis of Children's Television," which "found that there is more violence on children's entertainment programming than on adult-oriented television."
"Innocent Sponge Bob doesn't understand the dirty word graffiti he sees on a dumpster but Patrick tells him it's a 'sentence enhancer' for when you want to talk fancy," the study explains. "The rest of the episode features Sponge Bob and Patrick using bleeped foul language ['f---,' 'a------,' etc]. The bleeps are made to sound like a dolphin which makes the whole thing seem humorous. In the end, Sponge Bob and Patrick realize the words are bad and promise to never use them again but the episode ends with them telling Momma Krabs the 13 bad words Mr. Krabs has just said. All are punished by Momma Krabs for 'talking like sailors.'"
However, the creators of the show never intended it to be controversial, just true to life. "We mine possible storylines from individual writers' childhoods," creator Stephen Hillenberg told The Washington Post. "A good example: In 'Sailor Mouth,' SpongeBob learns a curse word — that's a classic thing all kids go through. We talk a lot about our experiences from childhood. Some of them end up in the story." Disclosure: PopCulture is owned by ViacomCBS Streaming, a division of ViacomCBS.