Who lives in a treedome under the sea? Sandy Cheeks, an alleged Houston native and an astronaut suit–, cowboy boot–wearin’ squirrel.
The Nickelodeon hit animated series SpongeBob SquarePants premiered in 1999—just in time to join the canon of millennial pop culture—and is now in its thirteenth season. Ms. Cheeks befriends the titular sponge in the very first episode, when he stumbles upon her wrestling with a giant clam. Despite being voiced by a Baltimorean, Carolyn Lawrence, Sandy is a full-bred Texan: she has the deep Southern accent, pronounces “pecan” “pee-can,” has a strong desire to be “too Texas tough,” and has a lot of love for the Lone Star State. She can’t get through an eleven-minute episode without dropping a cliché (but fair) Texan saying, such as “You’ve been messing with the bull; now here come the horns.”
Like many Texans before her, Sandy is often put in the position of defending her love of the Lone Star State. Her lethal weapon is a can-do attitude paired with a competitive spirit, most often accompanied by a “yeehaw!” In season two she lassos the most feared creature in the sea, the Alaskan Bull Worm. Sandy may be a bit rough around the edges, but that makes her comfortable when defending her friends from the most terrifying creatures in the depths of the ocean.
The show portrays Texas as a land full of not-so-bright critters and hicks. In one moment that’s become a meme, Sandy is homesick and turns to SpongeBob for help. The flexible sponge transforms his yellow body into the shape of Texas. “Hey Patrick, what am I now?” he asks.
“Uh, stupid?” Patrick guesses.
“No, I’m Texas!”
“What’s the difference?”
“Y’all best apologize, or I’m gonna be on you like ugly on an ape,” Sandy warns, her face and eyes turning bright red, before chasing the duo with a lasso. Who among us?
As a child in San Angelo, I never gave much thought to where Sandy hailed from. But now, I have my own ideas.
Creator Stephen Hillenburg reportedly said Sandy is from Houston, and according to multiple fandom sites, the squirrel was supposedly sent down from Houston to Bikini Bottom to study underwater life. (She’s not the first Texan to dream of the sea when enduring the dog days of summer.) Bikini Bottom, located in the North Pacific Ocean, is reportedly based on the real location of a U.S. nuclear test site at Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. The origin story gets a few nods in earlier episodes: due to the supposed radiation, stationary creatures (a sponge, for example) came to life. Sandy is an inventor of sorts, and in season four, her chimpanzee bosses visit to inspect the gadgets Sandy was supposed to be working on, instead of lassoing random sea creatures and making her signature Texas tea. The chimp threatens to pull Sandy’s funding, which is a NASA-employee problem if I’ve ever heard one.
Adrienne Dobson, who is currently directing a run of The SpongeBob Musical at the Theatre Company of Bryan–College Station, has become quite acquainted with the land mammal. To prepare for the show, the cast had general conversations regarding their characters, and Keri Kempf, the actress who plays Sandy, deduced that the squirrel was from Houston because of her obsession with science. Dobson believes that if not Houston, Sandy would like West Texas, specifically Marfa, for the stargazing.
If Hillenburg said Sandy was born in Houston, I believe him—but is it possible that she, say, moved as a pup? Went to UT-Austin? Followed a boyfriend down to the RGV? Hear me out: only about 18 percent of Houston is covered by tree canopy. Sandy is a squirrel. Trees are essential. Never mind the fact that she’s more of a get-your-hands-dirty type of squirrel than a Main Street businesswoman. Houston is not much of a cowboy town (except for two weeks of a glammed-up rodeo), and Sandy’s blood is steeped in cow manure. The city doesn’t seem like the right fit.
If not H-Town, the Piney Woods seems like a great home for our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed friend. Perhaps Tyler, or maybe Conroe? The Arbor Day Foundation declared the latter a Tree City, meaning its efforts toward planting and preserving nature have been recognized. With plenty of acorns to forage and branches to zigzag between, the area sounds like the perfect place for Sandy.
In that memeable Texas-filled episode (season one, episode eighteen), homesickness gets the best of Cheeks. She speaks of missing the wide-open skies, her twenty acres of land, barbecues, and pecan pies. Her details of home don’t match with the running theory—unobstructed skies and about fifteen football fields’ worth of land aren’t things one easily comes by in Houston.
Sandy begins to tear up while reminiscing; in true Texan fashion, she assures her friends that she’s not crying (she is) but, rather, her helmet has sprung a leak. Armed with her acoustic guitar and a very rough version of a Southern twang, she begins to sing a heartbreaking love song. “Wish I was back in Texas / The ocean’s no place for a squirrel / Wish I was in Texas, prettiest place in the world, oh no / I guess that deep in my heart, I’ll always be a Texas girl / I wanna go hoooOooOOOooOme,” she sings.
As fast as the sadness sweeps in, it leaves after her two friends realize inciting her fondness for the state is exactly how they’re going to get her to go to their goodbye party. Sandy warns SpongeBob to not “take the name of Texas in vain” after a series of jokes, and she eventually whips out her lasso. The episode is a true testament to what it feels like to be a displaced Texan: sometimes you miss the state, sometimes you don’t, and you spend a lot of time defending it. Yet it will always be home. “When I’m so far from you, Texas, all I can do is cry,” Sandy finishes the song.