SpongeBob is in a deep trance of false consciousness; Squidward is a disillusioned wage slave; Mr. Krabs embodies the malevolence of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. If William Beteet’s analysis of SpongeBob characters sounds like Marxist word-salad, forgive him: After all, he’s working with the 15-second medium of TikTok videos.
William Beteet III, better known as @billbeteet on TikTok, where he has just under 100,000 followers, teaches philosophy through these quick little blurbs, utilizing familiar properties like SpongeBob, South Park and the surprisingly rich catalogue of Wojak (or “Feels Guy”) memes.
“With the SpongeBob videos, I was just reading a lot of Marxist content at the time,” says Beteet. “Once you start seeing things in a neo-Marxist lens, you can’t unsee them. I was like, ‘It’s sitting right there.’ I think it was just funny seeing the juxtaposition of something as big as class warfare within SpongeBob being just blatantly obvious in the show.”
Beteet is a lawyer by trade, though he currently focuses more on stand-up comedy and writing. Like many others, TikTok became a creative outlet for him while stuck in quarantine: Among his popular videos, Beteet explains major philosophical concepts like Gilles Deleuze’s “Society of Control” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Horror of Freedom” using his own words, but primarily not his own visuals. He leaves that to clips of popular cartoons and incel-adjacent, alt-right animations pertaining to Wojak.
“I use the Wojak memes, even though I don’t support anything that Wojak politically stands for,” says Beteet. “They’re just really good at creating narratives that are compelling to people, and it builds context with the audience. They don’t have to buy into me, they can buy into the memes. Since there’s a big enough catalogue, I can weave whatever type of narrative I want out of those memes.”
His use of Wojak goes beyond the pure utility of the fact that there happens to be animations of Wojak and related characters like “Chad” and “Stacy” in a wide variety of scenarios already available for use on the internet. Instead, many of the Wojak memes inherently represent the concepts that Beteet is attempting to deconstruct.
“The main reason I use Wojak is to depict alienation,” he says. “At the heart of that zeitgeist is the feeling of alienation from society. Now their [the alt-right users of Wojak on the internet] prescriptions to solve that alienation or their reasons for it, I don’t agree with, but they’ve captured a lot of moments that people resonate with.
Specifically, one of Beteet’s Wojak videos analyzes Karl Marx’s understanding of alienation, and it works perfectly — while the origins and popular uses of Wojak today may be staunchly planted within capitalist, alt-right ideologies, they ultimately speak to a sense of despair and oppression. “Memes are meant to be shared, and a lot of people can see themselves in that meme. For me, it was just a kind of artistic choice of how I can tie together a narrative where the audience could see themselves.”
Still, most of the people Beteet believes he’s reaching aren’t necessarily on the right themselves. If anything, his videos are most successful in reaching those who might already have some philosophical inclinations, though don’t necessarily know where to start.
“We’ve watched the breakdown of academia, with schools charging full price despite kids not attending campus, showing that they’re basically certification factories; they’re there to accreditate, not educate,” Beteet tells me. “I think the role of the philosopher is to write books that are meaningful at the time, not necessarily self-help, but actually talking about the human condition and being able to draw attention and have people enjoy the ideas that you’re having.”
“What I love about TikTok, in a time where we only see things we want to see, TikTok exposes you to what you don’t know you want to see,” he continues. “It allows people who might be casually intellectually curious to stumble across my content. I think the beauty of TikTok is that you see people unlike you being human, without the polish and the shine. There’s a difference between seeing Rihanna as a representation of being Black versus someone doing dances with their mom in a house like yours.”
In many ways, Beteet’s platform serves a similar function in sharing and representing philosophy. Rather than being a field tucked away in elite institutions, Beteet’s explanations make philosophy — and particularly leftist theory — accessible to the masses. Most significantly, by showing how these concepts are represented in Wojak memes and TV shows like SpongeBob, Beteet demonstrates how these theories were already accessible to the masses. Most of us may just not have had the language to know it.