I’m not a sailor, nor a vegetable, but…
…Popeye’s philosophy has helped shape my destiny! Perhaps that’s putting it a bit emphatically, but he was a great influence on my developing childhood sense of self. A lot of old cartoons were on the television on Saturday mornings when I was growing up. My parents worked on Saturdays, so, early in the morning, my father would leave for work, and then my mother would do what I used to call “fussing around”. That’s how it looked to me. In reality she was straightening the house, and making sure I had what I needed for the next several hours. Although I was very young, my parents’ business was just around the corner so they were never far away. After she left, if I didn’t have plans with my friends yet, I’d watch the Saturday morning cartoons.
Popeye cartoons were not among my favorites, really. I preferred others for content and characters, and I found his girlfriend, Olive Oyl rather annoying and somewhat disturbing. But, Popeye had several distinct characteristics I admired, and do to this day. One was self-confidence. His signature song contained the words “I’m strong to the finich, ’cause I eats me Spinach, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man! (toot, toot)” The self-confidence was obvious in his declaration of strength. I wasn’t used to people proclaiming their admirable qualities so openly and blatantly, and I was intrigued. (I was also fascinated by Popeye’s apparent ability to convert his tobacco pipe to a musical instrument at a moment’s whim. Did he ever smoke it, or just “toot” it?—an unsolved mystery…)
Another quality I noticed right away was that Popeye was his own man. This becomes even more distinct in his signature phrase, which I’ll discuss shortly, but, first I’ll point out that Popeye used language; he didn’t allow language to use him. He used, perhaps “sailor’s vernacular” in which (along with other kinds of slang) “I eats me Spinach” was perfectly acceptable (although it’s surprising the educators at the time would want our sponge-like young minds exposed to this sort of thing), but beyond that, when Popeye found that a word he wanted to use didn’t rhyme with another, he just reinvented the word so it did!: “Finish” became “finich”, if it rhymed better with “spinach”. I thought this an excellent system, and managed to irritate my parents quite a lot by saying things like “No, I haven’t finiched my homework yet”, or “I’ll finich cleaning my room later!” (Hmm, I still say that last one oftener than I should. In fact, instead of typing this right now, I should finich…ah, well, later.)
I also admired that, in addition to being strong, and self-confident, he was not afraid to accept help, when necessary. This help most often took the form of a can of spinach. I was one of many children, from my grandparents’ time to…now? Are kids still watching Popeye?…that acquired a taste for spinach from watching what it did for Popeye. I no longer enjoy canned spinach—too salty and mushy—but I did as a child; I was always trying to get my parents to serve it for dinner. Of course I wanted to be strong, like Popeye, but spinach was heavily marketed as being very nutritious, too, and if it was good enough for Popeye, etc… Ironically (that’s a pun, check back in 3 seconds to see why) when I was researching Popeye for this post (yes, I did spend some of my life doing that!) I came across this: “Early references to spinach in the Fleischer cartoons and subsequently in further stories of Popeye are attributed to the publication of a study which, because of a misprint, attributed to spinach ten times its actual iron content.” [from Wikipedia; article: Popeye] But, never mind, spinach made me “strong like iron” when I was six years old, and I challenge you to disprove that!
An aside: Here’s an early video (from1933!), wherein Popeye sings his theme song for the first time. He and Olive Oyl go to the carnival, where Popeye does the hula with Betty Boop! I liked this 7-minute segment until the very end, where Bluto, Popeye’s nemesis, kidnaps Olive Oyl and ties her to the train tracks. Why are villains always tying “damsels in distress” to the train tracks? Who does this in real life? There must be some primal mythology that explains this. What’s odd, to me, is that in the beginning of the film, Olive is dealing with Bluto just fine on her own, and has dispatched a couple of “overly friendly” sailors besides! Oh, well, generally, this cartoon is fairly forward thinking for 1933.
The most compelling teaching of Popeye, though, was his definitive statement: “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.” The first time I heard this I thought Popeye was championing another vegetable, one I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as spinach. However I soon realized it was his distinctive accent putting forth this gem of self-acceptance. Popeye had no illusions about his own intellect, for instance, or his social standing. He was content with who he was. In my family, contentment was a rare thing. It seemed we were always striving for something. I can’t think what, looking back on it now. In another article an author reported that his phrase “may be seen as an expression of individualism”. This might have been considered subversive in some times and some cultures, but I took it to mean that my unique self was valuable, just as it was. This underlying belief sort of “got me through” the often difficult teenage years. I knew I’d be able to express as myself…eventually.
To reinforce these thoughts, a musical production came to my attention in later years. A particular song, I Am What I Am (there’s a theme, here) spoke to me, and I get tears in my eyes to this day when hearing it. This video shows a wonderful performance of that terrific song.
Finally, in looking within my culture for other similar, supportive phrases, I remembered the quote from the early bible (Exodus 3:14), in which God says to Abraham “I Am THAT I Am”. I have to admit I’ve never understood precisely what is meant by that. I’ve had plenty of people attempt to “explain” it to me, but still I never could find a meaning which resonated; which felt right within. Then, I read this interpretation: “God is ‘in the process of being’, a reference that could say, based on theological interpretation, that God exists in all times.” Apparently, the translation from the Hebrew is not straightforward, and is subject to dissection and opinion and much nuance of meaning. The translation I am familiar with is only one such interpretation. Amazing what one learns when one thinks one’s writing about cartoons. 🙂
In any event, I’m grateful for Popeye showing up in my life, just when I needed him. Just like the hero he is. Toot, toot!