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Lessons in Life, Love and Culture from Popeye, Brutus, Olive Oyl and Wimpy

Mar 29, 2008
Who says America has no culture?

The plot wasn't exactly Agatha Christie but then again Popeye was a kiddie cartoon. The central theme was Popeye and Brutus fighting over lovely Olive Oyl's affections or love makes the world go around.

Even back then we had to wonder what was so attractive about Olive Oyl but suffice it to say there was something about her that had 'hot babe' written all over it. At least from the suitor's perspective.

As little kids we didn't know much about grown-ups and love and such but we knew it was there. From Popeye and Brutus we learned that one will go to great lengths to find true love and certainly Popeye and Brutus were willing to go to great lengths to win favor with Olive Oyl.

And certainly romancing Olive Oyl with her daughter Sweet Pea wasn't easy. It wasn't clear who Sweet Pea's father was but we can assume that it wasn't Brutus or Popeye. In fact it never really entered the plot; Olive Oyl was always presented as a single mother.

Sweet Pea would often wander off and that would provide the episode's edge. Of course Olive would panic and enlist the aid of both of her suitors; one thing was clear Olive's top priority was Sweet Pea; not fashions, suitors or going out to the latest clubs. The way to Olive Oyl's heart was through Sweet Pea.

Brutus was a brute and that was that. He had few redeeming qualities and his motives were either explicitly or implicitly questionable, whereas with amigo Popeye he always let us know that he was playing it straight up. Poor Popeye's conscience would not let him stray far from the path.

In fact, one of Popeye's redeeming qualities was he was not bright enough to get too far off track. Often it was even clear that Popeye's nemesis Brutus was in fact cleverer albeit he always seemed to lose on principle and didn't have the secret weapon spinach.

Perhaps the most revealing parts were when Popeye reflected on life and his predicaments. It was as if he would stop in the middle of some disaster and patiently reflect on where he was and what he needed to do to get out of his current mess.

He would make his most poignant insights at this time and it was here that Popeye assessed his life and found his motivation to go on. And where we kiddies got to take a look into his cartoon brain.

On the other hand weird guy Wimpy was simply one obsessed character. As little tykes we had limited exposure to the hard cruel world but Wimpy taught us that an obsessive compulsive behavior could drive one's total behavior.

Our limited kiddie world had its share of obsessive behaviors. Wimpy was always looking for a hamburger and that was it. Everything else took back seat to his hamburger quest.

Unfortunately Wimpy's hamburger obsession brought about his 'ruin' and so he was condemned to forever live his curse; the raw truth is there are never really enough hamburgers.

Wimpy's famous line "I'll gladly repay you Tuesday" was clearly a ruse and not ever to be trusted. Simply put, Wimpy had a burger addiction.

Popeye taught us that people could be stubborn, prejudiced, self-centered and obsessed yet still maintain goodness and strength of character when the game is on the line. Even though a clown and buffoon it was always clear that somewhere beneath Popeye's crusty, salty exterior was a warm heart.

With Brutus there was no such illusion; Brutus' cynical facial expressions revealed his truly flawed and rotten personal dynamics. Usually Popeye would get himself into a bind and Brutus would have him tied or cornered with no way out.

Popeye would then sardonically review his hopeless case and then realize that his only hope was to eat some Spinach, his strength inducer.

My assumption was always that the Spinach part was to show kids that spinach was in fact nutritious though not very tasty, at least from a three or four year old's perspective. Popeye could even be tied up and if he could only get the can of Spinach out of his pocket, he could in fact inhale the Spinach with his pipe. No small feat.

Today one cannot help but wonder what the significance of finding solutions by inhaling on a pipe meant. One has to wonder if seeing Popeye get stronger and gain advantage quickly later led to increases in steroid and crack cocaine use.

Was even the concept that external agents could cause performance enhancement revolutionary? But that is only tenuous and in the end Popeye is only a cartoon.

As with anything cultural Popeye had his day and is now found mostly in the archives. Saturday mornings find fewer and fewer episodes of Popeye and in the not too distant future our old pal Popeye will be relegated to archives.

Although we didn't realize it at the time, Popeye introduced us to character types, struggle, identity and love. Not bad for a kiddie cartoon.

In the 22nd century graduate students will write theses on "Popeye's Influence on the 20th Century Drugged Culture" or "Family Dysfunction and Competitive Romance in the Pre-Modern Era." Or some such.

They will look at Popeye and his era with future perspectives that hopefully will not miss out on all of life's lessons the cast brought to all of us developing tykes.

And in the end his archival epitaph will spell out what he is. As he said it best, "I yam what I yam." We would expect no more and no less; some things just are. In the end, Popeye was comfortable in his own skin.

"I fight to the finich 'cause I eat me Spinach; I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" Toot, toot. And just who was it that said America has no culture?
About the Author
Jack Deal is the owner of JD Deal Business Consulting, Aptos and Santa Cruz, CA. Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com/blog/culture http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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