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Deconstructing Popeye

David Cowles

May 25, 2023

“…then I am basically an automaton. I am carbon-based AI. I am the product of nature (inherited traits) and nurture (upbringing)…my parents’ mini-me.”

As a boy growing up in the 1950’s, Popeye the Sailorman was a major cultural influence. He willingly ate his spinach, something my friends and I would do only if forced, and he was stubbornly self-assured. His slogan:

“I am who I am and that’s all that I am.” How we all longed to say just that to parents, teachers, and schoolyard bullies!

In an era when everyone was committed to forming you according to their ideas of what a prepubescent boy should be like, someone (flesh or celluloid) with the courage to say, “No, I am me, I know who I am and I will be who I am, not what you want me to be” was an instant hero and role model.

A decade later, I began to read the existentialists, especially Sartre and Camus, and found they offered a very different idea of identity: “I am not what I am, but I am what I am not… I know who I am, and I know that I can be whoever I want to be… I am the being whose existence precedes his essence.”

So, who’s right, Popeye or Sartre? And does it make any difference? Well, turns out, it makes all the difference in the world, and for my money at least, Popeye comes up short…way short. 

Question: how did Popeye come to be who he is? If he chose that identity, then he could just as easily have unchosen it…and he could still unchoose it, even now. But if he is who he is and that’s all that he is, then he does not have the power to change. 

Change implies the formation of a counter-factual intention prior to its execution. According to mythology, Popeye did not have the capacity to form, much less execute, a counter-factual proposition. He was who he was and there was nothing left over, nothing that could form the basis of being someone else.  

So Popeye did not choose to be who he is, and he has no power even to conceive a different identity, much less to actually change his identity. Popeye was the fondest dream of almost every 1950s parent!

If I am what I am and that’s all that I am, then I am basically an automaton. I am carbon-based AI. I am the product of nature (inherited traits) and nurture (upbringing). In other words, I am my parents’ mini-me. I did not get to create myself and I do not get to change myself. I am and I always will be what someone (or something) else created.

No wonder we tried to burn down the world! Pity we didn’t succeed: “Revolution for the Hell of it!” (Abbie Hoffman)

Popeye, who masqueraded as our liberator, was just our parents in nautical garb. You’ve heard that story before…many, many times: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” (The Who) 

In the end, Popeye wanted us to be who our parents wanted us to be. No wonder our generation was obsessed with the question, “Who am I?” We were like amnesiacs just awakening after a major trauma. 

We rebelled! But here’s the dirty little secret about rebellion: it always presumes aspects of the hated status quo. For example, we rejected the made-to-order identities glued onto us by our parents and their ‘secret agents’ (Popeye), but we still assumed that each of us had some hidden identity – just not the identity chosen for us by our parents.

We relentlessly peeled off the layers of our respective onions in hopes of finding the hidden gem inside. There was no end to the things we tried: sex, drugs and rock and roll, of course. Not to mention meditation and political action. In the end, we found exactly what we should have expected to find all along: nothing!

There is no secret identity. There is only the freedom to choose our identity and forge it. But who knew? And so what? Well, if I am what I am and that’s all that I am, then I’m not really responsible for my actions, am I? If I commit a crime, it is my nature to do so (a modern version of “the devil made me do it”). 

If my politics are racist, they are merely the reflection of the racist culture I grew up in. The very idea that identity could be bound to nationality or race is vintage Popeyeism (though there’s no reason to suppose that Popeye was a racist!).

The stratification of society into classes is reinforced by the idea that I am destined to follow in my father’s footsteps when it comes to ‘work’ (i.e., my relationship to the means of production).

Disparities in education trace to the tyranny of standardized testing (especially the all determining IQ). By the age of 13, many children in the North Atlantic community have already been assigned to “tracks” that in turn determine what they will have the opportunity to learn and what work they will be able and expected to do as adults.

So, in the true spirit of deconstruction (Jacques Derrida et al.), we see that Popeye only masqueraded as a liberator. When he said, “No!” he was really saying, “Yes,” because his “No” presupposed the culture of conformism that he nominally opposed. 

In reality, he merely projected the ethos of 1950s culture (conformism, keeping up with the Joneses, etc.) onto his adoring fans, us – and all the more brutally and effectively because he did it in disguise.


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