In 1933, Popeye the Sailor was acquired by the Fleischer Brothers and became the beloved role model for cartoon-loving children nationwide. But why was Popeye so well received by his American viewers? And what could have possibly motivated his production in the immediate wake of the scantily-clad flapper, Betty Boop? Through a lens of historical context, Popeye’s significance in American culture comes into focus.
The year 1933 finds the United States in a state of economic unbalance. While the U.S. basks in the glow of military dominance after WWI, and various new industries, including the film industry, gain capital to no end, the pre-industrial populations of the U.S. struggle to climb out of what would later be known as The Great Depression. Just one year into F.D.R.’s “New Deal”, there is still no guarantee of recovery for the agricultural industry and those impoverished in the wake of its collapse. Thus, the children of America (or at least those wealthy enough to attend the cinema) are introduced to a character who “fights to the finish,” a character of unfaltering moral righteousness, a character opposed by the womanizing, gloating, anger-fueled fiend, Bluto. Popeye, at this time, is exactly what the U.S. needs, a modern day Hercules to lead and inspire. He is even followed by his side-kick, Wimpy, an overweight exaggeration of sedentary Americans. The message could not be clearer with these characters- Join the Navy, work tirelessly, avoid megalomania, and do not fall subject to the vices of lethargy.
And what of Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive? She’s the antithesis of sexy. Her skirt covers her legs, she’s skinny as a rail, she ties her hair in a bun, and on top of that, she acts like a total dude. Olive Oyl is the Fleischer’s answer to the Hay’s Code. Betty Boop, by 1933, has become a relic of flapper era morals, on which sexuality and jazz once thrived. So, who better to take her place than a gangly tomboy, monogamous and modest.
Finally, let’s ponder on Popeye’s never-ending hunger for spinach. As was stated before, the early 1930’s marked an era of recovery for farmer’s across America. What better way to advertise the consumption and trade of vegetables than through the bulging biceps of a childhood hero? Also, sailors are (or at least were) notorious heavy drinkers. 1933 marks the dissolution of Prohibition, but Popeye’s character was developed long before 1933. One would expect a sailor to take long draws from a bottle of whiskey before engaging in fisticuffs; Spinach may very well just be a creative alternative.
Indeed, whether his creation was truly motivated by these events or not, one can not argue that Popeye was simply right for his time. No parent or child of 1933 could possibly object to his positivity, work ethic, morality, and humble nature.
(Sorry for writing this in the present tense. And for being too lazy to go back and change it.)