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Popeye The Racist Sailor

15 July, 2020 | Steven Specht
  • Popeye The Racist Sailor

On her last visit, my mom brought sixteen boxes of stuff that had been moldering in various parts of my childhood home. Old clippings from my brief period as a journalist, long-forgotten ribbons and trophies from competitions past, old uniform parts I should just throw out but can’t for some reason.

The most interesting box was a cache of old VHS tapes.

There were a few “R” movies in there, but the vast majority were cartoons.

There were a surprising number of VCRs available on LetGo and for $20, I got one of the old-school TV-VCR combos.

Of course, I had to test it out before I showed the kids to make sure it worked. I grabbed the first tape I saw in the box. A 1987 release of Popeye cartoons from the 1930s.

This was a blast-from-the-past worthy of #MAGA. Should I begin with the toxic masculinity, misogyny, rape jokes, animal abuse or open-racism?

In back-to-back films totaling 34 minutes, Popeye faces off with Sinbad the Sailor and Abu Hassan, portrayed in trope-form ranging across the entirety of Southern Asia. As a linguist who speaks three languages from the region, it’s hard to pin down if the bad guys are Arabic, Persian, Indian, or something else entirely. Their made-up “durka-durka” caricature of a language wasn’t at all helpful. Then, an over-muscled Popeye has to save both his obese friend Wimpy and his hapless lady friend Olive Oyl from the baddies who imply they are going to have their way with her (but only after she does all the laundry of Abu Hassan and his 40-thieves.) 

That’s a lot to pack into one paragraph, so I’ll dedicate this simple sentence to call out Sinbad’s menagerie of chained cats that guard his palace and suffer physical abuse when they are disobedient. What’s a good number for Carole Baskin?

So of course, being the thoroughly woke liberal that I am, I tossed that VHS in the trash, right?

Actually, I let my kid watch it, warts and all.

Why? Because he’s not even 5 yet. I’ll explain human trafficking in time, but right now we are nailing down stranger danger. His only concept of race comes from his west-African classmate at daycare teasing him that his baby brother would come out brown instead of the vaguely pinkish hue of everyone else in his family. So, I’m not ready yet to explain racism to a kid who doesn’t understand race.

But in watching the video, I’m pleased to see how much he does understand. I didn’t need to explain to him the animal abuse. He already knew that chaining lions to a stake was wrong. Right before he noted that a boat-sized, fanged, condor that attacked Popeye wasn’t real and he didn’t need to have nightmares about it.

My job is to teach my kids right from wrong and to nudge them in the best direction. Popeye is a useful tool in what not to do. If Popeye is a humorous lesson in what NOT to do, I’ll take it.


About The author

I'm a military spouse to my US Navy Lieutenant Commander, Lauren. We are proud parents of Wolf and Bear. When I'm not supporting her career and raising my two wild animals, I teach a law course at the University of Florida, run ultramarathons, and write. I'm the author of "Parenting as a Contact Sport" and currently in search of a publisher. Most stories I publish are proposed additions to a sequel titled "Daddy Hold My Milk: Famous Last Words of a Toddler. Twitter: parentingsport


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