Sometimes, a character's psychological quirks are so conspicuous that you can't help commenting on them, pretentious as it might sound. (I've previously devoted an entire website, Gilligan's Id, to the psychological manifestations of the "Gilligan's Island" castaways -- though I admit, that might say more about me than it does about the castaways.)
After multiple viewings of Popeye cartoons, I'd have to say that the psyches of Popeye & Co. are ripe for picking as well. And so...the doctor is in.
Popeye puts on a very elaborate facade to disguise a very damaged psyche. It is assumed that he got his nickname (and his condition) from a very violent brawl. Nevertheless, to have such a moniker as your only given name -- he is never referred to in any other way, in the comic strips or the movies -- is to have a major loss of identification and individuality.
Further, other than his belligerent father -- who, at first, does not even want to be rescued from imprisonment on an island, much less reunited with his son -- we know almost nothing about Popeye's formative years. What of his mother? Was Popeye perhaps born illegitimately, and is that why he looks upon single mother Olive Oyl's upbringing of baby Swee'Pea with nary a shrug? This man appears to have psychological scars he finds far too painful to be re-opened.
Popeye compensates for his multiple pains in the same way many men do -- with his over-abundant machismo. He has built up his upper torso to the point that his muscles look abnormal. He also deludes himself into thinking that downing cans of raw spinach at pivotal moments make him stronger-than-average. While spinach does have well-known nutritional value, there is no evidence that instantly absorbing such spinach will provide abnormal musculature in just a matter of seconds. Therefore, we can conclude only that spinach serves as a placebo for Popeye -- a way for him to swallow his internal pain when circumstances become too much for him.
Though this is never specifically stated in the cartoons, one surmises that Olive Oyl gave her heart to a man who was the love of her life, only to be deserted by him and left with his baby (Swee'Pea). It was after this heartbreak that Olive decided she would never again leave herself so vulnerable to one man's machinations. Thus, she has two rivals for her affections (Popeye and Bluto), and she constantly wavers between the two of them in a classic example of passive-aggressiveness.
She also has difficulty maintaining a home and a job. In the early cartoons, she is seen living in a large (if not lavish) house, but later she is reduced to residing in a shabby apartment. In each cartoon that shows Olive at work, she is always at a job different from the previous ones (child caretaker, stenographer, scriptwriter, etc.). This, too, indicates the instability into which she was thrown when her erstwhile lover left her.
Lastly, even the only two men with whom she will associate often physically abuse her -- each one pulling her by a separate arm, sometimes knocking her unconscious, getting her head used as a door knocker when Popeye calls on her, etc. Olive's sweetness and outward cheer belie a case of extremely low self-esteem.
Simply and obviously, Bluto is the classic bully. He feels he can get what he wants only through loudness and brusqueness, and he has accomplished so little in life that he derives satisfaction only from tearing down other's achievements.
Bluto is especially annoyed by Popeye, the one person in the world who stands up to him. Nearly all of Bluto's encounters with Popeye end in a violent fight, usually lost by Bluto once Popeye downs his spinach. One would think that Bluto would eventually admit defeat and deal with his sense of rage, but he continues to fight Popeye every chance he gets.
This battle -- both between Bluto and Popeye, and Bluto and himself -- has gone on for so long that, as with Wile E. Coyote and his single-minded pursuit of the Road Runner -- it is the fight itself that has become Bluto's reason to live. In the few instances where Bluto and Popeye try to remain civil, the old pattern emerges and they come to blows all over again.
Most troubling of all is Bluto's documented abuse of animals -- horses, parrots, monkeys, etc. -- which is a blatant symptom of psychotic behavior. In a way, it's almost a relief that Bluto has Popeye to beat up, so that he doesn't inflict his hostilities on others around him (though Olive receives her share of Bluto's abuse too, as noted above).
Sadly, Bluto's rage and lack of self-reflection briefly resulted in his having a split personality, his other persona going by the name of Brutus. Fortunately, this lasted for only a brief period in the 1960's.
Other than Olive Oyl, Wimpy is the only one of the quartet who is addressed with both a first and last name. However, this might be Wimpy's only manifestation of psychological completeness.
Like Olive, whenever we see Wimpy working -- and we often do not –- he is at a different job every time, and always in a position subordinate to the other three; inevitably, he works as some kind of servant (policeman, emcee at Popeye and Olive's floor show, etc.).
Of the four, Wimpy's sublimations are the most obvious; he uses food to cover up his sense of inferiority. Even though it is clearly harmful to his physique, Wimpy downs countless hamburgers every chance he gets, indulging in "comfort food" long before the term came into use. Further, food is the one path by which Wimpy can achieve superiority over the trio, as he frequently fools one or more of them into believing that he really will pay on some unspecified Tuesday for a hamburger today.
Again, food is the most obvious form of psychological denial. Even so, every time we see him, Wimpy either has a hamburger in hand or is preparing to obtain one. By any standards, Wimpy uses food as an emotional substitute to an abnormal degree.
© 2007, Steve Bailey.
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