Popeye: an American hero

Words: Greg Denholm


Japan could never have predicted just how quickly and fervently anti-Japanese hatred would rise in the US and characterise the war in the Pacific. On December 17, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy defied American expectations and attacked U.S. territories at Pearl Harbor, ending America’s disconnect from the war. Anger towards the attack collided sharply with historical prejudice, and war in the Pacific took on a racial dimension that propelled its brutality.

The US government knew the importance of domestic support, and recognised the influence that its familiar cultural icons could have. Cartoons were in their golden age, and moving pictures had given life to static satire: as the US went to war, so did Popeye the Sailor.

Popeye had been created as a character in a print comic strip, Thimble Theatre, by E.C. Segar in 1929. After Segar’s death, the one-eyed sailor became the main character of a series of Paramount Pictures shorts that continued through the war years and gained unexpected popularity. Modern superheroes are sometimes considered Popeye’s cultural descendants.

Popeye, with his spherical muscles and stylised uniform, was a perfect emissary for bringing propaganda into the homes of American citizens and appealing to kids and adults alike. His effect on the popularity of spinach in the 1930s alone (increasing sales by 33 percent) was proof that he held sway over public opinion. He was hypermasculine, unrefined but ingenious, prepared to fight for the hand of his lady – an embodiment of what contemporary America expected from its servicemen. As a sailor, he was also connected intrinsically to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was fundamentally a navy base.

In the two years following Pearl Harbor, Popeye appeared in three cartoons where he faced the Japanese enemy. Paramount Pictures rolled out You’re a Sap Mr J*p and Scrap the J*ps in 1942, as well as Seein’ Red, White ‘N’ Blue in 1943. Each was a glimpse into the tropes used to stoke racial hatred, and justify the simultaneous treatment of Japanese-American citizens on American soil.

Of course, the racism wasn’t specific to Popeye cartoons. The United States created the Office of War Information (OWI) in June 1942, and it was the job of that office to monitor how the war was presented. They released manuals and monitored film and animation studios to direct a unified construction of the Japanese enemy across all media.

Dehumanisation was key. The titular slur of the Popeye cartoons was obvious, but the use of rhymes made it sound light-hearted and kid-friendly. It wasn’t that the term wasn’t politically loaded at the time: in 1944, high-ranking fleet admiral William Halsey publicly proclaimed ‘the only good J*p is a J*p who’s been dead six months.’

Across all three cartoons, Japanese characters are crafted from the same mould, sharing the predictable buck teeth and slanted eyes. At times they’re shown as rats and monkeys, incorporating verminous and simian imagery that echoed the ideas of scientific racism and polygenesis popular at the time. 

The filmmakers were careful to make sure the racist portrayal of Japanese servicemen didn’t alienate allies, because the characterisations weren’t just racist – they were a push towards a political goal. The OWI counselled that recycling terminology from the ‘Yellow Peril’ era of the late 19th century would be detrimental to US-Chinese relations, which were good during the war: the U.S and China formed a wartime alliance in 1942, and American foreign policy presented China as America’s surrogate for freedom in Asia. In one cartoon, Popeye uses the term ‘yellow’, an echo of Yellow Peril prejudice, but contextualises it by saying: ‘I have never seen a J*p that wasn’t yeller.’

The OWI and Paramount also played heavily on the theme of treachery after Pearl Harbor, fanning American sentiment. A poll, conducted at Princeton University in 1942 by Hadley Cantril, asked students to choose from a list of adjectives which they felt described Japanese people: 73% said ‘treacherous’, 62% said ‘sly’, and 55% said ‘cruel’.

Popeye’s cartoonists didn’t hesitate to put these stereotypes to work. In one short, Popeye meets two Japanese soldiers who offer terms for peace, but as he tries to sign the papers, they attack him from behind; in another, Japanese soldiers are shown invading American shores disguised as orphans and using an orphanage as an operation base.

In 1942, the American government began incarcerating Japanese-Americans en-masse. There was a fear that Japan would attack the West Coast, the nearest mainland states to Pearl Harbor, and a belief – fanned heavily by racist propaganda – that Japanese servicemen were being helped by Japanese-American citizens on American soil. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which removed 110,000 people from California, Oregon and Washington, and interned them in camps far from their homes.

The acts of treachery committed by the Japanese servicemen in the 1940s cartoons don’t break Popeye’s spirit. They embolden him to fight, and he wins his battles, literal and cultural. Today, he remains a high-value icon, with his likeness used to sell everything from gasoline to Dr Pepper to Quaker Oats.

Popeye wasn’t the last military culture hero to be used to legitimise national prejudice – Chris Kyle, real-life hero of 2014’s American Sniper, notoriously said he ‘couldn’t give a flying fuck’ about Iraqis – but he might have been the first, and in that, is significant as more than a cartoon character. A model of bulked-up superheroism, of the amplification and infantilization of dangerous state narratives, and of the ability of propaganda to shrug off its history if there’s capital in the call, Popeye puts it best: ‘I yam what I yam, an’ tha’s all I yam.’

learn more

  • BOOK: A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American propaganda during World War II – Anthony Navarro
  • BOOK: War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War – John Dower
  • BOOK: Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped WWII Movies – Gregory Black and Clayton Koppes

Instead of a bio, Greg Denholm has asked that this space be used to encourage people to donate to charities helping those affected by the crisis in Yemen.