Because this book is largely about sex.
As a child of the 60s and 70s I must have seen repeatedly every Popeye cartoon ever televised. So in a way, Steve R. Bierly’s book about the Popeye cartoons is very familiar to me. But his interpretation is not so familiar, and judging by how much at least two of these cartoons seem to have been very formative in the quirks of my libido, it is interesting that so much of what he points out here never occurred to me.
Stronger than Spinach: the Secret Appeal of the Famous Studios Popeye Cartoons is in effect a series of close readings of numerous Popeye cartoons. These are not the early productions by Fleischer Studios, but the later ones produced by Famous Studios from 1942 to 1957. According to Bierly, many critics see the Fleischer productions as the real Popeye in effect, with the Famous Studios cartoons as later, inferior developments. As far as Bierly is concerned, it is not so simple.
The theme that comes up most often in this book is that Popeye is really something of a dork, and Bluto is the real hunk. Also, the apparent moral clarity (Popeye good, Bluto bad) is not quite as clear as one might think. I had been viewing these cartoons retrospectively for years through my child eyes, and simply assuming the hero/villain status of the characters officially designated as such.
But there is something wrong with Popeye. He is less attractive and less sexy than Bluto. Often, he seems to be not so much Olive’s lover as a friend or a brother. He is possessive without being erotic, and in his own way can be as controlling as Bluto. He is frequently indifferent to Olive, expressing interest only when it seems he is about to lose her to the more attentive rival. It seems that Olive usually finds Bluto the more attractive and exciting male, turning finally back to Popeye only when Bluto’s otherwise successful advances become aggressive to the point of attempted rape.
It really is quite amazing just how sexual what came to be seen as children’s cartoons really were. One example of the Popeye cartoon eroticism is “Royal Four Flusher,” where a Patrician version of Bluto is smoking a cigarette in a holder. When he sees Olive Oyl, not only does his body spring erect and his eyes goggle, but the cigarette springs upwards as well. Likewise, the sword of the Sheik in “A Sheik in Wolf’s Clothing” is strategically placed when said male gets a glimpse of the heroine.
Bierly also sees Olive as pretty hot. At first I thought, this was both charming and a little weird (but who am I, of all people, to say what’s weird? And come to think of it, I can’t be the only person in the world who thinks Parker from PRODUCING PARKER is quite attractive.) Steve Bierly here is a protestant minister unrestrained enough to admit an erotic appreciation of a cartoon character– and a character, at that, generally seen as emblematic of feminine plainness–or so I had assumed. It had occurred to me (and many others I am sure) that Popeye and Bluto could almost be seen as closeted gay men in a deep seated state of denial, constantly fighting over the same woman to prove to themselves and the world their straight male credentials.
But with regard to Olive as an erotic character, Bierly is on to something. I think that the erotic is in the eye of the beholder, but upon looking at Olive again after reading this book, I think he has a point. Cartoon eroticism is not necessarily less erotic simply because it is not “real.” There is certainly something I did not notice as a child, for example, in “A Wolf in Sheik’s Clothing” when Olive reaches down her shirt, down her jods, and into her tall boots for a wad of bills to buy some kisses.
Another example: take a look at “Mess Production,” where Olive goes into a Rosie the Riveter mode in a factory, I had to admit to a certain frisson as the masculinely clad Olive pops open her compact to powder her face and pucker her lips just before her shift. There’s a certain blend of butch and femme here which is most interesting, though there are other reasons that particular episode disturbed me as a child and either helped to cause (or at least to highlight) certain unusual aspects of my own sexuality.
But back to the Popeye/Bluto nexus. Steve Bierly makes a very strong case that Bluto is, in fact, the natural erotic partner for Olive, what with his body builder physique, for example, compared to Popeye’s well, cartoonish proportions.The problem is that Bluto carries it too far. Time and again he has Popeye hopelessly outclassed in the romance department, only to ruin it all by trying to force himself on the heroine. It seems that Popeye has one big advantage over Bluto, and that is that the former is not a rapist.
I would have liked to have seen more cultural analysis and more pictures, and more specific reference to other Popeye related analyses. Also, the structure of the book is a little repetitive, wherein each chapter is a close reading of a particular cartoon, followed by a longer chapter near the end which is a number of shorter readings of numerous cartoons.
I would have liked Bierly to explore a little more the kinkiness of the cartoons, the slapstick-bondage-humiliation angle, which are what affected me as a child.
But the attraction of the book is the passion of the devoted afficionado. This is worth more than the distanced-to-the-point-of-coldness approach that some more intellectual writers might have taken, though I would have preferred added to Bierly’s own approach a little more of the scholarly, in the sense of telling us a little more about what others have written on these issues, and how their approach differs from his own. A Lacanian view, anyone? A Marxist approach? What about a queer studies approach?
On the whole, highly recommended.