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Taking your first steps into higher education
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1.1 Identity

Within these interactions we tend to have a very strong sense of ourselves as separate, even fixed, individuals. In social science terms we are fairly sure of our own identities. The same applies to fictional characters. To be believable they have to have identities we can understand.

A good example of this is provided by Popeye’s signature song. Popeye began life as a cartoon character in 1929. Popeye made his first animated appearance in Betty Boop Meets Popeye the Sailor in 1933. Popeye is clearly very sure of who he is, 'I yam what I yam'.

Cartoon of Popeye holding a can of spinach and speech bubble saying 'I yam what I yam!'
Figure 1 Popeye – I yam what I yam

Read the words of Popeye’s song and then do the activity that follows.

Popeye’s Signature Song

I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I yam what's I yam,

And that's all what's I am, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man

I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I yam what's I yam,

And that's all what's I am, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man

I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm strong to the finich,

'Cause I eats me spinach, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man

I'm one tough gazookus, Which hates all palookas, What ain'ts on the up and square,

I biffs 'em and buffs 'em, An' always out-roughs 'em,

An' none of 'em gets no-where

If anyone dares to risk my 'fisk', It's 'boff' an' it's 'wham', Un'erstan',

So keep 'good behavior', That's your one life saver,

With Popeye the Sailor Man

(Lerner, 1933)

Apparently ‘gazookus’ was an expression popular in the USA on the East Coast during the beginning of the 20th Century. Somebody could refer to another person as a lout or a fool by using it. During the 1920s, ‘the real gazookus’, could be translated as the real thing or the genuine article. ‘Palooka’ apparently means either an incompetent or easily defeated athlete, especially a prize-fighter or a stupid or clumsy person.

Activity 2 What makes up Popeye’s identity?

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

The activity is a fairly light-hearted way of helping you to think about the different things that can make up someone’s identity.

Read back through the lyrics and make a list of the different things that seem to make up Popeye’s identity as far as he is concerned.


Again, starting with a focused question about aspects of identity has had the effect of getting me to think from a social science perspective. Once I started thinking in this way, I was surprised by how many different aspects there were. This is my list:

Popeye’s identity seems to be linked to:

  • job (sailor)
  • gender (he’s a sailor man)
  • his body (which is strong) and how he uses it, particularly his ‘fisk’ (fist) to ‘biff’, ‘buff’ and ‘boff’
  • his accent and use of language suggest quite a lot about his nationality (American) and even his class.

Popeye also identifies himself as a ‘real gazookus’ which meant that Popeye felt able to identify someone else as a palooka and if this palooka didn’t ‘keep “good behaviour”’ then his response would be ‘boff’ and ‘wham’.