By Crispin Sartwell
It might seem cruel to ridicule someone as cute and fundamentally innocent as Mickey Mouse,
particularly on his birthday (number 75). But there is one great thing about insulting animated
characters: they have no feelings, though one considers the possibility that this might change as
computer animation takes us further into the matrix of virtual personality, in which commercial
simulation mutates into our shared reality and our social circle.
The history of Mickey takes him from small stroke of genius in the context of a new art form to
huge corporate logo in an era of media megalopolies. Mickey has slowly been reduced and
bloated from an amusing, friendly, rodent to a set of three circles in silhouette, recognizable by
almost every man, woman, and child inhabiting the planet earth.
To be honest, Mickey never stacked up that well against anti-authoritarian, cross-dressing,
joyously violent icons such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, who found a place in anarchic
iconography with their contemporaries Che Guevara and Abbie Hoffman. Almost from the get-go, however, Disney''s animation was incomparable, though the messages conveyed were trite.
Fantasia, in which Mickey played a major role, will always be a touchstone, one of the signal
works of popular art of the twentieth century.
Animated Disney movies have been the standards of the form ever since, though their quality and
reception has oscillated through the decades. Snow White, Dumbo, The Jungle Book, and Beauty
and the Beast are immortal; the Aristocats, Alice in Wonderland, and Tarzan perhaps less so. But
Disney movies remain touchstones, and such fairly recent outings as Mulan and Treasure Planet
show that the studio is capable of the occasional triumph still. Nevertheless, one feels nowadays
the audible grinding of the huge machinery of marketing and merchandising, which simultaneously
focuses and compromises the magic: one is no longer sure whether one is the audience or the
victim, whether one is being delighted or fleeced.
By the fifties, Mickey had infested television, as Mouseketeers sang his name letter by letter. "The
Mickey Mouse Club." That spawned the Disney television franchise that has persisted through the
Wonderful World of Disney to cable, and now to ownership of entire networks. In launching
Annette Funicello, the Mouseketeers launched also the quasi-innocent sexuality of Beach Blanket
Bingo and the surf craze, soon swamped by the quasi-decadent promiscuity of the seventies.
The Mouseketeers were revived in the early nineties; graduates include Justin Timberlake, Britney
Spears, and Christina Aguilera, artists of stupefying puerility who now perform with boa
constrictors and thongs. They learned their puerility at the hands of the Master, though perhaps
the sexuality was a reaction to the uniform repression of sexuality in almost all Disney products,
or at least the underexploitation of sex by a Disney marketing machine based on faux innocence.
Meanwhile, the Disney channel has spawned recent cultural icons Even Stevens and Lizzie
McGuire. The latter show summarizes the current version of the Disney aesthetic: it''s essentially
about Hilary Duff''s outfits. The Mouse lurks in the background as a model of marketing-as-meaning.
Somehow, Mickey retains an innocence which Britney and Lizzie have lost entirely. If nothing
else, Mickey is a mouse and still doesn''t shop at the Gap, though you''ll find the Disney Store
But the nimbleness and quick wit of the Mouse has nevertheless metamorphosed into the logo of
extreme corporate sluggishness, of an absolute commitment to safety and resolution to coin
infinite cash. I guess even mice are more careful, not to say more senile, at 75 than they were in
their reckless youth. From something innocent, Mickey has turned into the marketing of
innocence, which is of course itself a form of corruption.
Mickey has aged, and we with him.
Crispin Sartwell''s book "Extreme Virtue: Leadership and Truth in Five Great American Lives"
has just been published."