Happy birthday Mickey – cultural icons aren’t created every day:
- Mickey Mouse arrived on the world’s cultural stage 75 years ago Tuesday as a scrawny but buoyant black-and-white product of the Jazz Age.
He was a symbol of American pluck in his screen debut, “Steamboat Willie,” on Nov. 18, 1928. The film at New York’s Colony Theatre showed an irreverent rodent who takes Captain Pete’s steamboat on a joyride and woos Minnie Mouse by making music on the bodies of various farm animals.
The years have dulled Mickey’s personality, a result of him becoming the corporate face of a multibillion-dollar entertainment empire. In the process, Mickey also has become a cultural Rorschach test -a symbol of American optimism, resourcefulness and energy or an icon of cultural commodification and corporate imperialism.
“There are a number of qualities Mickey represents on which people like to stick their particular view of the world,” said Janet Wasko, a University of Oregon professor and author of “Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy.”
For Roy E. Disney, whose uncle, Walt Disney, created the character, Mickey Mouse is “‘this friendly little guy,’ which were Walt’s words for describing him.”
For Penn State professor Henry Giroux, however, Mickey Mouse represents the vast reach of American cultural power, symbolizing a company that has turned childhood into a function of consumerism as children feel obligated to purchase the latest “Finding Nemo” DVD or Mickey Mouse watch.
“Mickey Mouse offers up a … symbol of innocence while hiding the role it plays in commodifying children’s dreams and extending the logic of the market into all aspects of their lives,” said Giroux, author of “The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence,” a cultural critique of the company.
….”Mickey Mouse speaks an international language,” Sklar said. “When I go to Tokyo and see how kids react to Mickey Mouse the same way they do in Paris. It’s reassuring that there are some things that cross international boundaries.”
For others, Mickey Mouse speaks an international language of commerce and cultural imperialism. That sentiment is embodied in protesters in Buenos Aires who left behind anti-war graffiti last February that depicted President Bush as Mickey Mouse. It’s also found in the performance artist Reverend Bill of the Church of Stop Shopping, who visits Disney Stores in New York and tells shoppers “Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist.”
All from a simple cartoon. Said author Wasko: “Mickey represents a fascinating interweaving of culture, politics and economics.” [AP]
While Disney is part of the entertainment industry cartel that is behind the egregious extension of copyright in the last century, I don’t have anything against their products per se, and I totally reject the notion of Mickey Mouse as symbolic of American cultural imperialism. Of course, I totally reject the notion of cultural imperialism, period. Either you believe in free trade or you don’t, and I do. People are free to pick and choose cultural objects as they see fit. I despise the politics of resentment in its many ugly forms.