How Mickey Mouse lost his way

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The Independent Online

In 1934, EM Forster wrote a self-consciously fogey-ish piece for The Spectator in which he described his occasional trips to the cinema. He didn't share the general enthusiasm for the medium ("Here art is not, life is not") but there was one star he exempted from his attack, a performer he described as "assuredly one of the world's great lovers". What particularly attracted Forster to this character, though, was that he had no redeeming qualities. "No one has ever been softened after seeing [him] or has wanted to give away an extra glass of water to the poor. He is never sentimental, indeed there is a scandalous element in him which I find most restful." The star he was describing was Mickey Mouse - and if it seems inconceivable that those descriptions could ever have been applied to Disney's anodyne, smirking "ambassador of happiness" (copyright Disney Corporation, and they're welcome to it), then that's some measure of how far Mickey has fallen in the 75 years since he made his first appearance in Steamboat Willie.

The early Mickey was a bit of a disgrace. He leched after Minnie in a silent film called Plane Crazy and he took positively indecent liberties with a cow's udders in Steamboat Willie, playing the unfortunate animal as if she was an accordion. He had only been conceived as a creative stopgap, after Disney's existing series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, had been wrestled off him in a copyright battle, but his popularity effectively laid the foundation for the Disney empire. And, almost as soon as he came into existence, success began to spoil and soften him. In a famous essay, "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse" Stephen Jay Gould traced the external signs of this evolution, a progressive juvenilisation, in which the proportions of Mickey's head changed, his limbs thickened and the eyes grew bigger in the face.

In his essay, Gould pointed out that this rendered Mickey more lovable and cute, since these features triggered the innate instincts which make us feel tender towards infants of all species, not just our own. There were no internal signs of the alteration - because Mickey didn't so much change character as steadily lose it - until eventually he became the bland cipher he is today. "Chances are if you talk to a four-year-old or a 70-year-old anywhere in the world, they consider Mickey a special friend," said Michael Eisner recently, puffing one of his company's biggest brand assets. But could anyone say what Mickey's character is - apart from a faintly insulting willingness to be friends with absolutely anyone?

He doesn't have psychology - he just has recognisable geometry. You can empathise with Donald Duck, the Victor Meldrew of waterfowl. You can feel the pain of Wile E Coyote, bogged down in his fanatical obsession with the Roadrunner's destruction. You can even love Homer Simpson, as a brilliant evocation of human weakness. But Mickey is just a company flack. At the cartoon characters' annual dance he'd be over in the corner sipping mineral water with Ronald McDonald and the Happy Eater face. The reason the mouse was hollowed out was because it made sense to use him as a Trojan Rodent - the perfect container for Disney's plans to colonise the human heart.

The official story has it that he was tamed by public demand, because audiences wrote in to complain if he did anything mean or vaguely improper. But if you believe that, you'll believe anything. What happened was that Mickey slowly became the company logo - "He is our Swoosh" a Disney executive said recently, in a reference to Nike's famous brand. And that's why he has to be protected from anything that might damage the company's image. As a graphic sign, he has been phenomenally successful - insinuating himself into the general consciousness as a symbol, not just of one American entertainment company, but of America itself. That's partly why Mickey has such a high profile in 20th-century visual art - and not just with those artists such as Oldenburg, Lichtenstein and Warhol, who are predisposed to celebrate popular culture. The sculptor Michael Sandle also used Mickey in a startling bronze sculpture which featured the character seated at a life-size machine-gun - an acid commentary on the Vietnam War. (The fact that it is impossible to find an image of this polemically alluring work on the web, when you would expect it to be plastered all over the place, suggests that Disney's lawyers took a dim view of Sandle's invention. They like the sentimental notion that Mickey belongs to the world, but act as if you've actually got a share in him and they'll be down on you faster than you can say "copyright infringement".)

For quite a lot of people, of course, Mickey has also become a symbol for corporate mendacity - and, in particular, that kind of lying which depends on sentiment. He is, some people say, an image of innocent delight and universal amity. But he isn't. He's an image of lowest-common-denominator glee and the commercial exploitation of human feeling (just watch that advert for Euro Disney, with its torturer's knowledge of divorced-dad guilt, if you want proof of corporate ruthlessness). There really was a time when it wasn't so, if EM Forster is to be believed.

"At present," he concluded, "Mickey is everybody's god, so that even members of the Film Society cease despising their fellow members when he appears. But gods are not immortal." He didn't have to wait long for the death - even if the corpse is still working hard, 75 years on.