Mickey Mouse and the meaning of Americanism
This year Mickey Mouse, the widely beloved cartoon character created by Walt Disney, turns 90. In 1941, though, Walter Ong, the American Jesuit cultural historian and philosopher, censured Mr. Mouse in America’s pages and lamented his insidious effects on American culture. Today America remembers an argument that raises novel questions about one of the country’s—and the world’s—most recognizable icons.
It is no easy task to find any common denominator in the various mixtures of ideologies existing in the minds of American men and women. But from our Victorian ancestors, we nearly all seem to have inherited one first principle in common—an abiding faith in youth when it is accompanied by vigorous animal activity and a healthy grin. For confirmation of this fact, we need only look at the puppies and children in the advertisements.
Hence it is ticklish business to undertake a critique of Mickey Mouse. For if all normal human beings are supposed to like young creatures engaged in physical activity and grinning, they do not all put the same value on this sort of thing. But suppose we examine what Mickey Mouse is, not in himself, but in his relation to our national culture, and see if, thereby, we can arrive at something that is very difficult to attain—an evaluation of our own culture. Today, when whole civilizations are being revised, peaceably as well as forcibly, close inspection of all aspects of our national life is of pressing importance.
If a product of an age is entirely free from criticism, it is something of great interest.
This is especially true of those aspects which we have taken for granted. Thus, if a product of an age is entirely free from criticism, it is something of great interest. Its immunity from critical examination is the guarantee that such a product has risen out of those principles which are considered so basic as never to be questioned. If we can, then, bring our critical attention to focus upon such an adventitious being universally taken for granted, we will be in a position to see our age somewhat in the way it will appear to succeeding generations.
Now, Mickey Mouse is singularly free from criticism. He is taken for granted because if he does not represent the entire scheme of values that Americans live by, at least his scheme of values is fitted into theirs without demanding for itself any readjustment in the process. The artists who have brought Mickey into being have always worked with some of their fingers on the pulse of the American public. And, since Hollywood, at least in this one instance, is functioning frankly and freely to produce movies and not canned stage plays, little has stood in the way of their realizing the artistic effects desired. The result is the creation of a world which offends almost no one and meets with uncritical and enthusiastic acclaim.
There can be no doubt that the quality and extent of Mickey's popularity has some kind of deep significance. There is, of course, nothing wrong with liking juvenile activity and juvenile grinning, but there is something distinctive about an age which makes a fetish of this sort of thing.
Mickey's popularity is a popularity that has come with the living of a mechanically busy life in an intellectual and moral vacuum. In most of the "stories" we watch Mickey's quaint smile and queer poses. We watch the characters making faces or pirouetting at the vortices of multi-colored whirlwinds or rocketing along with blasts of vapor in their wakes. We watch Pluto's flexible muzzle as it crawls across the screen. And that is all.
Though Mickey's animal ancestry is very old, none of his animal forebears were quite like Mickey. Animal stories reach far back toward the beginnings of the human race, and yet the Mickey Mouse stories differ vastly from all the traditional varieties. As for the earliest animal stories with which everyone is familiar, a very brief recollection of Aesop will make it plain that Mickey has swung wide of this tradition.
Mickey's popularity is a popularity that has come with the living of a mechanically busy life in an intellectual and moral vacuum.
It is true that Aesop's characters are more conscious of being animals than Disney's figures are: Mickey does not diet on cheese, nor even refer to himself as a mouse, nor to Dippy as a dog, and actually keeps a real dog named Pluto. But differences of this sort are found even among the traditional animal stories and are not to be made much of. The more important difference lies in the depths of being to which the roots of the stories strike. Aesop's stories all have deep moral connections. The morals themselves may be simple and easily gathered. But they are serious, and the story, entertaining as it may be, is inextricably involved with the ordinary moral issues which confront human beings.
This connection between beast fable and the serious things of existence is the usual thing. It is found in the Sanscrit Panchatantra, in the medieval beast fables and epics such as Reynard the Fox and down to La Fontaine and Hans Christian Andersen's Ugly Duckling.
It has not always been necessary to sidestep every serious issue in order to amuse.
Yet these stories, like the Disney stories, are entertaining. It has not always been necessary to sidestep every serious issue in order to amuse. Perhaps a more entertaining animal story will never be told than the popular medieval account of the fox who fell into the well and talked his old enemy, the wolf, into riding the other windlass bucket down into the depths (where he had given the wolf to understand a veritable paradise was to be found), thus enabling himself to ride back up in the other bucket. But for all its sheerly amusing qualities, the tale quite obviously involves itself in the question of flattery and of the man who lives off society by his wits.
Similarly, opening my Chaucer at The Nun's Priest’s Tale, I find some pretty serious connections established. On the first page that strikes my eye, the name of God appears seven times in the very speeches of Chaunticleer the Cock and his wife, Dame Pertelote. On the next page comes Chaunticleer's prayer, which begins:
O blissful God, that art so just and trewe,
Lo, how that thou bewrayest mordre alway!
Now I wish to avoid the religious suicide which identifies all that was medieval with all that is Catholic. The medieval authors, like their contemporaries in other fields than literature, had their faults in plenty, and they often lapsed into or failed to emerge from paganism. But even then they were religious, and in the height of their fun and merrymaking, as in everything else, they were incapable of the studied secularism which Mr. Disney's characters, in accord with our public school tradition, so carefully affect. The references to God in The Nun's Priest’s Tale do not occur simply because a cleric tells the story.
An artificial secularism puts Mickey Mouse outside this tradition, delimiting the field in which he operates and effectively blocking off connections with basic and serious truths which have characterized his animal forerunners. Thus, the Disney picture-stories whether movies or newspaper strips, gravitate toward the shallowly spectacular. Mickey in his own way is merely following out the segregative processes of a secularism which has eaten the marrow out of our national culture by isolating religious and moral considerations from everything except the most private departments of each individual's life. And our being so taken with Mickey's vacuous existence is a tacit acknowledgement of our own weakness.
It is entirely true that we can find in other ages certain forms of art with which Mickey Mouse has as close affinities as he has with the animal stories. There is the dumb show, the Punch-and-Judy show or the jig, in all of which antics might be antics and nothing more. But apart from the fact that in these forms of entertainment there is not quite the studied isolation from all serious meaning that we find in Mickey, no age has opened its arms to such things in the way we have to Mr. Disney's world. Further, although every age has its slapstick and a certain measure of entertainment built around mere moving and smiling, in no other age have these phenomena achieved the complete divorce from everything of importance that we find in Mickey Mouse. And in no other age have the individual and national ideals of a people found such satisfactory expression on this level. Certainly, in no other age has a similar figure been apotheosized and reproduced in so many forms of idols as Mr. Disney's West-Coast rodent has today.
Mickey in his own way is merely following out the segregative processes of a secularism which has eaten the marrow out of our national culture.
Not only is Mickey one of the best known and most loved fictional creations of our age, but it is become prudish and snobbish to question his place in the world. To love a character of another type may indeed be conceded to an individual as a kind of personal crotchet. But one who is incapable of the usual to-do over Mickey Mouse is hardly recognizable as a normal "red-blooded" American. For Mickey Mouse has succeeded in living the good life, as this life is taught by the school of Mr. Dewey and by the loudest advocates of a devitalized Americanism—the life which involves a maximum of fuss and activity with the blinking at all truly fundamental questions.
As an instance of how far matters have gone, we are now given the information by the press that the Disney studios have recently received a new assignment—this time from Uncle Sam. It has been decided that the insignia for our men in the service should be designed in the true Mickey Mouse tradition. Photographs of the designs recently published disclose a Laughing Jackass, Butch the Falcon, Dusty (a cuddlesome winged calf sprawled on a cloud and wearing an airman's helmet and a moonish smile) and a genuine Disney eagle with boxing gloves which evidently supersedes the traditional American eagle that appears rather diffidently in the background of the design.
Here, it seems, we have a kind of plenary treatment of Mickey Mouse-ism. When a nation prepares for war, it is in a serious mood. Even in peacetime its emblems and insignia, such as the flag or the American eagle, give expression to the highest national aspirations, and in a time that threatens war we may reasonably assume that there is an all-out on inspirational devices. Presumably at such a time the most inspirational must be seized upon. And thus is betrayed where Mickey's scheme of values fits into our national life. For, although all these new insignia are not recognizable Mickey Mouses, they are most unmistakably in the Mickey Mouse tradition and stand for what it stands for and for no more.
But are not these insignia performing merely the function of mascots? Yes. And a mascot is the proper attribute of an athletic team. Of course, a mascot may serve a function even in an army—a recreational function. Recreation and a spirit of jovial comaraderie are certainly in order. But it is not in order to substitute a mascot appeal for a serious appeal.
Mickey Mouse motivation is sure to crumple before one of the serious major ideologies. It is late now to start to rehabilitate the deliberately secularized and emasculated set of values which we have allowed to spring up and flourish in our nation and especially in our public schools. But we had better begin. We cannot erect a defense of democracy on a set of national ideals where the things for which Mickey Mouse stands find place so near the top.