Mickey Mouse remains a symbol of American culture

Sunday, November 23, 2003

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Mickey Mouse arrived on the world's cultural stage 75 years ago 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.

But Mickey wasn't always so complex.

What started as a cartoon character became the face that launched a thousand merchandise products. Watches. Pencils. Bedsheets. Alarm clocks. Telephones. He is one of the most merchandised faces ever -- about $4.5 billion a year in sales -- even though he's currently second to Winnie the Pooh for the Disney company.

Though he is a cartoon, "Mickey represents a fascinating interweaving of culture, politics and economics," said Wasko.

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