I used to grin when our most cynical friend, a British leftist, ranted about The Mouse, his shorthand for the Disney empire and therefore for all the evils of late-stage capitalism. But with Mickey emerging from his legal cage of copyright protection, his true nature is open for speculation.
“Mischief,” we called it when he twisted a wiener dog into a propeller for his homemade airplane. When he swung a cat by its tail and threw it off the boat. When he shook off the piglets who were nursing and squeezed their mother like an accordion. When he bet on a horse that did not win and pronounced the horse “not even worth sending to the glue factory.” Mickey thirsted for beer. He cussed when frustrated. And he succumbed to despair, repeatedly (and with comical ineptitude) trying to kill himself after being spurned by Minnie.
His 1950s transformation to a mild-mannered mouse in the suburbs had nothing to do with moral reform. He was merely playing to the zeitgeist.
In time, that made him fun to mock. Maurice Sendak grew up loving the “brave and sassy and nasty and crooked” mouse. He even based the character Max in Where the Wild Things Are on Mickey. But over the years, Sendak became disgusted with “the lifeless fat pig he is now.” In 2009, worried by the rising indifference to their mouse, Disney tried to recapture his impish charm, rethinking the way he talked, walked, and decorated his house, and creating a new video game, Epic Mickey, in which he was again “cantankerous and cunning.”
The corporate efforts came to naught.
Meanwhile, the innocents who still worshipped Mickey Mouse never stopped to realize that he and Minnie are not married? There has been no canonical ceremony. Instead, the mice play house when the plot requires it. “In private life, Mickey is married to Minnie,” Walt explained in the September 30, 1933, issue of Film Pictorial magazine. “Sometimes he appears to be married to her in his films and other times still courting her. What it really amounts to is that Minnie is, for screen purposes, his leading lady. If the story calls for a romantic courtship, then Minnie is the girl; but when the story requires a married couple, then they appear as man and wife. In the studio we have decided that they are married already.”
The best example yet of a marriage of convenience.
So how did Mickey, in his confused quasi-married state, dare mock an apparently gay Kat Nipp? And do we forgive him (but not Brett Kavanaugh and the rest) for being what one reporter carefully termed as “amorously aggressive” with Minnie? Not to mention behaving in ways that struck some scholars as “sadistic, asexual, and anal”?
Our British friend is no longer alive; the world disappointed him too sorely. But he would have relished the pent-up animus that is about to be released upon the world. Turns out lots of people saw through The Mouse.
“Beginning to understand why Disney would only ever show the same 3 seconds of Steamboat Willie,” someone posted on social media. “Because the rest of the short is just mickey mouse torturing and beating the shit out of animals for his own pleasure.”
Hamas had its own reasons to remove a Mickeyesque cartoon mouse from its Al-Aqsa TV station some years back. In a squeaky voice, the man-sized mouse preached violent resistance against Israel. In his last appearance, he was beaten to death by an Israeli official who wanted his land. Station officials said they just needed to make room for other programs, but a Sunni cleric offered a religious rationale, explaining that in Islamic law, “the mouse is a repulsive, corrupting creature,” and it was too risky to let children be charmed by one.
So much for innocence.
Searching for older, gentler takes on the iconic rodent, I came upon a 1941 essay by my favorite Jesuit scholar, Walter Ong, in America. Just a teenager then, Mickey was “singularly free from criticism,” Ong noticed, in a way possible only for those cultural artifacts that echo our most basic principles. “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 to the process,” Ong wrote. Mickey lives, he added pointedly, “a mechanically busy life in an intellectual and moral vacuum.”
Interesting, that the criticism only began when the mouse was blanded (okay, not a word, but needs to be one) for branding’s sake. Disney was so hyperprotective, Mickey’s handlers might as well have preserved him in formaldehyde. Finally, realizing its mistake, Disney tried and failed to restore some of Mickey’s mischief—without bringing back the boyish cruelty that would no longer pass muster.
And now we are taking it upon ourselves to reveal his dark side. Mad TV’s mob-themed Raging Rudolph—in which the reindeer’s elf buddy, a wannabe dentist, is Hermie the Drill, and the screen winds up splattered with blood—comes nowhere close.
In a new Infestations Origins game, exterminators battle a swarm of mutant vermin, among them a Mickey of monstrous proportions.
A teen slasher film set at a carnival, Mickey Mouse’s Trap, chases a killer maniacally obsessed with Steamboat Willie.
A horror-comedy directed by Steven LaMorte (who brought us the Grinch parody The Mean One) stars a sadistic mouse who enjoys tormenting his ferry passengers.
So here is the question: are we taking revenge on The Mouse, or on ourselves?
Philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin once remarked, “Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being.” The mouse’s films were all about leaving home in order to learn what fear is. They succeed, Benjamin said, because “the public recognizes its own life in them.”
We were cocky. We got blanded and locked up in the suburbs. And now we have gone dark.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.