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Can This Mouse Be Saved?

Many of us have long argued that when corporations start thinking of media content primarily in terms of intellectual property that can be used to extract rents, they cut these characters and stories off from cultural growth and creative experimentation….
April 21, 2004

Many of us have long argued that when corporations start thinking of media content primarily in terms of intellectual property that can be used to extract rents, they cut these characters and stories off from cultural growth and creative experimentation. Viacom essentially has driven the Star Trek franchise into the ground by a mixture of over-harvesting the existing market and agressively trying to shut down fan groups which once contributed so much to the vitality of the series. Disney may be dangerously close to killing off the mouse upon which its empire was built – or so argues Jesse Green in the New York Times Arts Section last week. Green cites people in the animation business who have variously described Mickey Mouse as “boring,” “embalmed,” “neglected,” “irrelevant,” “deracinated” and “over.” Some like Maurice Sendack remember him fondly as a creative influence on their work. Others suggest ways that he can get his mojo back. Echoing the “queer eye for the straight guy” approach which seems to be working elsewhere in popular culture, Art Spigelman , a cartoonist who knows his Maus, says that Mickey should just come out of the closet as the first gay animation icon.

As Green writes, the advice for Mickey’s makeover is highly contradictory: “He needs to be more high-tech. He must go back to his roots. He has to have edge. He should be a patriot. He has to be mischievous like contemporary cartoon characters. He should come in different ‘flavors,’ as Spiderman does (‘classic’ and ‘theatrical’), to appeal to different audiences. He has to be specific. He has to be universal.”

Publicly, Disney’s people are protective of the mouse’s reputation and point to the sheer amount of money they still rake in off goods that bear his likeness. Here’s Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney’s consumer products division: “In my world, a character that generates $4.5 billion a year in retail revenue and is at least four times larger than any other character in the world except Winnie the Pooh doesn’t need refurbishing.” According to Mooney, Mickey has “98 percent unaided awareness for children 3 to 11 worldwide,” and has started to appear again as a real favorite” among girls 8 to 12 and, surprisingly, boys 13 to 17.

Behind closed doors, the company has made repeated efforts to figure out how to revitalize the character, who seems to appeal more to parents than to kids and who is riding heavily on nostalgia rather than creating vital new relationships.

There seems to be no acknowledgement here that the commodification the rodent has undergone may be what makes him seem so bland, sterile, and personality-free for consumers. How can Mickey become a living part of the culture when he inhabits such a hermetically sealed universe? Is the death of the mouse an inevitable byproduct of Disney’s own efforts to mummify American intellectual property laws?

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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