The Evolution of Mickey Mouse
Icon or Moneymaker: What Do Americans Really Want?
John Wayne, Mickey Mouse and Elvis. What do these three have in common you ask? (I asked the same question of my boss when he handed out the assignment!) They are all American icons that have captured the hearts (and sometimes wallets) of my fellow citizens across the nation. What is it about Americans and their icons? These celebrities, both human and animated, from whom Americans can find their identities, have common ground on which to stand. As Steph and I journeyed out into the worlds of Disney and Graceland, I began to wonder if it is all media-induced propaganda that drives millions of people to visit these mystical places each year, or is there something intrinsic in all of us that wants to believe in the happiness of the American Dream that these icons represent.
Links to Other Dispatches
I have never seen a John Wayne film and didn't know much about him. But let me tell you, if you are interested, the Internet is a great place to get acquainted with an icon. That is because so many of his fans have created their own tributes to the man! One fan wrote the following comment to one of the many sites dedicated to John Wayne: "When I found your site, I cried. It is so beautiful." Some fans have named their children John, and others have spent long hours posting pictures, writing tributes and spouting trivia about their favorite icon.
One web page lists all of the movies John Wayne made. Looking at his movie career, I began to understand why Americans have embraced him as they have. From war hero to cowboy, he showed us that America can overcome the evil enemies of war, and that the good guy always wins. He is associated with patriotism and strength, values that Americans, especially during WWII, could identify with. After the war, he continued making movies, helping Americans build on their postwar identity of prosperity and happiness. From these movies, Americans had found a hero. I suppose I can accept a wartime hero. But what about Mickey and Elvis? Wartime heroes? Um, I don't think so.
Long before John Wayne made his movie debut, a cartoon mouse made his own big-screen debut. In November 1928, Mickey Mouse appeared in Steamboat Willie, the first animated film to include sound. From that day forward, his popularity just seemed to spread. Maybe it was because he was the first animated character to have a real personality. Maybe it was because he was always getting himself into trouble and coming out of it with a big grin on his face. I mean, come on, do you know anyone who is smiling as much as Mickey Mouse? Or maybe it was television and Disneyland, both appearing around the 1950s, that really gave him so much visibility and made his popularity soar.
It's Not Who You Know, It's Who They Think You Know… free passes to Disneyworld.
In the mid-fifties, the media portrayed Americans as living in post-war prosperity. On television, "Leave it to Beaver" showed how simple life could be, how parents never yelled and children never got dirty. Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California, touted as "the happiest place on earth." He also started the Mickey Mouse Club back in 1955, a wholesome television show where young kids could sing along to the famous theme song: M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E. Even I remember the song from the old black-and-white t.v. show that my mom used to watch when she was a kid.
By the 1970s, Walt Disney needed more space for his theme park ideas, so he built Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. Stephanie and I decided we had to go to check out just why Mickey made so many people-young and old-so happy.
I grew up in Los Angeles, not too far from Disneyland, and I wasn't expecting anything too different at Disneyworld from my childhood playland. Disneyland was a place I grew up loving, and even as a teenager, my friends and I would skip our way up to the entrance of the "happiest place on earth!" As Steph and I drove onto the enormous grounds of Disneyworld, we circled by the four different theme parks and the many resort hotels. Before even getting close to the Magic Kingdom, we stopped off at Downtown Disney, a place where you can buy any Disney souvenir imaginable, from stuffed animals to clothing. We were sucked in by brightly colored merchandise and maze-like stores that made it difficult to leave. Even Steph and I -- on a trekker's budget -- were compelled to buy a souvenir before we left! I wasn't so sure that this was such a happy place. What was happening to us? I thought the draw of Mickey Mouse was his cute personality and ever-present grin. Could it be that media and merchandising was the real reason behind the tug of our heartstrings?
Thankfully, we made it out of Downtown Disney and into the Magic Kingdom. Here I began to experience the old happy feelings from childhood. The Magic Kingdom looked just like the Disneyland I knew from childhood. We rushed from ride to ride, feeling the exhilaration that comes from whizzing through Space Mountain and singing with the Pirates of the Caribbean. Watching little kids with their broad smiles as they hugged the Disney characters walking through the park, even Steph and I had to receive a hug from Minnie Mouse.
There was something infectious there, and I want to believe it went beyond the stores and billions of dollars that tourists spend every year. We ended our day sharing a root beer float and watching the fireworks explode over Cinderella's Castle. I had had a great day, whether I wanted to admit it or not. But I still had to question it all. As we made our way down Main Street to our car, we were ushered past all the souvenir shops. For Americans, Mickey Mouse does make us smile, but he also makes us spend money.
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, he was a different example of the American dream. Just a small town boy with a mischievous grin, he sang and danced his way into the hearts of American teenagers. He performed as if he knew he was the coolest thing around (which he was) and -- plain and simple -- he was gorgeous! Some say he invented rock 'n' roll, or at least he helped make it what it is today. Some say he started the sexual revolution, bringing young adults out of the innocent oppression of the 1950s. His dancing and hip gyrations were so provocative that when he made his first few television appearances, the cameras would only film from the waist up! After appearing on his show, Ed Sullivan said, "I don't know what he does, but it drives people crazy." Maybe America was just ready to break out of the Leave it to Beaver spell that they had been under, and Elvis was just the young man to lead the way.
Even now, more than two decades after his death, he still drives people crazy. Tourists from not only America, but from around the world, come to Graceland, the home where he and his family lived for most of his career. Steph and I joined them and toured the grounds, viewing the more than 100 gold records that were hung among his bright costumes and movie memorabilia.
After the tour, Steph and I strolled through the souvenir shops strategically placed near his home. Once again, we were surrounded by flashy and trashy gifts that made us want to shop. Consume, consume, consume. Ok, stop! I held myself back; after all, I wasn't even an Elvis fan. I was just a trekker, researching a story.
Tearing myself away from the souvenirs, something else caught my eye. There was a television showing footage from the beginning of Elvis's career. Steph and I stood transfixed by the small screen on the wall of the souvenir shop. I had never watched Elvis perform, but once I began watching, I couldn't stop. We stood there ogling, we sighed, giggled and sighed some more. Maybe it was his small town innocence mixed with his bad boy smile that made young girls (and trekkers) swoon. But something drew us in, and we didn't want to leave until the film was over. Whether it was marketing or just pure Elvis, I might now have to add some Elvis music to my CD collection, if only to own a little piece of Americana that started way before I was born, way back in the fifties.
Now, I don't want to sound unpatriotic, because I really am quite proud to be an American (traveling with the trek has definitely given me this!) But I just have to take a moment to question all this icon stuff. Is there a way to have heroes without someone making money? Can families find happiness at Disneyworld without losing their life savings on tickets? Can Elvis fans pay homage to their favorite musician without being surrounded by tinsel town souvenirs? Who knows, maybe I am just being idealistic. I mean, no one makes them spend their money. These people go there by choice. And maybe the bit of happiness it brings them for just those brief moments are enough to justify it all. Maybe? But then again, maybe not.
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Stephen - Heeeeehhhhhhh. Hop on the chopper and cruise through suburban paradise
Rebecca - Marching and writing to a beat all their own
Irene - That's not just an orange you are eating. It's history
Nick - Moving to the city? Get ready for a fight
Nick - That's it. You're done. We terminate you