These three circles are simple, geometric shapes. However, this specific configuration of the circles has become one of the most universally recognized symbols in the world: Mickey Mouse. He debuted in 1928 in a cartoon called, “Plane Crazy.” Since that day Mickey’s face and image has been produced and reproduced in every way, shape and form throughout the world. This symbol is part of a shared consciousness or experience. It is definitely an iconic symbol of pop culture that has transcended the limitations of culturally specific language and understanding. In 1935, the League of Nations awarded Walt Disney a medal that solidified Mickey Mouse as a symbol of universal goodwill. The Mickey Mouse icon comes complete with a common message of innocence, dreams, and fantasy that can be understood globally. The successful integration of a character as a cultural universal can be considered an example of how media creates and perpetuates a shared identity. Is Mickey Mouse and the Disney Corporation an example of how media is used to create a collective experience and universal culture? Three simple circles represent how media and its impact promote universal symbolism, globalization, and memes.
Mickey Mouse is an example of a symbol that has successfully given an identity to a larger entity. Symbols are representations of concepts, ideas, lifestyles, or products. Semiotics provides a framework for the study of understanding the relationships between symbols, meaning and communication. Roland Barthes, French theorist and semiologist, wrote, “where there is a visual substance, for example, the meaning is confirmed by being duplicated in a linguistic message (which happens in the case of the cinema, advertising, comic strips, press photography, etc.) so that at least a part of the iconic message is, in terms of structural relationship, either redundant or taken up by the linguistic system” (4). He argued that understanding language as a systematic structure helps to grasp how the system assigns meaning to a sign. Essentially, the belief or meaning that has been associated or projected on to the Mickey Mouse character is what is universally understood. As a character, Mickey represents childhood, happiness, imagination and wonder. These ideas are ones that weave their way in and out of every venture that the Disney Corporation delivers to the public, from Mickey Mouse and beyond. Disney makes its money on making dreams reality. However, these dreams and ideals are according to Disney. Yet, they are still successful in creating popular characters that deliver and reinforce a universally understood language and message. Nevertheless, all this meaning and understanding is encompassed in the crude, three-circle configuration of the Mickey Mouse symbol.
Walt Disney was very aware of the significant roles his characters and their stories played in building a universal structure of belief. The reality of the fantasy is the business of Disney. By deconstructing the stories or fantasies that Disney creates, there will be patents of belief that structure culture. If the characters that propel the patents of belief are fashioned to have a universal appeal, then the experience that is formed is a global one.
Symbols and the meaning that are attached to them are essential in globalization. They promote commonalities and create similarities. Modern media helps to construct the symbols and language that are developing a universal understanding. In order for a concept to be global it needs to affect society socially, politically and economically. Disney has developed a formula that encapsulates all three ideas thereby creating a global Disney culture. Socially, Disney understands that they have a very specific image of family and innocence that they want all people to associate Disney name with. However, the Disney Corporation has cleverly found that the best way to have an international presence is to intertwine their message and structures of belief within the already existing culture. Jonathan Weber notes, “that even as people are drawn to American brands as symbols, when it comes to actual cultural content, they are looking for something more… Disneyland Hong Kong, for all its loyalty to the original, will feature a broad selection of Asian food as well as shows and special events that are built around local holidays” (Wired Magazine 4).
Antonio Gramsci, who coined the termed cultural hegemony, would explain this cultural mesh process as why diverse groups of people could be dominated and controlled by one group. He thought every day practices and shared beliefs provided a foundation for intricate social structures. The ideas of the dominant culture are absorbed through civil society and media, and create a shared, false consciousness. Consent of the dominant cultural ideas are possible when some of the interests of those marginalized groups can be absorbed into the mainstream. The Disney Corporation applies this concept very effectively by having their iconic mascot Mickey Mouse appear in traditional clothing, celebrate traditional holidays, and speak the language of whichever country he represents. Each Mickey may look and talk differently, but the message is the same.
Politically, once a presence, image and experience have been solidified within a specific culture, the relationship between the image and the belief can be used to spread concepts, propaganda, and rhetoric and gain attention. Mickey Mouse as a symbol extends beyond the realm of Disney because he has been so popular as a good guy. His image is often used to transmit other ideologies beyond the ones that the Disney Corporation intended. For example, a Hamas television station, Al-Asqa, used a Mickey Mouse look-alike named Farfour to teach children about the importance of maintaining Muslim traditions and fighting against Israel. According to Palestinian Media Watch, “using a character based on an appealing, world-famous and beloved icon like Mickey Mouse to teach Islamic supremacy and resistance as Islamic duty is a powerful and effective way to indoctrinate children” (www.pmw.org.il).
Since the universal meaning associated with the iconic figure of Mickey Mouse is generally one of fantasy and optimism, it is reasonable to comprehend why a message of belief that is being promoted by the figure would be influential. In this case, the meaning behind the symbol distorts the message that is being transmitted.
Economically, the Disney Corporation is an obvious overachiever. According to Forbes.com, in 2006, Roy Disney, worth an estimated $1.4 billion, ranked number 77 in the world’s 400 richest people, and the Disney Corporation ranked number 27 in the list of the world’s most reputable companies. They were also listed very specifically under the business classification of information and media. So, their presence is recognized as a source of idea and belief transmission. This economic accomplishment has been driven on their ability to capitalize on the very experience they are propagating. Henry Giroux, author of The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, wrote, “Mickey Mouse offers up a … symbol of innocence while hiding the role it plays in commodifying children’s dreams and extending the logic of the market into all aspects of their lives” (37) .
While Disney utilizes every media tool and technology to create a very specific cultural experience that evokes the same reaction no matter where you are in the world, Mickey Mouse has also become a symbol for the commodification of culture and cultural imperialism. Mickey Mouse is still the face of a multibillion-dollar fortress of information and entertainment. The company strategically places itself within mainstream media in order to reach the most amounts of people. It is one of the six largest media corporations that govern control of mass media. This causes concerns and raises questions of media diversification, perpetuating stereotypes, and maintaining objectivity within the media, but Disney, nonetheless, stands tall as an economic giant.
In creating the Disney culture and relationships that are universally understood, Disney has been communicating memes. Susan Blackmoor writes, “memes are a form of information” (65). Memes are behaviors and beliefs that are transmitted from person to person. Blackmoor argues that memes are stories we hear, songs we learn, music, jokes, languages, and etc., which propel cultural evolution. Once again, the Disney Corporation and Mickey Mouse are excellent examples of memes at work. Mickey Mouse sings songs about friendship, love, and imagination. These are lessons and ideas that are being universally heard thanks to the Disney international marketing teams.
“Disney and other media brands are fraught with emotional and psychological undercurrents. Disney represents certain ideas: fun, family, personal freedom, optimism about life and about the future, confidence that good will triumph over evil” (Weber 4). These emotional and psychological undercurrents are memes. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his book The Selfish Gene. Blackmoor builds off his theory that human beings could think of themselves as replicators of ideas or behaviors that become part of the cultural human experience. Aiding the spread of these memes are the symbols that represent the ideas and behaviors. “Emotions roused by ideological symbols suggest the importance that memes hold for use and the power they have over our behavior” (Plotkin 73).
Branding, or a universal symbol, is developed to perpetuate an idea, behavior or structure of belief. Once the symbol or brand becomes indicative of the idea that is being promoted, a relationship between meaning and language is constructed. The symbol, the meaning, and the language create an experience and a collective consciousness. Through media, via movies, music, product, internet, radio, television, and any form of communication, this image, language and idea can be shared beyond the limits of geographic and language boundaries. “ When a strategically constructed brand image has achieved sufficient penetration and generated a compelling range of associations in the public mind, it will seem quite natural for people to buy the products created to go with it- an inevitable consummation, after the fact, of their experience of the brand” (Meme Wars 180). This experience can be a universal phenomenon that also creates universal standards. Universal standards are the basis for achieving globalization. As media methods become more pervasive global ideals and ideologies are more easily absorbed into individual cultural experiences that result in a more commonly global cultural experience.
Dissecting the Mickey Mouse symbol and the Disney Corporation’s wholesome image is a good way to view an example of how symbols and multi-national corporations influence cultural evolution and promote globalization. Media and technology produce and normalize the social interactions that are affected by these corporations. The varying and diverse mediums facilitate a westernized cultural hegemony. Mickey Mouse is an example of such an occurrence. Most of our daily lives are drowned in symbols, language and meaning that affect our worldview. These universal associations make our world smaller and restructure cultural belief.
Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968. 26 Oct. 2007
Blackmoor, Susan. “The Power of Memes.” Scientific American Oct. 2000: 64-66.
“Children as Combatants in PA Ideology.” Palestinian Media Watch. 28 Oct. 2007.
29 Oct. 2007 <http://www.pmw.org.il/>.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. London: Oxford UP, 1976. 29
Giroux, Henry. The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham:
Rowan and Littlefield, Inc, 1999. 29 Oct. 2007 .
Plotkin, Henry. “People Do More Than Imitate.” Scientific American (2000): 72-73.
“Preparing for the Meme Wars.” 177-184.
Weber, Jonathan. “The Ever-Expanding, Profit-Maximizing, Cultural-Imperialist,
Wonderful World of Disney.” Wired Feb. 2002. 26 Oct. 2007