Of mice and mental menace

October 14, 2005

Jamie Clarke teaches a Mickey Mouse course that challenges lazy thinking

One bugbear that surfaces regularly in debates about the value of tertiary education is the question of so-called Mickey Mouse courses. Established degrees in ancient universities are never described as "Mickey Mouse" - their content appears to be self-justifying. A far more brutally pragmatic set of criteria is applied to less established areas.

What is perhaps most depressing about these approaches is not the staggering prejudice that drives them but rather the level of uncritical thinking they betray. Sadly, those seeking to defend themselves from such charges can be equally uncritical. Many in media studies quickly respond that media studies is not Mickey Mouse studies - a defence that does not overturn the logic that some degrees are indeed Mickey Mouse. This puts a check on critical thinking and recycles vague definitions of value to safeguard power and privilege.

To challenge such sloppy thinking, I devised an elective module on "Mickey Mouse studies". This was not merely the opportunity for a bad gag or an attempt to score cheap points (though it was these as well); rather, it seems to me that there is a certain symmetry in the uncritical ghettoisation of some courses as Mickey Mouse and the refusal to take the output of the Walt Disney Company seriously.

My course treats Disney as a serious business - after all, Disney is rivalled only by Time Warner in media size and influence. It investigates Disney's relationship to matters of cultural imperialism (considering criticism in Chile under the Socialist President Salvador Allende and the fiasco of EuroDisney), the whitewashing of dodgy moments of American history at Disney World, protests over allegations of questionable labour outsourcing, questions about exorbitant salaries of top management and the battle to secure the Copyright Treaty Extension Act, apparently in breach of the US Constitution.

As demonstrated by the bizarre and gooey annual letters to shareholders written by Michael Eisner, the outgoing chief executive, Disney tends to succeed because it is considered childish and innocent, or, to put it another way, is treated uncritically. Asked why they chose my course, many students responded that everyone accuses them of doing a Mickey Mouse degree and it was amusing to tell them that this was now literally the case. This may be true, but I think that it also indicates students'

critical awareness of the prejudices outlined above. The course challenges such uncritical assumptions.

Such identification with the underdog has a certain resonance within Mickey Mouse studies. As Esther Leslie writes in a recent critical examination of Mickey Mouse: "Early Mickey Mouse cartoons feature a pesky, ratty creature creating mischief... he was a spirited and insubordinate animal... Mickey Mouse was not respectable. Whether Jewish or Negro, he was America's immigrant heart."

Nazi responses to Mickey parallel the need to police the hygienic line between worthy areas of study and Mickey Mouse. One Nazi journal closed with this comment: "Blonde, freethinking... youth, where is your pride? I Kick out the vermin, down with Mickey Mouse, and erect swastikas!"

My course, which was praised by our external examiner and is recruiting well, is designed not merely to stake a claim for the legitimacy of Mickey Mouse studies but to question critically the powers served in the process of legitimisation. Moreover, it's always good to see Dumbo again.

Jamie Clarke is lecturer in media and cultural studies at Southampton Solent University.

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