Eleanor Heard '98 gets e-mail every day from people seeking information on Mickey Mouse. "I write them back and tell them I just don't know," she says.
Eleanor Heard '98 and friend
So why is Heard often mistaken for an authority on Disney's ubiquitous rodent? The answer lies in her Web site, "The Image of Mickey Mouse," which she designed more than two years ago as a project for a class in the culture of cyberspace offered by the Department of Modern Culture and Media. Not so long ago, such a project might have been relegated at semester's end to the darkness of a desk drawer, but now, thanks to the Web, it's still finding new readers. "Mostly they're people who write to tell me they like my page," she explains. "But I also get e-mail from people all over the world who idealize Mickey and want to know more."
Heard, an art history and Hispanic studies concentrator from San Antonio, has long been fascinated by images and their relationship to culture. At Duke, from where she transferred in the fall of 1996, she studied the image of the Mona Lisa, and after arriving at Brown she integrated her approach with the Web.
"I had great curiosity about Mickey Mouse," she recalls. "I wanted to know how Disney was so successful in using and manipulating his image." Heard discovered that Mickey, originally conceived as a movie character, began a thirty-year hiatus from films in 1953, during which time he lent his name to the Mickey Mouse Club television show and became the company's mascot.
Over the years, Mickey himself went through several design modifications, but he always remained a representation of "the fun, average, happy-go-lucky American male," according to Heard. Today Mickey is everywhere, adaptable across cultures from France to China. On her Web site, Heard describes Mickey as "not a defined character [with] boundaries or limitations. Perhaps this is why his image is so easily marketed in just about every sphere." Buying Mickey, she says, means buying into a universal fantasy. In the final analysis, perhaps, Mickey is a triumph of savvy marketing over local culture.