In March of this year, Gucci began selling a $4,500 purse in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. Between the creature’s round black ears is a small handle embossed with the word “Gucci.” On the brand’s website, a male model stares intensely into the camera without the slightest trace of irony that he is, in fact, toting around the disembodied head of a children’s cartoon character.
It’s perhaps the most luxurious of the recent Mickey Mouse products designed for adults, but it’s just one of many that has flooded the market. Over the past few months, Opening Ceremony released a line of ethereal dresses and activewear featuring vintage Mickey Mouse prints. High-end milliner Gigi Burris created a $450 crystal-beaded fascinator featuring Mickey’s ears. L’Oréal and Maybelline created makeup sets with packaging covered in Mickey’s face. Kate Spade released a $198 tote featuring a Mickey comic strip. Uniqlo made dozens of graphic tees with Mickey in various poses. And not to miss out on the action, Apple launched $300 Beats headphones that paid homage to the Mouse.
Part of this recent glut of Mickey products has to do with the fact that the character turned 90 years old last year. The Walt Disney Company, along with the many other brands that license Disney characters, sees anniversaries as an opportunity to sell even more Mickey paraphernalia than usual. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mickey Mouse and his gang (including Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, and Donald Duck) sold $3 billion in merchandise in 2018, a figure that includes both adult and children’s products. Shockingly, that is only about half of what Mickey made in 2004, when Disney heavily pushed out products in celebration of his 75th birthday.
All of this prompts the question: Why would adults wear items splashed with the face of a smiling rodent in the first place? What accounts for the enduring appeal of this anthropomorphized mouse, while other popular characters, like Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or Anna from Frozen, hardly ever appear in adult products?
The answer to the question has everything to do with the fact that Disney carefully orchestrated Mickey Mouse’s transformation from a cartoon character to a symbol. Disney ensured that Mickey could morph into almost anything the consumer needed him to be, from an emblem of hope in wartimes to a happy reminder of childhood when adulthood became overwhelming.