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TV History: The Mickey Mouse Club

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Mickey Mouse Club: Baking Cookies or Becoming President?

by Reilly Boyle

The first season of the 1950s children’s show, the Mickey Mouse Club, mirrored aspects of adult programming of the time period. Though it seemingly presented and promoted gender equality, it in fact undermined it, depicting it as dreamlike or romantic, ultimately reaffirming traditional gender roles. The first part of this analysis lays out how Mickey Mouse Club incorporated features that reflected those of adult programming, namely live-ness and single sponsorship. I will then seek to show that, just as adult programming taught adults how to be American or how to be successful men and women in society, children’s shows taught children how to be children. The Mickey Mouse Club instilled in children, from an early age, the gender roles that would allow them so grow into successful men and women in 50s society.
The introduction of the very first episode, “The Original Mousekateers,” demonstrates how the children’s program was influenced by the 50s television phenomenon of live-ness. By 1955, when this first episode aired, 65% of programming was still live, despite cable being set up coast to coast in 1951. One of the central ways in which television used live-ness to its advantage was by re-creating the environment of going to the theater in a family’s living room. Spigel writes, “Early television attempted to present a reproduction of the entire situation of being at the theater- the spectator’s imaginary sense of being placed on the scene”(Spigel 16). The context of the social fabric of the 50s, defined by new technologies and the privatization of the domestic sphere, sheds light on why “a reproduction of the entire situation” was so well received by audiences. “The Original Mousekateers” piggybacks off of this trend, utilizing the stage to situate the narrative within a theatrical world. The episode begins with a stage curtain, the word “Mouseketeers” is written across it and the faces of both a little boy and girl Mouseketeer are in the center. The curtain opens and the Mouseketeers are revealed, performing a tap number on stage. This choice demonstrates how the same tactics involving theatricality that were employed for adult programming were similarly employed in children’s programming.
The episode “Merry Mouseketeers” similarly depicts how core elements of adult programming of the 50s were translated to children’s programming. This clip begins with an advertisement, the voiceover stating, “This portion of your Mickey Mouse Club is brought to you by all the Betty Crocker cake mixes and Betty Crocker brownie mix, for perfect cakes and perfect brownies too!” This ad speaks to the norm of single sponsorship that was prevalent before the shift to magazine advertising. It was assumed that mothers would be watching television programs with their children; therefore, the Betty Crocker sponsorship made sense in that children would desire delicious cakes and brownies and mothers would be expected to bake them. The ad was for the kids, but also for the mothers, to affirm their gender roles in society.
From its beginnings, television proved itself a successful medium for establishing and reaffirming people’s roles in society. Just as the working class ethnic comedy taught immigrants how to be American, the 50s sitcom taught women how to be women in 50s society. In the same way, the Mickey Mouse Club taught children how to be children.
In teaching children how to be children, the Mickey Mouse Club established and promoted clearly defined gender roles as well. “When I Grow Up,” a musical number performed by Mouseketeer, Darlene Gillespie, exemplifies how the show undermined the notion of gender equality by romanticizing and hyperbolizing it. The number begins with chimes and dreamlike music. Darlene is sitting at her desk with her doll in hand, illuminated by the warm light of her desk lamp, wearing a ruffled nightgown and bow in her hair. She begins with the line, “When I grow up, someday, I don’t know what I’ll be… a nurse, a hostess, a bank cashier, perhaps a comic who gives out cheer.” This initial list of potential future careers seems attainable and grounded in reality. However, as the song progresses, the lyrics become more outlandish. She sings, “When I grow up, I may fly in the sky, and maybe then well come face to face with little men from outer space.” After turning out her light, operatic women’s voices fill the background as Darlene begins to dance with her doll. The scene feels reminiscent of the Nutcracker…a sheer fantasy. At the end of the song, Darlene walks to her bed, snuggles under the covers and gazes upward singing about how she may decide to be president. The number ends with her eyes closed as she drifts off to sleep. This whole sequence undermines the notion that she can be anything she wants to be by making it appear as a far-off dream.
The episode “Cooking with Minnie Mouse,” on the other hand, poses a stark contrast to Darlene’s lullaby of faraway dreams. This episode begins on stage, which Spigel would probably argue provides a heightened sense of realism alone. Then, Jimmie and Ruth Dodd begin singing, “It’s time to cook with Minnie Mouse, for you right there in your own house, we’ll show you what to do.” Not only do they address the audience, they go so far as to say, “We will show you what to do,” and “We will give you recipes.” This episode seems more rooted in reality, with its methodical, step-by step processes. After giving directions to add a little milk, mix it well, and roll out the dough, Donna exclaims, “This is no fairytale!” Her statement is in direct opposition to the dreamlike nature of the music and lyrics in “When I Grow Up.” Donna addresses an ambiguous “you” stating, “You’ll find that pots and pans can be a lot of fun.” However, Jimmie immediately jumps in adding, “And for you boys there’ll be a lot to eat before we are done.” Thus, the “you” Donna was referring to was the girls. And because this episode is “no fairytale,” and this content is presented by adults (figures of authority opposed to a little girl in her room), children were more likely to conceptualize “Cooking with Minnie” as reality rather than “When I Grow Up.”

Spigel, Lynn., and Mann, Denise. Private Screenings Television and the Female
Consumer. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1992. Academic Complete (ebrary). Web.

Excerpts from The Mickey Mouse Club

These four clips are from the first season of The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC.

from The Mickey Mouse Club (1955)
Creator: Walt Disney, Bill Walsh, Walt Disney Productions, ABC
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Christine Becker