Are You Taking The Mickey?

Unpleasant Mickey on a tee shirt
The names Disney And Mickey Mouse As Pejoratives

Pejorative: Depreciatory; disparaging; unfavorable.

Whilst I was writing the piece about Alnwick Castle looking for a senior Disney Cast Member I came across the quote from Sir Roy Strong "However much it brings distaste to my lips, it is a question of survival." He was talking about looking at how Disney runs it’s business and how these techniques could be used in the culture sector.

Sir Roy amongst others came to look at Disney a few years ago as part of a group from the Natural History Museum to look at Disney’s theme parks in search of new ideas and presumably must have found some things to his liking. (Only fair for the Museum to return the visit as in 1975 Walt Disney Pictures had visited the museum to make the film "One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing"). Though his comments still show his apparent distaste for any "Disneyfication" of his world.

Another proponent ‘Disney’ as a pejorative is a television show here in the UK. The show follows people building their homes from the planning stage through to completion – but woe betide the home builder if dear old the host of the show doesn’t like your taste. He pulls out a killer phrase from his arsenal of smiling vitriol something like – "I’m scared this is going to look like a plastic, mock Disneyland imitation of your dream"...

So why is Disney such a symbol of everything uncultured, uncivilized, of all that is shoddy and plastic or of botched workmanship? Who amongst us has not heard a disreputable company being compared to a "Mickey Mouse" operation? In his novel ‘Storm Warning ’, Jack Higgins uses the remark "It's a Mickey Mouse operation compared to what goes on in Lyons or Paris".

And Mickey has even entered British Government parlance. The term was notably used by Education Minister Margaret Hodge M.P., during a discussion on higher education expansion. Hodge defined a Mickey Mouse course as "one where the content is perhaps not as rigorous as one would expect and where the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market" and "Simply stacking up numbers on Mickey Mouse courses is not acceptable" . She was referring to a policy in the late 1990s, when the Labour government created the target of having 50% of students in higher education by 2010. Apparently people getting university degrees in decision making, stained glass or golf management didn’t meet her ideals for education. But where did the use of "Mickey Mouse" as a derogatory expression come from?

It is often used as a diminutive adjective and adverb meaning small-time, amateurish or of inferior quality. A poorly executed project, for instance, could be pejoratively described as a "Mickey Mouse job".

Presumably, this comes from the insinuation that the object or action in question was taken as seriously as Mickey Mouse, that is to say, not at all. (He is ‘just’ a children’s cartoon character – right?) The term does not normally imply any actual connection to Disney.

The same argument could be used for the poor Disneyland comparisons. We know Disneyland isn’t real, the Magic Kingdom’s Castle isn’t a real stone built medieval fortress, Main St USA is engineered to use fake perspective to look longer – Disneyland is not ‘real’. It is fake – but a very well built fake.

The other commonly used pejorative often associated with Disney is to “Take the Mickey” meaning to Tease or make fun of.

There are various forms of this: take/extract the Mick/Mickey/Michael, although the 'take the Mickey' version is most often used. It is sometimes reported that the phrase originates as a variant of the slang phrase 'take the piss' and the 'Mickey' refers to micturate - From Latin micturre, to want to urinate. This seems rather long winded and overworked to me.

It may be because I work in London but the phrase seems very like Cockney rhyming slang. - a code of speaking wherein a common word can be replaced by the whole or abbreviated form of a well-known phrase which rhymes with that word.

'Taking the piss' is used in rhyming slang and refers possibly to a fictional character called Mickey Bliss. The ‘classic’ three part extraction to Cockney rhyming slang works too, 'taking the piss' became 'taking the Mickey Bliss' and then just 'taking the Mickey'.

Oddly though if this is the case Mickey Mouse has a second and even third slang meaning. In rhyming slang, a "Mickey" refers to a Liverpudlian or Liverpool FC (soccer) supporter (ie. Mickey Mouser = Scouser). It is also used to refer to someone's home (Mickey Mouse = House).

The information I found seems to put the phrase originating in the UK in the 1930s and 'taking the Mickey' probably came not long afterward. (coincidentally just a couple of years after Mickey Mouse’s first appearance?) Though the precise wording - 'take the Mickey' doesn't appear in print until a few years later. The earliest found as yet was in 1952:

It is strange that Disney and it’s figurehead are both commonly derided and commonly used as similes for the negative, whilst both being as equally loved and held as aspirational.

Looking Back

I think I was being a little over-sensitive about the cultural sector's view of the commerciality of Disney. Sir Roy Strong, mentioned above, is a well respected figure in his field. In fact I have a lot of respect for the man.

Original publication date