As a kid I loved Mickey Mouse -- his high, shrill voice, and his madcap love of life. I wanted to be a mouseketeer and join all those nice, well-kept kids on the Disney TV show who seemed to embody the ideals of what America was all about.
But what's happened to Mickey? I read today that Disney is about to launch a new Mickey video game in which our hero's sunny personality is going "dark side." Mickey, that loveable mouse, will become a rodent and wander through a cartoon wasteland meeting bitter and disappointed characters who resent his success. In making Mickey more sinister, Disney follows in a trend toward media characters who are no longer Mr. Nice Guys. Now television doctors like House, cutthroat lawyers like Glenn Close in Damages, grumpy comedians like Larry David, and philandering working fathers like Don Draper in Madmen -- all have deeply dark, self-destructive sides to them.
When I was growing up and loving Mickey, television characters were meant to be role models of normality and sanity. I and many of my generation grew up feeling that families like those in Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet had their ups and downs but were basically havens in a heartless world. Fathers never lost their tempers and always knew, while mothers kept their quiet wisdom and love in their suburban kitchens. Cowboys were good, and the bad guys were bad, and there was no confusing the two.
Of course, my own family living in the multicultural Bronx lived in a walk-up apartment utterly unlike the suburban world I saw on television. My dad worked in a factory and there was only one bedroom in our apartment and surely no den for him to smoke his pipe in. My mom took in sewing to make ends meet, and wasn't the leisurely homemaker that Lassie's Mom was. While it was comforting to see those ideal images, it was also confusing. While they had no dark side, we certainly did. My Dad yelled, my Mom was depressed, both of them were disabled, and I was not particularly agreeable myself.
Now our television shows are filled with confused men and women who philander, masturbate, harbor homicidal thoughts if not actions, take drugs freely, have anonymous sex, sabotage others and abuse themselves. And we like that.
When I was a kid I desperately wanted the normality I saw on TV. It was a strange normal though, with talking mice and unreal people -- but it was something to aspire to. Yet there is a comfort now in the idea that Don Draper and House are no better or worse than I am. They, like all of us, have to live in a morally ambiguous world in which there is no bright star showing the way to the right road. It's tough being a human, or a mouse, and maybe our dark sides, if we acknowledge them, will show us the light.