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333 Age often turns fire into placidity. Lytton Strachey, in his incisive portrait of Florence Nightingale, writes of her declining years: Destiny, having waited very patiently, played a queer trick on Miss Nightingale. The benevolence and public spirit of that long life had only been equaled by its acerbity. Her virtue had dwelt in hardness . . . And now the sarcastic years brought the proud woman her punishment. She was not to die as she had lived. The sting was to be taken out of her; she was to be made soft; she was to be reduced to compliance and complacency. I was therefore not surprised—although the analogy may strike some people as sacrilegious—to discover that the creature who gave his name as a synonym for insipidity had a gutsier youth. Mickey Mouse turned a respectable fifty last year. To mark the occasion, many theatres replayed his debut performance in Steamboat Willie (1928). The original Mickey was a rambunctious, even slightly sadistic fellow. In a remarkable sequence, exploiting the exciting new development of sound, Mickey and Minnie pummel, squeeze, and twist the animals on board to produce a rousing chorus of “Turkey in the Straw.” They honk a duck with a tight embrace, crank a goat’s tail, tweak a pig’s nipples, bang a cow’s teeth as a stand-in xylophone, and play bagpipe on her udder. Christopher Finch, in his semiofficial pictorial history of Disney’s work, comments: “The Mickey Mouse who hit the movie houses in the late twenties was not quite the well-behaved character most of us are familiar with today. He was mischievous, to say the least, and even displayed a streak of cruelty.” But Mickey soon cleaned up his act, leaving stephen jay gould A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse nonfiction 334 Ecotone: reimagining place to gossip and speculation only his unresolved relationship with Minnie and the status of Morty and Ferdie. Finch continues: “Mickey . . . had become virtually a national symbol, and as such he was expected to behave properly at all times. If he occasionally stepped out of line, any number of letters would arrive at the Studio from citizens and organizations who felt that the nation’s moral well-being was in their hands . . . Eventually he would be pressured into the role of straight man.” As Mickey’s personality softened, his appearance changed. Many Disney fans are aware of this transformation through time, but few (I suspect) have recognized the coordinating theme behind all the alterations —in fact, I am not sure that the Disney artists themselves explicitly realized what they were doing, since the changes appeared in such a halting and piecemeal fashion. In short, the blander and in­ offensive Mickey became progressively more juvenile in appearance. (Since Mickey’s chronological age never altered—like most cartoon characters he stands impervious to the ravages of time—this change in appearance at a constant age is a true evolutionary transformation. Progressive juvenilization as an evolutionary phenomenon is called neoteny. More on this later.) The characteristic changes of form during human growth have inspired a substantial biological literature. Since the head-end of an embryo differentiates first and grows more rapidly in utero than the foot-end (an anterior-posterior gradient, in technical language), a newborn child possesses a relatively large head attached to a medium-sized body with diminutive legs and feet. This gradient is reversed through growth as legs and feet overtake the front end. Heads continue to grow but so much more slowly than the rest of the body that relative head size decreases. In addition, a suite of changes pervades the head itself during human growth. The brain grows very slowly after age three, and the bulbous cranium of a young child gives way to the more slanted, lowerbrowed configuration of adulthood. The eyes scarcely grow at all and relative eye size declines precipitously. But the jaw gets bigger and bigger. Children, compared with adults, have larger heads and eyes, smaller jaws, a more prominent, bulging cranium, and smaller, pudgier legs and feet. Adult heads are altogether more apish, I’m sorry to say. Mickey, however, has traveled the ontogenetic pathway in reverse during his fifty years...


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pp. 333-340
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