Should we tell kids there's a person in the Mickey costume?

Maybe we should burst this bubble. |  LoveToTakePhotos  on Pixabay

Maybe we should burst this bubble. | LoveToTakePhotos on Pixabay

In his 1994 Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland, journalist David Koenig appends a new moral to the story of The Three Little Pigs: if you punch a pig, the Big Bad Wolf will stuff you in a trash can.

The trouble started when two children at Disneyland pinned a Little Pig to the ground and were “beating her mercilessly.” In a character-breaking moment of camaraderie, The Big Bad Wolf came to the pig’s aid, but, because he was contractually-obligated not to speak, he could only gesture at the assailants, an effort did little to stop them. So the Wolf took more drastic action, “picked one of them up and stuffed him upside down in a trash barrel, with only his wildly kicking feet sticking out.”

The children’s mother wasn’t thrilled to find her son in a trash can, but after an explanation from the employees, she “ended up thanking them for teaching her boys a lesson.”

Koenig doesn’t supply a year, so we can’t know for sure when it happened. I can’t imagine any child brave enough to punch these terrifying creatures, so I’m guessing that the pig incident came some time between the 1961 reincarnation of the pigs and Koenig’s publication in 1994.

It’s clear that, at least since the 1970s, Disney was aware of some kids’ tendency to attack characters. A character training video from 1976 gives some insight into what it was like to be a Little Pig: 1) Keep your costume on a hanger, 2) don’t speak, and 3) never overreact when the kids punch you. The training video’s voiceover issues a reminder to cast members: “you’re working with a very young, unpredictable audience. Children are sometimes hard to understand and may give you an extra affectionate pat on the back or even a playful punch. Patience is the key word in being a Disney character.”

That same voiceover is laid over footage of kids punching Winnie the Pooh, Dale, Pluto, and Mickey, so it’s safe to assume that these kids were encouraged to punch the characters. You can almost always see them looking off camera waiting for their cue. One little guy just goes for it, though, punching Baloo in the stomach.

The voiceover on all of these training videos urges cast members-in-training to remember “that to the children, these characters are real. The fact that there is a person in the costume should never be revealed.” The message is clear: even if they punch and kick you, you have to take it in stride, because to do otherwise would threaten the Disney magic.

I understand the wish to create magical memories for kids. I’ll grant you your elves on the shelves. I won’t out the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. But I’m not convinced that this magic requires this particular fiction.

Kids are smart enough to hold two ideas in their head at once. They can both know there’s a human in the costume and pretend there’s not a human in the costume.

A look at kids’ interactions with a few other beloved characters from around the same time as the Disney training videos makes this clear. Sesame Street darling John John is clearly looking at something underneath Grover and Herry. Of course he is, because wouldn’t any kid be curious as to why a grown-up was hiding under a table? But the presence of Frank Oz or Jerry Nelson didn’t stop John John from interacting with the muppets. In another clip, the eternally adorable Joey sings “Cookie Monster!” in the middle of the alphabet. In his biography of Jim Henson, Brian Jay Jones notes that even though Jim Henson was crouched just underneath her, for Joey, “the frog was no mere puppet; Kermit was real.”

We don’t need to trust the beloved television programming of our childhood to show us this phenomenon, though, because any parent who has made a stuffed animal talk knows how to work this magic. My puppeteering skills hardly rival Henson’s, but when I make Bunny kiss my son’s cheek it’s as though I’ve donned an invisibility cloak.

Clearly, kids don’t need the fiction that there’s no one inside the Mickey costume. But you know who does need it? Poorly-behaved adults.

Most of the character assault documented in Koenig’s book comes from adult park guests: characters knocked over low ledges, choked on cigarette smoke blown into their costumes, sprayed with lighter fluid. Oh, and the long-suffering pigs, stabbed to see if they would deflate. Perhaps pretending that the characters aren’t real allows adults to act out our worst impulses.

There’s no question that the assailants in these cases knew there were humans in the costume. Koenig describes a couple posing with Chip and Dale. Chip put an arm around the woman, whose boyfriend started kicking and punching until he heard the screams of the woman inside the costume and thought maybe Chip was just being friendly. The assailant didn’t just know there was a person in the Chip costume; he also assumed that person was male.

When we ignore the cast members’ basic humanity, we give ourselves license to act badly. We might not assault a pretend squirrel, but we might demand that a person wearing 42 pounds of fur stay in the 90-degree heat because we want a perfect picture. Or we might run up to Mr. Incredible for a selfie without a word of acknowledgment, treating him as more Instagram prop than person.

Maybe it’s adults who really need the reminder that there’s a person in there.