How to Read Donald Duck

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Jul 2018

Member Reviews

Ariel Dorfman — Chilean author, playwright, poet, essayist, human-rights activist — is best known for his riveting play Death and the Maiden. How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, written with the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart before Dorfman had to flee Chile because of General Augusto Pinochet. That means the book is dated in parts, and it has some of that over-the-top flavor of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But Dorfman and Mattelart meticulously (maybe a bit too much) dissects Disney comic books sold in Latin America which uphold the banner of capitalism by justifying Uncle Scrooge McDuck, mocking working stiffs like Donald Duck, and infantilizing Third World peoples as children who need Duckburg (read U.S.) management. And if we take their gold? Well, they weren’t using it for anything, anyway. 

A very convincing and compelling argument.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book from NetGalley and OR Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, OR Books for reissuing this book translated into English.
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Not what I expected. Who knew this was what Walt Disney was all about. I don't have 100 characters to talk about this book.
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Unless you're writing a thesis on South American politics, this is a _really_ dry read.  And just chock full of conspiracy theories.  I mean, it was interesting...it was ok...but it's not one I'd recommend to others.  While I do believe that there are hidden messages in the media, today and way back when, I don't think that every. single. thing. has a hidden message.
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It is usually disappointing to read a book that was formerly banned. The sensitivities of the then authorities cause unrestrained headscratching today. Not so with How to Read Donald Duck, which was confiscated on its way into the USA in 1975, on the pretext of copyright infringement and unfair use. A real leftist attack, it is vibrant, wide-ranging and damning. Maybe too much. But it’s crystal clear why it was banned.

When I was growing up, I read and collected Superman comics. Unbeknownst to me, Donald Duck was at that the same time making the world safe for imperialism, racism, sexism and capitalism. In 1970 Chile, a newly elected leftist government allowed the left to express itself. Two of those voices, Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattleart used the opportunity to decode, decrypt and expose the Disney invasion of Chilean society and culture throughout the 1960s. It was translated into 12 languages and circulated globally. Except in the USA. Publishers were afraid – of Walt Disney. But, as the book shows, so were his own employees.

I find a lot of Dorfman and Mattelart’s criticism unfair. They make much of how Disney characters are always out of worldly, societal context. They have no ancestors, friends or neighbors. Everything is always available, but nothing is ever manufactured. There are no laborers. They never age or progress in their lives. All true, but also true of the whole genre. Cartoon characters never age. It’s their advantage over humans. Archie will always be a teenager, even as he approaches 100. So while they studied a substantial corpus of one hundred Disney comics for their critique, they did not also examine any other comics. It shows.

As in all cartoons, the characters are stereotyped for easy recognition. So Donald Duck is always scrambling for cash (though never the rent), Mickey Mouse, ever the altruist, helps anyone with anything. Goofy is a doofus, and so on. This is not a weakness but a requirement, as readers don’t want to be surprised by some new aspect of a character’s persona. Characters need to be familiar, dependable and easy to understand. Disney gets no points docked for this.

They also accuse Disney of removing all references to history, then describe comics on ancient Rome and other eras. They accuse Walt Disney of having a romantic, nostalgic love of rural American life over city life, but the comics demonstrate the opportunities there over rural areas. So the criticism is not a lock on truth.

What is possibly surprising is the near total lack of females in Disney comics. Donald Duck is the uncle of Huey, Dewey and Louie, and the nephew of Scrooge McDuck. Three generations of males, without ever breathing mention of a mother, sister or wife. What females that appear are always minor in their personas as well as in the stories. Goofy and Pluto are far important than Minnie, every time.

Disney’s putdowns of other nationalities gets a little sickening. It’s not enough that they are infantile (“The world of Disney is a nineteenth century orphanage “). The noble savage, readily and gladly giving up his gold to Americans because it has no value to his society is a bit much. Especially when he trades it for soap bubble powder that makes his compatriots smile. Everyone else in the world is a caricature of a human, according to Disney. A joke of a person. His ducks are more human than the foreign humans, because of the great system they belong to – capitalism.

The authors say 75% of the sample was stories involving the search for gold, and the other 25% were about competing for fame and wealth in the big city. Disney is all about the money. Life is all about the money for Disney. That’s the message he focused on. It was all about bringing back the gold. The book demonstrates it clearly and dramatically with actual images from the comic books. They prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Disney was promoting capitalism and imperialism to the rest of the world, in the guise of family-friendly comic books. They read like alt right propaganda, as much as the book reads like left wing propaganda. In other words, Dorfman and Mattelart are correct,

There is an interminable intro, not from the authors but from the translator, which adds much heat but little light. A lot of leftist 1970s jargon revealing essentially nothing, but delaying access to the Disney defrocking. It is dense and difficult, and skipping it is beneficial.

For the victim/readers of Disney comics, in Chile and elsewhere, it was all galling, insulting and revolting: “Reading Disney is like having one’s own exploited condition rammed with honey down one’s throat.”  It was Walt Disney expressing that everywhere else is a “sh—hole country” while glorifying the unlimited opportunities in an aggressive liberal capitalist society. He was making America great at the expense of everyone else.

Even Superman was less blatant.

David Wineberg
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