The Book That Exposed the Cynical Politics of Donald Duck
In Santiago, Chile, in the early nineteen-seventies, the writer Ariel Dorfman served as a cultural adviser to the Chilean President, Salvador Allende. There was revolutionary fervor in the air, and Dorfman, as he wrote in his 1998 memoir, “Heading South, Looking North,” “felt the giddiness of those few great moments in your existence when you know that everything is possible.” He produced everything from poems and policy reports to children’s comics and radio jingles, “letting Spanish flow out of me as if I were a river.” His most enduring work from these years is a volume titled “How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic,” co-authored with the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart. Among North American audiences, Disney was most famous for its films and theme parks, but, abroad, Disney comics had a robust readership, and legions of freelance artists tailored them—or rewrote them—to international tastes. In Chile, Donald Duck was by far the most popular Disney character. But Dorfman and Mattelart argued that Donald was a conservative mouthpiece, dampening the revolutionary spirit, fostering complacency, and softening the sins of colonialism. What kind of a role model was he, this eunuch duck, who sought only fame and fortune, who ignored the plight of the working class, who accepted endless suffering as his lot? “Reading Disney,” they wrote, “is like having one’s own exploited condition rammed with honey down one’s throat.”
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“How to Read Donald Duck,” published in 1971, was an instant best-seller in Chile. But, in 1973, Augusto Pinochet seized power from Allende, in a violent military coup; under Pinochet’s rule, the book was banned, as an emblem of a fallen way of thought. Donald and Mickey Mouse became champions of the counter-revolution. One official pasted their faces on the walls of his office, where, under his predecessor, socialist slogans had once hung. Dorfman watched on TV as soldiers cast his book into a bonfire; the Navy confiscated some ten thousand copies and dumped them into the bay of Valparaíso. A motorist tried to plow him down in the street, shouting “Viva el Pato Donald!” Families of protesters swarmed his home, deploring his attack on their innocence while, less than innocently, they hurled rocks through the windows. In the fifties, Dorfman’s family had fled to Chile to escape an America gripped by McCarthyism; now he would return to the U.S. an exile from Chile. He wouldn’t go back for nearly two decades.
Meanwhile, the world grew curious about “How to Read Donald Duck.” The book was translated into nearly a dozen languages, including English, and sold half a million copies. (John Berger lauded it as a “handbook of decolonization.”) But American publishing houses blanched at the prospect of a lawsuit from Disney, which was known to litigate early and often. In 1975, a small imprint agreed to a modest run of about four thousand copies. The books were printed in the U.K. and shipped to the U.S. But, when they arrived in New York, Customs impounded them, on suspicion of “piratical copying.” The books reproduced panels from Disney comics without permission. Customs invited lawyers from both sides to plead their cases. Disney argued that parents might pick up the book thinking it was a bona-fide Disney publication, unwittingly delivering radical propaganda to their children. Customs ultimately sided with the authors—but, citing an obscure nineteenth-century importation clause that was intended to curb the arrival of counterfeit books from abroad, the agency admitted only a miserly fifteen hundred copies into the U.S. No publisher tried again until this past fall. A new edition, from OR Books, offers Americans a new chance to discover, as the book’s translator, David Kunzle, puts it, “the iron fist beneath the Mouse’s glove.”
More in this series on the power and pleasures of children’s books.
Was it worth the wait? According to Dorfman, “How to Read Donald Duck” was written “during a feverish ten days at the beach,” and it shows, for better and for worse. The book has a rambunctious humor that complements its polemical spirit. Its sharpest insights relate to working life in Duckburg, the infernal metropolis that Donald and his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, call home. The city, which is plagued by smog and traffic jams, “is a universe of terror, always on the point of collapse, and to survive in it requires a philosophy of resignation,” Dorfman and Mattelart write. Donald is perpetually unemployed, but not because of the structural deformities of capitalism. He’s just too damn lazy. “You’re fired, Duck,” his boss at a bakery shouts, giving him a swift kick in the pants—except that Donald never wears any. “That’s the third time you’ve gone to sleep in the dough mixer!” Donald hopscotches from one dead-end gig to the next, partaking in, as the authors put it, the “frantic chase for money” that propels Duckburg’s “whirligig of misfortune.”
Because city life is a drag, Donald and his nephews are always jetting off to exotic locales, such as Inca-Blinca and Unsteadystan, where, according to the comics, “every thug wants to be a ruler” and there is “always someone shooting at someone else.” War is rampant and seemingly purposeless in these lands; the natives are naïve barbarians mired in their own bafflement. Fortunately, Donald takes to civil unrest like a duck to water, quashing rebellion and recovering treasure wherever he goes.This Third World is teeming with treasure, often in the form of ancient artifacts, buried for millennia and severed from the past. No one knows or cares about the provenance of the treasure; it’s useful only because it’s valuable. Usually, it winds up in the clutches of Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s uncle, who has a fondness for bathing in coins. Scrooge is the closest thing that Donald has to a father. Duckburg is no place to raise a family; it boasts uncles and nephews, cousins and fiancés, but never sons or mothers. In the name of chastity, Disney has done away with parentage altogether, and with it the realities of biology and love. “The world of Disney is a nineteenth-century orphanage,” Dorfman and Mattelart write, full of discipline and obedience to arbitrary “uncle-authority” figures. Pitiless transactionalism carries the day. In one comic, Donald’s perennial crush, Daisy Duck, attends a dance without permission, and her disapproving aunt responds by depriving Daisy of her inheritance.
Dorfman and Mattelart were hardly the first writers to smell something rotten in Disneyland. Gilbert Seldes called Disney a “rapacious strip-miner” in the “goldmine of legend and myth.” Max Horkheimer disdained the studio’s commercialism, writing that “the sunbeams almost beg to have the name of a soap or a toothpaste emblazoned on them.” And James Agee confessed that Disney’s “sexless sexiness” made him “queasy.” Walt Disney himself, laurelled by the White House as the “Creator of an American Folklore,” claimed the mantle of innocence, describing Mickey as “Youth, the Great Unlicked and Uncontaminated.” But there have always been cracks in Disney’s wholesome façade. In 1931, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America banned a Disney cartoon in which a cow’s udder stretched and heaved too sensuously. And, during the Second World War, Donald Duck starred in a cartoon celebrating the joys of paying one’s taxes.
Audiences today tend to accept that all entertainment has a political valence, but that idea was a hard sell in 1971. “There is the implication that politics cannot enter into areas of ‘pure entertainment,’ especially those designed for children,” Dorfman and Mattelart write. As Disney has evolved from an animation studio into a corporate behemoth—with theme parks, a cruise line, and content streaming around the world—“How to Read Donald Duck” and its charge of cultural imperialism rings all the truer. In strident Chilean editions of Disney’s comics, Dorfman and Mattelart recognized a trend that continues to this day: the imposition, by a seemingly benign corporation, of an American Dream that has no truck with workers and no patience for struggle. There is a kind of justice in the book’s belated arrival to the U.S., a reversal of American primacy. The country that invented Donald Duck is the last to discover his cynicism—and what arrant cynicism it is. In one comic, the king of a war-torn nation tells Huey, Dewey, and Louie, “You have helped us stop the revolution, and I will always be grateful to you. How can I repay you?” Donald, looking on with pride, says, “I hope they ask for a lot of money.”