American Imperialism – The Disney Way (A Review of “How to Read Donald Duck” by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart)

…This book, conceived for the Chilean people, and our urgent needs, produced in the midst of our struggle, is now being published far from Chile in the uncleland of Disney, behind the barbed wire network of ITT.

Mr. Disney, we are returning your Duck. Feathers plucked and well-roasted. Look inside, you can see the handwriting on the wall, our hands still writing on the wall:

Donald, Go Home!

  • Dorfman and Mattelart, January 1975, in exile

Donald Duck as the agent of American imperialism? Surely it’s a joke, right?

Not according to Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, exiles from the Chilean dictatorship. They are in dead earnest – and they do a good job of convincing the reader, in this slim volume of less than a hundred pages.

Donald Duck (and later on, Uncle Scrooge) was my personal favourite among the Disney characters. In an age bereft of TV and computers, comic books were very popular among the bookish kids – and Walt Disney was a sort of god in the field. If anybody would have mentioned that there was anything political in those harmless fantasies in those days, he would have been ridiculed to death.

But that was India. In Latin America, a turbulent continent struggling with lawlessness on one hand and dictators backed by the USA on the other, anything and everything was political. In Chile, a country with an unfortunate history, the struggle between capitalistic despotism and communism was fought on the arena of comic books – unlikely as it may seem.

***

In 1973, the democratic government in Chile was overthrown by the military with the blessings of the USA and with liberal help from the CIA. Liberals and leftists were jailed and tortured. Democratic institutions were closed down. Books were burned, including this one. Even now, this book is not available in Chile: in those days, to be found in possession of one was to risk death at the hands of the authorities.

This “War of the Comics” had started in 1971. In 1970, after the Popular Unity government came to power, there was a marked shift to the left. This worried the US, because Chile was totally in their economic control till then. However, as David Kunzle says (in the introduction to the book), it was easier to nationalise the copper industry than to remove the influence of insidious American popular media. Chile took the effort anyway: apart from this book, a local comic called Cabro Chico (“Little Kid”) was created to counter Disney. How effective these measures were can be seen by the violent reaction of El Mercurio, a reactionary daily (funded by the CIA, no less), who claimed these comics were a plot to seize the control of young minds by Marxist media – which was true in a sense. What they forgot to mention was this was already being done by America, through its “free” press!

The inevitable happened: the military stepped in with the blessings of the US. In the words of David Kunzle:

On September 11, 1973 the Chilean armed forces executed, with U. S. aid, the bloodiest counterrevolution in the history of the continent. Tens of thousands of workers and government supporters were killed. All art and literature favourable to the Popular Unity was immediately suppressed. Murals were destroyed. There were public bonfires of books, posters and comics. Intellectuals of the left were hunted down, jailed, tortured and killed: among those persecuted, the authors of this book.

To illustrate where Disney stood in this fight, Kunzle reproduces a cartoon which is chilling in its implications. A couple of vultures, Marx and Hegel (see the blatant politicisation in the names) are attacking innocent animals, and Jiminy Cricket as the voice of conscience is trying to dissuade them. However, they attack Jiminy (“Get him, comrade!”) who says “Occasionally I run up against guys who are immune to the voice of conscience“. However, the farmer comes with his guns and chases the birds away, cheered on by Jiminy: “Ha! Firearms are the only thing these bloody birds are afraid of.” Emphasis is mine, to clarify the message – shoot the communist.

Definitely not the Uncle Walt I knew as a child – so let’s now look at Disney the man before diving into the book.

Disney the Man

Like many famous people, there is a wide chasm between Disney’s public persona and his private. Publicly, he is Uncle Walt, pandering to the all the children of the world and the universal child in all of us. He is the creator of innocent dreams, the merchant of fun and frolic worldwide. In an entertainment industry tainted by sex and violence, he stands as a beacon of clean fun.

In reality, Disney is now known to be a ruthless businessman whose eye is firmly fixed on the dollar (like the ‘$’ which lights up Uncle Scrooge’s eyes time and again). Almost all his work is the production of hapless wage slaves who are not given credit for their creative output. Walt is also a man of dysfunctional family relationships. Instead of being an animal lover, he only loved the money the animals brought in: especially shocking is the story where his film crew ran lemmings off a cliff into the sea, to show them committing “mass suicide” in his movie – a myth which has been disproven now. Uncle Walt is most definitely not Mickey Mouse: he is more akin to Uncle Scrooge.

Walt Disney, by his own admission, never learned to draw and never put pen to paper since 1926. What he did was assimilate and market the creative a genius of a group of people. The case of Carl Barks is illustrative: Barks retired in 1967 from the Disney Empire and was unknown until relatively recently even though he drew most of the popular Donald Duck stories and created many endearing and enduring characters – the most popular being Uncle Scrooge. In actuality, the relationship between Disney and Barks was almost a parallel of that between Scrooge and Donald (one almost wonders whether Barks did it tongue in cheek). Walt did not consider any of his employees as creators or what he did as art, it seems – he was interested more in its marketability. This trend is continued by the Disney studios even now. It is the god of capitalism and consumerism at the altar of whom they worship.

Walt’s family life also informs his stories. His father was a carpenter and failed farmer, who subjected him gruelling labour – getting up at 3:30 in the morning to deliver newspapers, sometimes in biting cold, to augment the family income. He also occasionally beat him with a leather strap for no good reason. The memories of a mother are absent from Disney’s memories, so is that of his little sister: there is no feminine touch. Walt did not keep in touch with his parents as a grown-up. According to the authors of this book, this dysfunctional childhood and subsequent development as a capitalist shapes Disney’s worldview, and those of his characters.

Now, onward to Duckburg!

Juvenile Literature

We tend to think of “Children’s Literature” as different. Children are supposed to live in a world of innocence, free from all subterfuge and deception. Their world accordingly, has to be “sanitised” from such “evils” as violence and sex: and above all, from politics. As the authors say in the introduction:

Inasmuch as the sweet and docile child can be sheltered effectively from the evils of existence, from the petty rancours, the hatreds, and the political and ideological contamination of his elders, any attempt to politicise the sacred domain of childhood threatens to introduce perversity where there once reigned happiness, innocence and fantasy.

It is this mythical world which Disney aims to protect with his magical world of talking animals.

According to Dorfman and Mattelart, this ideal child’s world is creation of the adult, based on their concept of what a child should be. Children’s literature envisages a magical world which is nothing but a projection of the adult’s inner child which wants to shut out the unpleasantness and angst of existence, prevent all forms of questioning, and ensure the perpetuation of the current society with its status quo. And this lie is self-sustaining: children nurtured in such an environment grow into adults who will continue to recreate this fantasy world of the nursery and the vicious circle is maintained.

So the apolitical world of the child is anything but: its lack of politics is its politics. And Donald and company invades this universe with their own subliminal messages which affect the mind of children in insidious ways.

The Uncle-controlled Universe

In Disney, there are no fathers, mothers, wives, brothers or sisters – we have instead a plethora of uncles, aunts, cousins and girlfriends. There is no reference to parents at all. The characters have no biological roots, and seem to have originated out of a vacuum. Moreover, there is no sexuality other than of the most puerile kind – the ladies (Daisy Duck, Minnie Mouse) exist just to be courted, and they display all the drawbacks of the traditional nineteenth century female stereotype: bossy, temperamental, vain and foolishly romantic. There are no husbands or wives, just fiancés.

Disney’s “uncle-land” is, however, strictly hierarchical; and it is the authors’ argument that the lack of any strong biological ties makes this world even more arbitrarily disciplinarian than a real family ever would be. Scrooge McDuck exercises absolute control over Donald and his nephews by the threat of “cutting them out of his will” (in fact, this threat is used in more than one place in the Disney stories, showing where the real power lies – money), and makes them do grossly unreasonable tasks. Similarly, the slacker Donald also exerts total power over his nephews: however, the tables are usually turned when the kids prove much more resourceful than their uncle. Here is another significant fact according to Dorfman and Mattelart: it is only by mimicking adult behaviour and becoming “little men” that children are able to take control of their universe

The World Outside Duckburg

Donald and company constantly move out of Duckburg into the wild blue yonder. Disney is a stern critic of the city and its pollution, and the characters are always trying to move out into the “clean” world of nature. Like fairy tales, the woods are always available nearby. Also, once in a while Donald, Scrooge et al. make adventurous trips into the uncharted wilds of Africa or the Amazon: however, the aim of these trips is usually to bring home some priceless artefact or to make money otherwise. The dollar is always the bottom line.

The “natives” the Disney characters meet outside the sanitised environs of Duckburg are of two categories. The first is the “noble savage” popularised in colonial literature: the black, brown or yellow man who is full of an innate goodness but who did not get a chance to become civilised like the white man. These natives are shown as having plenty of natural resources (gold, diamond, oil etc.) which are no good to them (sometimes even a curse). Scrooge usually “helps” them by relieving them of these things in return for trinkets. (There are also bad characters like Black Pete and the Beagle Boys who steal from them. The only difference between them and Scrooge is that the latter does it openly under a patently unbalanced trade agreement! However, more about that later.)

The second type is anything but noble. These are the evil revolutionaries and insurgents who disrupt the natural order (read: feudal or capitalistic) of a country and try to impose a military dictatorship (read: socialism). Donald and Scrooge usually get caught in these disputes and are always shown fighting on the side of the “good” guys: i.e. the king or democratically elected president. Towards the end of the story, the natives realise that the revolutionaries are traitorous agents of “enemy” countries and turn against them and re-establish the monarchy or the capitalist republic. McCarthy would have been proud!

The Good, Bad and Ugly

Who are the bad persons in Disney?

Simple. They are the thieves who steal private property.

Private property is sacred for Disney, no matter how it’s made. Scrooge’s millions, even if made unscrupulously, are legitimately his: the Beagle Boys who try to take it away are evil. And as we saw earlier, those who try to “steal” the wealth from third-world countries are thieves, while those who take it away through patently unfair trade agreements are good: because commerce, the lifeblood of capitalism, is sacred.

There is hardly any manufacturing activity going on in Duckburg. The people are work in the tertiary service sector. So where is the money rolling in from? Maybe children don’t think about it, but it comes from manufacturing and industry, which keeps tycoons like Scrooge rich. By keeping Duckburg sanitised from its corrupting influence, all the Disney characters are kept firmly in the field of the imagined capitalist utopia of America. People have money-making “ideas” here, however, there is no explanation of how the ideas actually make money.

Take the central character of Donald. He is a slacker who is permanently broke, yet can’t hold down a steady job. Donald continuously has ideas which more often than not turn out disastrous; however, he manages to survive. And it is worthwhile to note that Donald is not concerned about where his next meal is coming from – he’s concerned about his next payment on the mortgage or the TV instalment! Donald is not a representative of the downtrodden poor – his poverty is lack of luxury, and the comics show that only his lack of enterprise is the reason for this. The lesson: poverty is due to the unworthiness of the person.

Contrast this with Mickey, the only really “heroic” character in Disney’s stories. Mickey is extremely smart and resourceful. His only aim in life is helping others. Like Donald, Mickey is never shown having a steady job yet he lives comfortably. One thing he’s always doing is helping the police nab malefactors, just for the fun of it. Mickey is the symbol of stability in a chaotic world, a “world policeman”. Need I say more?

A Static World

For all its hectic activity, nothing changes in Duckburg. The stories are endless repetitions: the characters are static in their nature. The Beagle Boys, for example, walk about with their masks and their convict tags around their necks! Even when Disney characters move across time to do historical stories, their nature and the type of societal relations does not change. However, by giving the “upper class” characters in his stories little quirks which allow them to oscillate within a permitted range, Walt Disney creates an illusion of fluidity and randomness which is not present in the usual superhero comics. He allows the status quo to be maintained while providing the feeling that it is being destroyed and recreated every time. Therein, according to the authors, lies his victory.

***

I cannot dispute the depth of research and the clarity of analysis on the side of Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. They have written very lucidly, and most of their conclusions are hard to refute. Having read a lot of Donald Duck, I could recollect and remember many of the stories analysed here and look at them afresh through the eyes of the authors – and I saw a wholly different world. The book influenced me despite myself. Kudos, gents.

What I was thinking all the while I was reading was how popular media informs and sustains stereotypes which maintain the status quo: just look at most of our Indian movies and TV soaps. They have to, if they want to sell their product! This is the inherent nature of capitalism, or any philosophy which depends upon the perpetuation of social inequality to maintain itself.

But I still love Donald, because I believe that characters have a life of their own apart from their social context. I can still read Disney’s stories, and laugh at this silly little duck in the sailor suit with his grandiose ideas and short temper without thinking about the imperialist baggage he carries.

 

 

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One comment on “American Imperialism – The Disney Way (A Review of “How to Read Donald Duck” by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart)

  1. Pingback: Morning Song – The Jungle Book/Sarabande | MassCommons

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