How to Read Donald Duck

In class, we did not get the chance to discuss one of the readings that we were assigned after Oscar Wao: the chapter “From the Noble Savage to the Third World” from How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. The chapter focuses on the ways in which characters from Disney comics, and specifically Donald Duck, reflected Disney’s capitalist and imperialist ideologies in their dealings with (and exploitation of) figures from “virgin territories of the U.S.,” including Latin America, among others (Dorfman, Mattelart 48). Supposedly the critique was supposed to be of Disney, but it could likely just as well have been attributed to U.S. policy or ideology at large.

What that chapter does not mention, however, was what exactly Dorfman and Mattelart were trying to prove in their studies — so I did a little digging. In the preface, the authors explain that in the wake of U.S. corporations losing their industries to the Chileans “in the middle of the Chilean revolutionary process” in 1971, that the United States government and various American corporations decided “to overthrow the constitutional government of Chile” (9). An embargo on the international sale of Chilean copper ensued, the authors continue, and the U.S. commenced “psychological warfare” through the media it exported to Chile, which focused on “restoring” the “king” and the “businessman”– of which the Disney comics were a part (9-10). Some Chileans partook in a kind of “cultural offensive” by producing a sizable quantity of “liberated” popular culture, including literature, music, and film (9-10).

Dorfman and Mattelart conclude:

“It is in this multi-faceted context, with a people on the march to cultural liberation — a process which also meant criticizing the ‘mass’ cultural merchandise exported so profitably by the U.S. to the Third World — that How to Read Donald Duck was generated. We simply answered a practical need; it was not an academic exercise.”

The third chapter itself begins with an indictment of Walt Disney: specifically, his vehement expectation that various countries and their inhabitants conform, and mold themselves, to his understandings of how they should be — he “built upon them his Disneyland palaces” — as well as the way in which he treats these “underdeveloped peoples” — as if they must “accept this definition of themselves” — in Disney comic books (48). The authors draw a parallel between Donald Duck as the modernized and Westernized “child-adult” and the “noble-savages” he encounters in these fictional lands (although bearing the names of real locations) as the less-developed nations over which the U.S. exerts an obvious influence: like the relationship between “empire and colony, between master and slave” (49).

Discussion then centers around specific instances within Disney comic books wherein U.S. corporate and imperialist agendas are propagated. The analysis focuses on the means by which the worth, intelligence, level of sophistication, civilization, and development — indeed, the humanity — of these so-called “noble-savages” is diminished, as well as on the corruption and tricks by which Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge extract goods from the natives. The text dubs this method “the barter relationship established with the natives by the first conquistadors and colonizers (in Africa, Asia, America and Oceania)” (49).

Disney’s attitudes towards colonies is also criticized: in one comic, Donald tricks the people of Congolia into believing him a magician so he may claim kingship over them (50-51). He then tricks them into doing the bidding of the previous Congolian king, then gets the people to reaccept his legitimacy. The text cites this elaborate scheme as an instance of the ways in which America learns to “ally [itself] with foreigners if [it] wishes to stay in power” (51).

The text is perhaps most vehement in its insistence that stripping these countries of their raw goods and natural resources, their land, and their riches, denies them the “right to build their own future” (52). Donald Duck’s exploits keep these peoples at subsistence-level living, capitalizing upon the fear that natives have of “any phenomenon which disrupts their natural rhythm of life” and acting under the guise of “the impartial judge” who only has their best interests at heart (52-53). Because Disney is able to present these images to the rest of the world, it is able to reinforce the stereotypes not only that America has of other countries, but that other countries have of other countries — thus placing Disney (and the U.S.) in a unique position of power which “justifies the social system on which it is based,” according to the authors (54).

The chapter itself is quite rich, continuing to build off of its own arguments based in comic book episodes towards a grander diagnosis of the culpability of Disney and the U.S. and their imperialist agendas. I remember cringing while reading the article: the subject matter was very hard to stomach because one does not really hear of Disney as promoting popular culture so blatantly suffused with the imperialist and exploitative motivations that the U.S. is often condemned of bearing (This is not to say that it does or does not.). It was eye-opening for me, but I am not entirely certain of how to receive it. I would like more information on the context that it was written in so as to be able to situate it better. I would also like to know how critics received it upon publication: whether, in fact, it was too scathing or just right or something else.

I wonder what everyone else thought of the article. Do you agree with the diagnosis? I wish myself that I had a better knowledge of Latin American history in the 20th century.

The PDF of How to Read Donald Duck can be found here.


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