Dorfman, Ariel & Armand Mattelart. HOW TO READ DONALD DUCK: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. Introduction & translation from Spanish by David Kunzle. English text: International General. USA 1975.

“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!” From the authors’ introduction.

A friend just entrusted me with a treasured photocopy of this little gem which I had never heard of; the analysis is witty, serious, and important Fortunately it is still available second hand; it is completely relevant today, 30 years later.

When I was in Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum I bought a T–shirt with a graphic of Donald duck being whacked – Donald Duck is still a powerful symbol of imperialism decades after this book was banned and burned in Chile. South America loves its own cartoon character, Mafalda, a feisty girl who symbolizes the new politics of many countries in that continent with the power and the will to thump the USA.

Donald Duck, a powerful symbol of imperialism in Latin America, is the famous product of Walt Disney, a poor man from an abusive family who became a friend of right–wing politicians, a skilled war propagandist, an exploitive employer and one of the richest men in the USA. As comics declined in popularity in the USA, he started exporting his duck version of the American dream to the world, most specifically to Latin America. Donald Duck was a clean–living, parentless, sex–less creature who symbolized American innocence while glorifying capitalism.

How To Read Donald Duck: Book Review

It may sound like frothy and far fetched but when the USA blockaded Chile before it helped overthrow the Popular Unity government by backing Pinochet’s brutal coupe, arms for the Chilean military and USA produced media still poured into Chile. In the preface to the English edition, the authors quote Pinochet as saying the point was “to conquer the minds of Chileans”. So this expose of the power and purpose of comic characters was burned along with hundreds of others by the military dictatorship. The Disney comic was retained with its particular USA–created world view. Reading Donald Duck was written in 1971, in the fervour of hope created by Allende’s government to, the authors say, critique the popular culture exported so profitably by the USA. They saw it, not as an academic exercise, but a practical need. It was part of cultural context that included printing millions of books, including in indigenous languages, murals, music, writing and theatre that were all part of cultural liberation – and smashed by the fascistic new junta. But memory was not obliterated, words, music and art survived underground and abroad. And this book was published in the “uncleland of Disney” in 1975.

The authors expose the life of Walt Disney, a rapacious and exploitive devourer of the property and creativity of many workers and artists and find similarities to him in the comic strip characters, mainly Scrooge McDuck in Duckburg, the placeless place of modern mass media. Although it mostly emanates from the USA with firmly inculcated USA values of individualism and capitalism, Duckburg is a male world with no specific location, time or culture except that of imperialism. What has changed in the 30 years since this book appeared is the political landscape of Latin America.

It may be best seen as symbolized by feisty Mafalda, a working class girl from Argentina with parents who she pesters with her questions about peace and global issues. Created in 1962 by Argentine cartoonist, Quino, Mafalda has always combined humour, satire and social comment. The comic strip ceased publication in June, 1973 but Quino produced her to promote human rights in a poster for the UNICEF illustrating the Convention on the Rights of Children in 1976.

I bought my T–shirt in 2002; Mafalda still lives in Latin America and she probably played an important role in banishing Donald Duck as change swept Latin America. If any place in the world today symbolizes the hope of liberation from USA based imperialism – cultural, military and economic – it is Latin America.

How To Read Donald Duck: Book Review

Graphic on T-shirt from World Social Forum

Dorfman and Mattelart did not predict this change; they offered tools to create change, as did Quino. In fact the authors caution in their conclusion that: “No one is able to ‘propose’ his individual solutions to these problems. There can be no elite of experts in the reformation of culture.” But when we can all work together and present and implement our ideas and dreams, social change will come – witness Latin America in 2006!

Long live the spirit of Mafalda!

Filed under Ariel Dorfman, Armand Mattelart, Book Reviews