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The first-UK specific edition of the classic deconstruction of the imperialism and racism that underpinned Disney’s comics remains eye-opening, finds Dominic Alexander

Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How To Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, trans. David Kunzle (Pluto Press 2019), xv, 192pp.

First published in 1971 in Chile when Salvador Allende was still President, How To Read Donald Duck was one of the books burned live on television just days after the military coup of the ‘other 9/11’ in 1973. This Nazi-like spectacle occurred amid the momentous events which crushed the workers’ movement in Chile, and led to the deaths of thousands at the hands of the army’s death squads. Ariel Dorfman explains in recollection how this little ‘sardonic’ book deconstructing the politics of Disney’s comics somehow ‘touched a nerve in the Chilean right wing’ (p.vi).

That was not the end of attempts to suppress the book. Tendentious applications of copyright law prevented it from circulating in the United States almost entirely, until the recent 2018 edition. Surprisingly, the first UK-specific distribution appears to be the present Pluto Press one, but it was certainly a well-known book internationally, and particularly in Latin America, since its original publication.

On the face of it, it would seem peculiar for a short book on a children’s cartoon periodical to gather so much systematic hostility, but the fact that it did is perhaps proof enough of the essential correctness of its central argument. The authors analysed a large selection of the Disney comics that circulated widely and in bulk in Chile at the time to reveal the repeating patterns in the narratives.

Social Relations in the Duckverse

Most of the main stories in the Disney comic were set in the city of Duckburg, inhabited by various anthropized animals, including the ducks themselves. The characters of Duckburg and their stories operate in a world where capitalist huckstering, of an intensely individualistic variety, is the main preoccupation and activity of everyone. The world outside Duckburg is always characterised, not simply as undeveloped, but as ripe for unequal trade in a fashion which clearly celebrates the possibility of imperialist domination (p.64, for example). The ‘natives’ are frequently presented in a way that is shocking in the crudity of its racism, and the assumptions of Duckburg (i.e. white American) superiority. Any notion that there is some reflexive satire going on here seems certainly contradicted by the examples from the strips in the book (it was for using these that it was prevented from circulation in the US on copyright grounds).

There is no working class, or actual production of any kind happening in the comics, which nevertheless feature commodities and exchange to a high degree (p.78). There is only the trading side of the economy in evidence, to the point that all ‘human interchange is a form of commerce’ (p.89). The lower class of Duckburg are routinely portrayed as dim-witted, violent and criminal in nature. The stories reveal an obsession with the threat to wealth from theft, but the villains, who are marked by ‘the darkness of their skin, their ugliness, the disorder of their dress … their mob-like character …’ and the rest, reveal all to clearly the fear of a racialised working class (p.92).

The Disney comic of that era, at least, was clearly chauvinistically imperialist, racist and capitalist to a deeply reactionary degree, even if some satire of the rich man in the character of Scrooge McDuck is granted. Yet, of course, to have pointed all this out was to outrage the sensibilities of the right in Chile (and no doubt elsewhere) with ‘the children of the bourgeoisie holding up placards denouncing my attack on their innocence while their parents shattered our living-room windows with some well-directed rocks’ (p.vi). The reason for this, as the authors originally thought, lay in the attraction of the myths of American capitalism: ‘the Great American Dream of cultural innocence still holds a global imagination in thrall’ (p.1). In that capitalist ‘dream’ it is best not to inquire beneath the surface of common-sense appearance to see the real workings of class, exploitation, racism and imperialism.

The point of children’s entertainment of this kind is, of course, to inculcate certain values as unarguable and accepted without thought, beneath the guise of harmless, and cute, fun. Shattering such screens of illusion are indeed likely to produce an outraged reaction that is itself psychologically revealing. A certain amount of the book is then also spent on the psychological aspects of the world of the ducks, in particular, and what that said about Walt Disney himself and his world-view.

Psychology of Duckburg

Against objections that Walt Disney did not have complete control of the comics in the way that he did of the longer animation films, which the authors did to some extent assume, it is surely nevertheless true that he set the general parameters of the world for which his employees wrote the stories (p.5). The repeated patterns found by Dorfman and Mattelart seem to be proof enough of a corporate ideology that lay behind it all, however it was that the power dynamics of the company and its comics production worked in practice.

To return to the psychology of Duckburg, however, it is notable that there are no parent and child relationships among any of the characters at all. Rather uncle and nephew relationships proliferate, from Mickey and Donald and their sets of nephews, to a host of other characters. All this is, of course, meant to be charming and funny. A reactionary Chilean newspaper, which objected to the Allende government’s attempt to establish a progressive children’s magazine, opined that it ‘was Disney’s magic to be able to stress the happy side of life’ (p.27). Yet, these relationships really are rather bleak and transactional:

The world of Disney is a nineteenth-century orphanage. With this difference, there is no outside, and the orphans have nowhere to flee to … The less fortunate regard their subjection as natural. They spend all day complaining about the slavemaster, but they would rather obey his craziest order than challenge him’ (p.40, authors’ emphasis).

Scrooge McDuck is, of course, the avuncular tormentor of Donald Duck, and of the younger nephews. Unexplained is how Huey, Dewey and Louie are both nephews to Donald and grand-nephews to Scrooge; feasible but a tortuous kin group to arrive at in the natural course of things. The arrangement seems to be akin to some household mode of production where the paterfamilias exploits younger relatives, but that is not what we are meant to take from it.

Again, even though Scrooge McDuck is a ‘miserly millionaire’, in the words of the aforementioned Chilean newspaper, we are not supposed to read this as any kind of anti-capitalist critique. Indeed, the point of it all is revealed there when Disney’s defender claims that Scrooge is ‘in spite of it all, capable of revealing human traits which redeem him in his nephews’ eyes’ (p.27). The full implications are drawn out by Dorfman and Mattelart: Scrooge ‘never rests upon the laurels of his wealth, but continues to suffer from it (and therefore deserves it.’ Moreover, he is an ‘invalid, an injured animal demanding the reader’s charitable attention’ (p.112).

Sexual politics of Duckburg

The authors paint a convincing picture of the psychological origins of Disney’s strange universe of familial relationships within his own biography, and how these underpin the unrelentingly capitalist, racist and also sexist universe of his creation. The ‘innocence’ of the Disney world means that Mickey and Donald’s female counterparts, Minnie and Daisy, are perpetually stuck in the roles either of ‘humble servant or constantly courted beauty queen; in either case subordinate to the male’ (p.43). While the male hierarchies are sometimes disrupted, and roles exchanged, this is not so for the female characters:

‘There are women who contravene the “feminine code,” but they are allied with the powers of darkness. The witch Magica de Spell is a typical antagonist, but not even she abandons aspirations proper to her “feminine” nature. Women are left with only two alternatives (which are not really alternatives at all): to be Snow White or the Witch, the little girl housekeeper or the wicked stepmother’ (p.44).

Far from a world of carefree innocence and fun, there is a deeply embedded and strictly enforced patriarchal sexual politics here that links into the peculiar monotony of the ducks’ commercial adventures. It is a grimly rigid world, that of Duckburg, but the gender roles exist in the same vacuum of actual reproductive social roles (parents) as social class does of actual productive roles. All wealth appears to come either from nature directly or from some form of lost treasure, derived from some safely irrelevant past:

‘This brings us back to the curious Disney family structure … The simultaneous lack of direct biological production and direct economic production, is not coincidental. They both coincide and reinforce a dominant ideological structure which also seeks to eliminate the working class, the true producer of objects. And with it, the class struggle’ (p.87).

The authors could have drawn the further conclusion that the co-incidence of the biological and economic underlines a possibly unconscious awareness of the centrality of women’s oppression to the operation of capitalism. Equally, the racial structure of international capitalism is relentlessly present, but its injustice resolutely denied. The narratives parade an endless series of Third World peoples who are innocent of technology, do not need the gold the ducks find in their lands, and are even grateful to them ‘as disinterested friends of the natives’ (p.67).

Politics of Duckburg

The other claim made in Disney’s defence, and an essential part of its cover, is that its world is entirely non-political. Yet, it seems this was thoroughly disingenuous, as political people do turn up with fair frequency, but always as villains whether they are protestors or revolutionaries. Dastardly marchers carrying ‘peace’ and ‘love’ placards are distracted by Donald’s lemonade stand: ‘Setting peace aide, they descend upon Donald like a herd of buffaloes, snatching his money, and slurping noisily. Moral: see what hypocrites these rioters are, they sell their ideals for a glass of lemonade’ (p.72).

Revolutionaries appear as criminal bandits in one story (p.133), which turns out to be typically derogatory. Cubans even appear in one story, with a villain declaiming ‘Viva the Revolution!’ Naturally, Donald has the answer: ‘“the good old navy, symbol of law and order”.’ The rebels are an authoritarian tyranny whose aim is to ‘bring back human slavery’ (p.76). As if the imperialist politics were not blatant enough in that particular story, in another published after the coup in Chile, Marx and Hegel are depicted as buzzards attacking helpless kittens. They are chased off by a farmer with a gun. The caption reads: ‘Ha! Firearms are the only thing those bloody birds are afraid of’ (p.4 and p.174).

It would be hard to invent a more damning example of the Disney comic’s commitment to the principles of American imperialism, nor of its central intent having been to inculcate capitalist values into its readership inside and outside the USA. Many worlds of children’s fiction have unacknowledged agendas, and even somewhat disturbing undercurrents. The Disney comic was, however, the product of a company rather than a single author. It was already, when Dorfman and Mattelart were writing, a very significant corporate cultural export of US capitalism. On a par with the likes of McDonalds and Coke, it remains so.

In one of the stories, Scrooge McDuck has his own face sculpted onto that of a Sphinx in Egypt: ‘It is only proper that the face of McDuck should be transposable everywhere. It is the trademark of US history. It fits everywhere’ (p.126). The imperialism of the comic becomes a perfect synecdoche of US imperialism itself.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).


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