Burned by the junta in Chile, and effectively banned from the US over copyright infringement claims, How To Read Donald Duck is a guide to exposing the ideology in mass culture and a call to extricate the aspects which teach us to subjugate and be subjugated.
If It Looks Like An Empire…
On September 11, 1973, a coalition of far-right Chilean forces, led by the military and supported by far-right paramilitary extremists, executed a coup d’etat and overthrew the democratically-elected government and its president, Salvador Allende. Within days, the junta had begun the work of rounding up and persecuting supporters of the left-wing government and destroying books — not just Marxist literature, but sociological and cultural literature as well. Among these works seized and destroyed — set ablaze or dumped into the Bay of Valparaíso — was Para Leer Al Pato Donald, or How To Read Donald Duck, and among the persecuted were its authors, Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, who fled the country not long after.
Despite its inflammatory and incisive polemic against the omnipresence of the Walt Disney Company, the book had a muted reception in the United States, as a shipment containing its first English printing was seized by US customs on charges of copyright infringement. After its authors, aided by the Center for Constitutional Rights, pursued a legal case against the US government, a scant 1,500 copies were allowed into the country. And it is with this context that we are introduced to a new edition of How To Read Donald Duck,published this summer by OR Books.
How To Read Donald Duck presents a manifesto against the hegemony of US entertainment and media across Latin America generally, and a rigorous analysis of the capitalist, imperialist ideologies of the comics produced by Disney specifically. Written during a moment of cultural blossoming in Chile, at what looked like the dawn of a revolutionary era of cultural self-determination, Dorfman and Matellart’s object of criticism is the entirety of Disney’s exports to Latin America. They rebuke the idea that children’s media, especially media as ubiquitous as that of Disney, is devoid of ideology, finding within the volumes a collection of narratives that place the extended Duck family at the heart of capital’s struggle to dominate, subjugate, and impose its system of relations on the whole world.
Beginning pretextually, the book lays out the Walt Disney Company’s role in a global project of cultural production. Even as the dominance of Disney comics in the US market waned, they remained a staple in newspapers and bookshelves in most of the world. USAID infamously licensed the trademark for educational films distributed in Latin America. In Chile, despite the Popular Unity government producing children’s literature through its national publishing house Quimantú, Disney comics remained popular to the point of hegemony and critics viewed the government’s entry into the realm as an affront to childhood innocence and a politicization of the heretofore apolitical sphere.
Yet as we learn, the notion of “childhood innocence” laid out in Disney’s canon is in fact perverse; the lessons taught by the “apolitical” cartoon parables are likewise highly ideological. From the peculiar structure of the first-world Duck families, Dorfman and Mattelart deduce a patriarchy without patriarchs, a web of quasi-familial relationships where favor is conferred based on the financial outcomes of various schemes and escapades. When the storyline is set in Duckburg, we see Donald flunking his way around service-industry jobs; his conflict is being too broke to divert his boredom or satisfy a nonspecific debt, usually wanting but rarely needy. Duckburg is the post-industrial first world, where there is no production but abundant work, no material insecurity but pervasive anxiety, and no creative process imagined without a payout at the end. It is reminiscent of the society of the spectacle, with its abundance of tertiary economy work, its obfuscation of material class relations, and especially the way the economy has transformed the world, entirely, in its own image.
We see the imperialist ideology written into the Disney corpus on full display, on the other hand, when the action leaves Duckburg and instead takes place in the global south. Here, Disney’s heroes are shown pilfering raw materials in Africa and South America, hunting for the treasure of conveniently long-lost civilizations, or quashing revolutions in Cuba or Vietnam. In addition to crude stereotypes, which should not be surprising to anyone with a cursory understanding of Walt Disney’s history, the comics lay the ideological foundation for the project of US imperialism. The Ducks’ motives for stealing these riches or disrupting these struggles — the logic of US primacy in securing its then-emerging role as the seat of global capitalism — is never questioned. The relationship between the Ducks in the developed world and the peoples whose lands they ransack — an imperial center exercising its dominance over client states — is shown to be permanent, inevitable, and just. And resistance, however principled, was futile, and could often be undermined with commodities produced by the empire out of the very materials they’d taken in the first place.
What all this adds up to is nothing less than apologia for the sins of US empire packaged and sold uncritically as children’s literature, using globally-recognizable avatars as the agents of colonization and reaction. The violence in these relationships is obscured and euphemized in the comics, but the violence of the real-world history of capitalism’s ongoing hunger for Latin American goods can have no such treatment. Reading Donald Duck is reading about the United Fruit Company, the theft of the Amazon, Coca-Cola and Nestle, and scores of antidemocratic interventions across the globe, which were orchestrated with or aided by the CIA and State Department.
No Mice, No Masters
When it was published in 1971, How To Read Donald Duck asked its readers to consider it not as an ivory tower exercise in criticism or analysis, but a call to action by the revolutionary parties of Chile and all of Latin America to take up the work of cultural transformation. Considering what would happen in Chile not long after the book’s publication, it’s especially tragic to consider now what the Popular Unity program, and others like it, would have looked like but for the very imperialism Dorfman and Mattelart described. But much has changed since 1971. We have seen the neoliberal revolution take hold across the world, and as cracks begin to show in this order, the pages of human history seem to be opening once more. What can a revolutionary anti-imperial study of Disney comics from half a century ago teach us about where we stand today?
There are several possible directions to take from here — Intellectual Property law concerns, the continued consolidation of media companies, the false promises of freedom that would be ushered in by social media. But the critical message that How To Read Donald Duck gives us is its description of how under the guise of being apolitical, a body of children’s literature can reinforce the status quo and be a bulwark against attempts to change it. For instance, when Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley ruffled feathers recently for his criticism of art for art’s sake and pro-police themes in other blockbuster films put out by African-American filmmakers this year, the statement has a context. It’s hard to dispute that the corpus of police dramas on TV, as well as news media and reality shows like Cops, show the police as anything other than the rightful, often infallible, arbiters of justice; the CIA and Department of Defense’s involvement in funding and producing films is well-established. Rarely do we see police, as we did in Riley’s film breaking up a picket line, explicitly protecting the powerful and brutalizing the innocent — though under capitalism, that is certainly one of their most important functions.
When art teaches people how to be subjugated, exploited, and dehumanized, and makes those acts palatable for consumption, the oppressive system reproduces itself. If such art has an opposite, if an antidote to Disney can be found, it is that which demonstrates the impermanence of these existing systems of oppression and names the power structure that is upheld by it. How To Read Donald Duck neatly demonstrates cultural hegemony across a body of work in the service of justifying and upholding imperialist exploitation. It can serve as a guide to our own mass culture, as we continue the work of discovering, naming, and dismantling the status quo and imagining badly-needed counternarratives.
Matt McGowen is a rank-and-file member of DSA SF.