How to Read Donald Duck

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Written in Chile in 1971 by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic has had a troubled existence. Copies were burnt in Chile following 11 September 1973, when the Popular Unity government led by Salvador Allende was overthrown.

When translated only 1,500 copies of the 4,000 published were allowed into the US. It is only now that an American publisher has dared to reprint it in the country.

There are three introductions. Two are from 1975, by which point the book was banned in Chile. One by the authors places the book as part of the Chilean revolution: “The popular Chilean cultural offensive, which accompanied the social and economic liberation, took multiple forms...with a people on the march to cultural liberation — a process which meant criticising the ‘mass’ cultural merchandise exported so profitably by the US to the Third World”.

The second provides much needed detail especially about Walt Disney, whose company the authors later refer to as “the bourgeoisie’s eulogist and mirror”.

Dorfman also wrote a third introduction in May 2018 and makes a contemporary comparison. “It is intriguing...that our book…has managed to finally sneak across the border into the United States precisely when its citizens, animated by a wave of…xenophobia… have elected another Donald...a regression to the supposedly uncomplicated America that Disney archetypically imagined as eternal and pristine.”

The book itself is dense, at times complex, yet fun, witty and angry. It explores a sample of comics and, despite an attempt by Disney to stop them, it includes images from the comics too.

They examine a number of themes in the comics as they weave their analysis. They consider Donald Duck and employment, which in Disney “is a means of consumption rather than production”.

Donald Duck is frequently depicted as looking for work but his financial obligations are not based on need like those which ordinary workers have. His earnings are spent on “the superfluous”. He prefers easy work and is often fired because of his incompetence.

The authors consider that, “To the reader, Donald represents the unemployed. Not the real unemployed caused historically by the structural contradictions of capitalism, but the Disney-style unemployment based on the personality of the employee.”

They examine the phenomena that Disney is a “universe of uncles and granduncles, nephews and cousins” and no parents, despite the appearance of babies. Disney’s defenders point to this being a “proof of innocence…and proper restraint”.

The authors retort that Disney is concealing “normal sexuality”. Women in Disney are a “humble servant or constantly courted beauty queen,” and those who stray from “the feminine code…are allied with the powers of darkness” — for example, Magica de Spell.

Communities from the “Third World” are “socially underdeveloped peoples who live in…vast islands and plateaux of ignorance.”

Caustic and furious — “Reading Disney is like having one’s own exploited condition rammed with honey down one’s throat” — How to Read Donald Duck is a fascinating book.