Ariel Dorfman, co-author of ‘How to Read Donald Duck’: ‘Disney wanted children who would compete and embrace a fierce individualism’

On the 100th anniversary of the entertainment company, the Chilean writer analyzes the validity of his 1972 work, which points out how iconic cartoon characters have been utilized as means of American propaganda

Ariel Dorfman
The Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman in Madrid circa 2009, when he staged his play 'Purgatory.'Uly Martín

How to Read Donald Duck (1972) is a study by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman and Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart about how Disney comics have transcended their literary value to become symbols. The work deals with decolonial thought and anti-imperialist discourse; it was published at a time when Latin America was seeking to economically and politically emancipate itself from the United States.

The anti-Mickey book became iconic after its creators became victims of the repression that took place the year after its publication, when a coup d’état (facilitated by the CIA) violently removed leftist Chilean President Salvador Allende from power. Dorfman — who was a press and cultural advisor to Allende — was exiled, while Mattelart returned to France. From abroad, Dorfman got to see how the work became a success (it is now in its 36th printing), while the Pinochet dictatorship burned several copies of it.

In How to read Donald Duck, the authors warn that, behind the innocent and animalistic faces of Disney, there’s a hidden propaganda in support of so-called “Yankee” values. “Disney isn’t the same as it was half-a-century ago,” confesses Dorfman, 81, who wrote the essay within the framework of the revolutionary spirit of the Allende government (1970-1973). With the aim of reinforcing the national Chilean identity, the state-owned publishing house, where Dorfman was a member of the Children’s and Educational Publications Division, put out thousands of publications that had to compete with the most popular product on the market: Donald Duck comics.

“[We thought that if] we revealed the secret messages that were hidden behind this innocent facade, it would be a way to expose the dominant ideology in Chile,” the academic explains to EL PAÍS by email.

On the centenary of the so-called “Dream Factory,” Dorfman — who has spent most of his exile in the United States — returns to the book that uncovers advocacy for market competitiveness, disguised by Donald Duck’s nephews: Huey, Dewey and Louie (or Hugo, Paco and Luis, in the Spanish-language versions of the comics). In a conversation with this newspaper, he discusses how the bizarre adventures of the Duck family embodied the economic systems imposed by colonizers (such as bartering, with gold being taken in exchange for trinkets) and bolstered prejudices towards the Global South: Peru was referred to as “Inca-Blinca” and Vietnam was “Unstablestan.”

In the republished edition of his essay, readers see how these comics portrayed a utopian world where everyone consumes, but no one works to produce.

The cover of the most recent Spanish-language edition of 'How to Read Donald Duck'.
The cover of the most recent Spanish-language edition of 'How to Read Donald Duck'.Siglo Veintiuno Editores

Question. Fifty-one years after the publication of How to Read Donald Duck, do you still believe that Disney encourages people to live in the ideal society that has been promoted by the United States?

Answer. Disney today isn’t the same as half-a-century ago. The corporation that bears Uncle Walt’s name is now one of the entertainment giants, whose products are found in all areas of everyday life. For example, The New York Times says that there’s a craze in the United States for decorating all the rooms in your house with Disney fables… as if the owners wanted to live immersed in that imaginary universe. The tag “Disney home” has 275 million mentions on Twitter. But, at the same time, Disney sometimes embodies progressive values today: [the firm] is anti-racist and anti-homophobic [and it] tends to empower women and minorities. It’s a more complex and fractured world than the one we dealt with in our book.

Q. What type of children did Disney want to create through its comics?

A. They wanted children who would compete and embrace a fierce individualism to achieve success [measured by money], which was by the way opposed to the vision of solidarity that drove Allende’s revolution. But, on the other hand, [the comics pushed a] vision of how countries should emerge from underdevelopment not by seeking their own identity and exploring their own history, but by imitating the United States and [believing its] myth that anyone can rise in the world via their own efforts, while leaving behind others, the less fortunate. This vision spread not only among children, but also among those who we could call “infantilized adults.”

The 1973 coup took place in the name of those values that Allende threatened. And our book was thrown into the bay of Valparaíso. I saw on television how they burned it on an inquisitorial pyre.

Q. Why did you choose Disney comics amid a wide variety of intensely exported American cultural offerings?

A. How to Read Donald Duck originates from the needs and challenges posed by Allende’s peaceful and democratic revolution, which unleashed an ideological struggle with those who had — until that moment — been the owners of the country. Everything was part of the dispute, including popular comics that were mostly imported from abroad. Just as we wanted to recover the wealth that was controlled by North American monopolies, we also wanted to create alternative, emancipatory narratives. To do this, we had to understand how these objects of mass consumption worked. Mattelart and I realized that Disney comics constituted a perfect and exemplary study that could be carried out. The analysis ended up being a criticism of the hidden interests and dreams of something that seemed so innocent.

One of the Donald Duck vignettes analyzed by Dorfman and Mattelart, which deals with the World Bank.
One of the Donald Duck vignettes analyzed by Dorfman and Mattelart, which deals with the World Bank.Siglo Veintiuno Editores

Q. The book sold a million copies and continues to be printed more than 50 years later. To what do you attribute this success?

A. It was a necessary book then and continues to be a decolonization manual — as writer John Berger called it — despite its limitations. It teaches us to distrust surface and official versions of reality and, above all, it captures the wonderful joy and rebellion that motivated the Chilean people on their path to liberation… a liberation that’s still pending. And the book is also very entertaining and full of humor.

How to Read Donald Duck captures the wonderful joy and rebellion that motivated the Chilean people on their path to liberation… a liberation that’s still pending”

Q. Have you been able to reconcile with the United States after living there for more than 20 years?

A. As I explain in my new novel, The Suicide Museum, I grew up in the United States, so it’s very familiar to me… although I never forget that I live in the country that facilitated the coup against Allende. There’s an incident in the novel where the narrator (who is named Ariel Dorfman) is offered a meeting with a CIA agent in Chile in 1990. He decides not to accept the invitation, although he recognizes that he shares cultural ties with that agent, which complicates their relationship. If elements of American politics make me uncomfortable — as they do for so many inhabitants of this country — there’s a history of struggle that encourages me. This nation, after all, produced Whitman, Thoreau, Toni Morrison, Dylan…

Q. Is there a cultural colonization by the United States against Latin America today?

A. The influence of the United States in Latin America continues to be immense, but it’s not as overwhelming as in the past on a multipolar planet, nor is it as inevitably harmful. Rock music — to go no further — has had a liberating effect on our youth. And, without Faulkner, there is no García Márquez. The important thing is to establish a dialogue between cultures and countries, while understanding, of course, that such dialogue is difficult if so much economic power is outside the communities that want to express themselves.

Q. Do you think that Latin America has made progress in questioning imported products and valuing its own production?

A. We wrote the Duck book in 10 feverish days and it’s clear today that [this compressed timeline] imposed certain limitations. It was an exceptionally subversive text, but I think we didn’t understand to what extent readers were not simply empty vessels into which Disney’s values and characters flowed. Rather, readers were protagonists of the story… they could subvert what they received. A friend told me about a Puerto Rican uncle of his who watched imported films and dedicated himself to critically commenting on them out loud, getting the entire audience involved. This is what our region has done, in many ways, over the past few decades.

An illustration from one of the Donald Duck comics that Dorfman and Mattelart analyze in their book.
An illustration from one of the Donald Duck comics that Dorfman and Mattelart analyze in their book.Siglo Veintiuno Editores

Q. Has it been a painful process for you to return to that Chile of the 1970s while writing The Suicide Museum? Or has it been a healing process?

A. Painful and healing at the same time. I was saved — by a series of fortuitous and story-worthy circumstances — from dying next to Allende in La Moneda (Chile’s presidential palace), despite the fact that I worked with the president. The novel was a way to return to that day and witness — through my fantasy and from multiple perspectives — the last moments of our leader.

At the end of the novel, a character invented by me manages to heal the narrator, who is my alter ego. It’s a situation worthy of the Italian dramatist Pirandello (who won the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature): someone fictional helps the real person, who gave him life.

Q. Why fictionalize an event that you experienced firsthand?

A. The enigma of Allende’s end still gnaws at Chile. It was either a tragic death (a suicide) or an epic (he died fighting). I wanted to address that mystery with all the complexity it deserves. Fiction allows me to delve into that story in a different way — a more creative way, more full of contradictions — than what other genres allow. And I wanted to unite this investigation into a possible suicide by Allende with the collective suicide of humanity in the face of the climate apocalypse.

While the novel is a political thriller, it’s also a Cervantes-like exploration of other themes. And it continues to be — as the Donald Duck book was — a subversive, joyful and rebellious act that breaks the usual categories of the novel genre, something that has been done by Junot Díaz, Rodrigo Fresán and Sandra Cisneros, among others.

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