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Donald Duck vs the Nazis

Swastika-waving Americans are lashing out at the Disney corporation for questioning their straight white world

DeSantis Disney World
Supporters of Florida's Republican-backed "Don't Say Gay" bill gather outside Walt Disney WorldOCTAVIO JONES (REUTERS)
Sergio Ramírez

At the entrance to Disney World in Orlando, a group of protesters recently set up a protest with brightly colored Nazi flags. It was not one of the usual parades in the fantasy kingdom par excellence, where an abundance of characters, such as Donald Duck and Pluto the dog happily take pictures with visitors. These were real Nazis, carrying red flags with the swastika, which you won’t find in the local souvenir stores. One of them was nailed next to the iconic effigy of Mickey Mouse.

U.S. Nazis. They are everywhere today, with gray uniforms, armbands and raised fists. That day they shouted insults against the Disney corporation. A statement from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office states, “We are aware of these groups that aim to agitate and incite people with anti-Semitic symbols and insults ... we deplore hate speech in any form, but people have a First Amendment right to demonstrate.”

Disney is staunchly opposed to the “anti-woke” crusade of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has passed a Parental Rights in Education law, known as “Don’t Say Gay.” The legislation now prohibits public school teachers from teaching anything about sexual orientation or gender identity, in all grades, from ages five through 18.

Disney World enjoyed an autonomous status as an enclave with its own fiscal and administrative privileges. In one of the battles in this war, the governor took away those privileges, so the corporation has appealed to the courts. And while DeSantis threatens to build a prison next door, Disney has ordered a halt to its billion-dollar new investment program.

Being a combatant in such a war seems unusual for a hard-nosed Republican like DeSantis, who is competing with Donald Trump for the most fundamentalist credentials in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. If any company represents the sacrosanct triumph of free enterprise, it is the Disney Corporation. It is the world leader in the entertainment industry.

And even more unusual, to see Donald Duck confronting the Nazis. I have not yet asked Ariel Dorfman what he thinks of the new turn in the character’s political life. It deserved a whole book, How to read Donald Duck (1971), written by Ariel himself and Armando Mattelart, in the times of the Popular Unity Government in Chile, when Salvador Allende held the presidency.

With nearly 40 editions translated into dozens of languages, this “manual for decolonization” analyzed the alienating influence of Walt Disney’s characters from a Marxist perspective. The book completely dissected the ideology embedded in the speech bubbles. The menagerie of ducks, dogs and mice in the comics and cartoons, such as Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s multimillionaire uncle — a supreme egoist who bathes gleefully in his mountains of gold coins as if they were sparkling soap suds — were nothing but a product of the mother country to implant capitalist mentalities.

The 1970s were the years of How to read Donald Duck, and The Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano; the sacred texts of the tumultuous left. It was the decade of triumphant and budding revolutions; of heroic guerrillas and the new man; fights to the death against imperialism, massive rock concerts and protest songs; cannabis and long hair — and later coups d’état, military dictatorships, and disappearances. And, since the proposal was to demolish the system and erect socialism on its rubble, the issues that now pit Donald Duck against the Nazis were not considered strategic, or even debated: gender equality, racial integration, LGBTQI rights, freedom to teach sex education in schools. In complete contrast, the Cuban revolution put homosexuals in concentration camps and more than a few icons of social redemption were male chauvinists.

In keeping with the values of the good old days, the patriarch Walt Disney took it upon himself to erase anything that fell outside the orthodox male stereotype. Today, his corporate heirs are revising the traditional canon. In the classic 1940 film Fantasia, there was a maid who was not only Black but also clumsy, as if they were two sides of the same coin. In Dumbo (1940), the gang of crows that harassed the innocent elephant represented the lazy Blacks; the boss, so that there could be no doubt about it, is named none other than Jim Crow.

In today’s remake of The Little Mermaid, Ariel is Black — no longer fair-skinned and blue-eyed — and the movie has been a sensational box-office success. Donald Duck might be gay: the character in the film A Strange World is a gay teenager.

Is Disney atoning for past transgressions, or exploring new market niches? Either way, Donald Duck has become the enemy of swastika flag-waving Nazis, who feel attacked. For them, the world belongs to white heterosexuals.

We will have to read Donald Duck again.

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