How to Read Donald Duck

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How to Read Donald Duck
Para leer al Pato Donald, Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaiso, 1971.jpg
AuthorAriel Dorfman
Armand Mattelart
Original titlePara leer al Pato Donald
TranslatorDavid Kunzle
Publication date
Published in English

How to Read Donald Duck (Spanish: Para leer al Pato Donald) is a 1971 book-length essay by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart that critiques Disney comics from a Marxist point of view as being vehicles for American cultural imperialism. It was first published in Chile in 1971, became a bestseller throughout Latin America[1] and is still considered a seminal work in cultural studies.[2] It is to be reissued in August 2018 to a general audience in the United States, with a new introduction by Dorfman, by OR Books.


The book's thesis is that Disney comics are not only a reflection of the prevailing ideology at the time (capitalism), but that they are also aware of this, and are active agents in spreading the ideology. To do so, Disney comics use images of the everyday world:

"Here lies Disney's inventive (product of his era), rejecting the crude and explicit scheme of adventure strips, that came up at the same time. The ideological background is without any doubt the same: but Disney, not showing any open repressive force, is much more dangerous. The division between Bruce Wayne and Batman is the projection of fantasy outside the ordinary world to save it. Disney colonizes the everyday world, at hand of ordinary man and his common problems, with the analgesic of a child's imagination".[3]

This closeness to everyday life is so only in appearance, because the world shown in the comics, according to the thesis, is based on ideological concepts, resulting in a set of natural rules that lead to the acceptance of particular ideas about capital, the developed countries' relationship with the Third World, gender roles, etc.

As an example, the book considers the lack of descendants of the characters.[4] Everybody has an uncle or nephew, everybody is a cousin of someone, but nobody has fathers or sons. This non-parental reality creates horizontal levels in society, where there is no hierarchic order, except the one given by the amount of money and wealth possessed by each, and where there is almost no solidarity among those of the same level, creating a situation where the only thing left is crude competition.[5] Another issue analyzed is the absolute necessity to have a stroke of luck for social mobility (regardless of the effort or intelligence involved),[6] the lack of ability of the native tribes to manage their wealth,[7] and others.

Publication history[edit]

Soldiers burning books in Chile, 1973.

How to Read Donald Duck was written and published during the brief flowering of revolutionary socialism under the government of Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity coalition and is closely identified with the revolutionary politics of its era.[8] In 1973, a coup d'état, secretly supported by the United States, brought in power the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. During Pinochet's regime, How to Read Donald Duck was banned and subject to book burning; its authors were forced into exile.[8]

Outside Chile, HtRDD became the most widely printed political text in Latin America for some time.[1] It was translated into English, French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Japanese, and Korean[9] and sold some 700.000 copies overall; by 1993, it had been reprinted 32 times by the publisher Siglo Veintiuno Editores.[10]

A hardcover edition with a new introduction by Dorfman will be published by OR Books in the United States in October 2018.[11]


John Tomlinson[edit]

According to John Tomlinson, How to Read Donald Duck is a "celebrated exemplar" of a genre of analyses, which focus on particular media texts with the aim to expose their imperialist nature.[8] In this case, writers Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart aimed to demonstrate the imperialist nature of the values concealed in Disney comics. The writers argued that imperialism was hiding beneath an innocent and wholesome facade. The Disney comics presented themselves as a harmless fun product intended for consumption by children, while they were actually a powerful ideological tool for American imperialism.[8]

Tomlinson points that the book offers an "oppositional reading" of the Disney comics, in order to reveal the ideological assumptions which inform the stories in question. The writers argued that the stories naturalized and normalized the social relations of the Western world's capitalism.[8] In summary of the book's thesis, the Disney comics served as an effort by American capitalism to persuade people that the American way of life was desirable, and that American superiority was both natural and in everyone's best interest.[8]

Tomlinson points that the book has been widely translated. Its translation into the English language was initially banned in the United States. By the 1990s, the book had become "a classic" of anti-imperialist cultural critique.[8] John Berger, who reviewed the English translation, called it "a handbook" for decolonization. According to Berger, the book managed to illuminate a global situation.[8]

Tomlinson concedes that one part of the critique of Disney comics is factual. The Disney comics have been widely distributed in the Third World since the 1940s, and they could well serve as "carriers" of the cultural values of American capitalism. The global situation to which Berger referred to was not, however, unique to the Disney comics. Media texts of Western origin have gained a massive presence in other cultures. Tomlinson questions whether this presence translates to cultural imperialism.[8] Tomlinson argues that texts do not gain in cultural significance until someone reads them. There is a question of how much cultural impact these media texts have gained.[8]

Tomlinson argues that How to Read Donald Duck is a difficult book to assess. It is not a "careful" academic study. It is instead a polemical work with a political aim. The analysis offered by the work is not crude, but it is "enraged, satirical, and politically impassioned". The writers did not merely examine the values of American consumer capitalism and their ideological effects on Chilean society. They examine, refuse, and reject these values.[8] The book and its authors also conflate "America" (the United States) with capitalism itself. America is presented in the book as a class enemy.[8] Tomlinson does not view the book as a coherent argument about the workings of cultural imperialism. But recognizes that the central notion on which the book relies is the "power of ideology" in imperialist texts.[8]

Tomlinson examines the identification of imperialist ideology as defined by the book. Its writers examined an entire "catalogue" of ideological themes present in the Disney comics. There is an obsession with money and compulsive consumerism. The comics constantly refer to exotic lands and depict the Third World as exotic. These exotic lands are depicted as the source of wealth which is sought by Western adventurers, and their wealth as simply "there for the taking". Third World nations are depicted in terms of racial and cultural stereotypes, and their peoples are depicted as infantile. Capitalist class relations are depicted as natural, unchangeable, and morally justified. The comics feature anti-communist and anti-revolutionary propaganda. Women are depicted in stereotypical subordinate terms.[8] Tomlinson finds the interpretations featured in the book to be plausible, and potentially compelling to politicized readers. However, he notes that the very nature of interpretation means that there is always room for disagreement. The interpretations of the books differ considerably from the supposedly "naive" readings of the Disney comics' child readers, and from the readings of most adult readers of the comics. Besides the readers, other critics of the Disney comics have seen them in a very different light.[8]

Eric Smoodin[edit]

Eric Smoodin views How to Read Donald Duck as a rejection of an earlier work, The Disney Version (1968) by film critic Richard Schickel. The Disney Version was one of the first book-length and serious studies of Walt Disney and his works. The flaw of the book, however, is that it focuses on Walt Disney as a man, and not on The Walt Disney Company as a corporation. The book viewed Walt himself as the "prime creator" of the company's cartoons, wristwatches, theme parks, and television shows. It used the then-fashionable methods of Freudian psychoanalysis and auteur theory to offer a portrait of Walt through his products.[12] According to Smoodin, it offered a simplified psychological model of Walt.[12]

In contrast, How to Read Donald Duck offered an ideological analysis. It placed the Disney products within the context of cultural imperialism by the United States. The writers demonstrated the trajectory of Disney comics from the "metropolis" of the United States to its satellite states in South America.[12] The Disney comics were used to further the subordination of the Third World.[12]

Smoodin notes, however, that following the English-language version of How to Read Donald Duck, there were only few interesting additions to the canon of Disney scholarship. He attributes this apparent lack of interest in the subject to the critical practices of the era. Film criticism was heavily influenced by auteur theory, and did not view Walt Disney as a "fit subject for study". He was after all primarily a film producer, rather than a film director. Disney's major field of work was animation, and animation was seen by film critics as the product of an assembly line. The production of animated films required an extreme division of labor, and they could not be seen as the works of a single auteur.[12] New types of film criticism in the 1970s and the 1980s were influenced by structuralism and semiotics. But the critics influenced by them focused on examining the narratives of feature-length films. Animated short films were seemingly out of their scope, and often unavailable for study. There were animated feature films, but they were treated as relative oddities by critics and often ignored.[12]

Smoodin noted that by the 1990s, there was a new-found importance of Disney in the realm of film studies. In part because the field of film studies itself had changed. It had been influenced by the wider field of cultural studies and emphasized the relationship of cinema to other disciplines, particularly from the social sciences. The works of Walt and his company in film and television were seen as connected to various other fields of study, such as urban planning, ecological politics, product merchandising, the formation of the domestic and global policy of the United States, technological innovation, and the construction of a national character.[12] The resurgence of scholarly interest in Disney was reportedly matched by the newfound interest of the popular media in Walt and his empire. Even writers from The Washington Post were writing articles about the Disney company and its cultural products. In January 1992, Charles Krauthammer wrote an article on how Walt Disney World represented a "triumph of discipline and simplification" and argued that it was a vision of Japan in America.[12] In April 1992, George Will wrote an article about the Euro Disney Resort and argued that the Disney product has a stabilizing effect on modern Europe. Will contrasted the then-current state of Europe with its history of pogroms, Nazism, and the Nuremberg Rallies, concluding that Mickey Mouse represents "a giant's step up" for the entire European continent.[12]

Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Carlos Alberto Montaner, Alvaro Vargas Llosa[edit]

According to co-writers Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Carlos Alberto Montaner, and Álvaro Vargas Llosa, critics of what they term as Latin America idiocy, view How to Read Donald Duck as another product of "Latin American political idiocy".[10] The book was part of the discipline of semiotics, defined by Ferdinand de Saussure as a theoretical branch of linguistics which deciphers the signs of communication, signs existing in every society.[10] Writers Dorfman and Mattelart were barely in their thirties when writing it, and they were working in the field of literary research. Dorfman was a member of the Division of Children's Literature and Educational Publications of Editora Nacional Quimantú. Mattelart was a professor-researcher in the Academy of the National Reality, affiliated with the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.[10] The book was in part a product of a polemic seminar, called "Subliterature and How to Fight It". The writers consider it was a bad idea and it had consequences.[10]

According to Mendoza, Montaner, and Llosa, How to Read Donald Duck offers a hardened ideological reading of Disney comics from a communist perspective.[10] The book was published in the radicalized Chile of Salvador Allende. Co-writers Dorfman and Mattelart were both Marxists.[10] They set out to find the hidden imperialist and capitalist message within the stories of the Disney comics. They wanted to expose this message, to unmask its evil intentions, to describe the twisted world of the work, and to vaccinate society against the lethal, silent poison flowing from the United States.[10] Dorfman and Mattelart apparently conceived of themselves as a sort of semiotic police and as righteous avengers. They wanted to protect Chile from "the enemy of class structure".[10]

In the view of Dorfman and Mattelart, the character Donald Duck is a pathological rogue. Donald is perverted, because in his fantasy world there is no sex, and no procreation. Nobody is even aware of the identity of any character's parents. The confusion over the characters' origins, in their view, contributes to the sinister scheme of Disney.[10] The "horrified" writers view the Disney comics as depicting an "asexual sexual world", for which they find evidence in the drawings, but not in the dialogues. The depictions of the characters are, in their view, both sexist and emasculating.[10] The female characters, women, in the Disney comics are described as coquettish, repressed, slightly stupid, and cowardly.[10]

Dorfman and Mattelart viewed Disney characters, such as Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Pluto, as covert agents of right-wing politics. Their mission was to ensure the domination of colonies by their motherland, the United States.[10] Scrooge McDuck, the rich uncle of Donald, is not simply an egocentric millionaire who experiences entertaining adventures. In the view of Dorfman and Mattelart, Scrooge serves as a capitalist symbol. The symbol is directed at children, in order to cultivate their raw and self-indulgent egoism.[10] "Duckyland" (Duckburg is a metaphor for the United States itself. It is the cruel center of this entire world, while the rest of the world is an exploited or exploitable periphery.[10]

In the view of Mendoza, Montaner, and Llosa, the entire tone of How to Read Donald Duck is that of paranoia. It excites the imagination of the readers, convincing them that there is an international conspiracy aimed at subjugating them. That a wicked "gringo" is working to deceive them. In other work, the book promotes yet another conspiracy theory to a gullible audience.[10]

Thomas Andrae[edit]

Comics historian Thomas Andrae has examined the arguments of How to Read Donald Duck and compared them to the actual Disney comic book stories by Carl Barks.[13] One of the arguments featured in the original book is that in the world of Disney no-one has to work in order to produce. The stories feature products which are bought, sold, and consumed. But they do not depict the effort needed for their production. Andrae notes that the writers seem to have identified commodity fetishism in Barks' works. The notion is that the value of products is displaced from the labor that produces them and misconceived as emanating from the products itself. The notion goes back to the works of Karl Marx.[13] Another argument in the original book is that the service sector of the economy is the one primarily depicted in Disney comics. The citizens of Duckburg are depicted working in jobs of this sector, as delivery boys, hairdressers, night watchmen, salespeople, etc. Blue-collar workers are not depicted. The writers argued that the Disney comics present as insignificant the entire realm of industrial production and the working class, despite the fact that these are the real generators of wealth in capitalist society.[13] Andrae thinks these arguments contradict the stories by Barks, where character Donald Duck himself is often featured as an underpaid and alienated worker.[13]

Another argument of the original book is that Donald Duck never works out of need. He does not work because he has to pay the rent or the phone bill. He works because he wants to gain money for his consumer needs. He needs money to buy a television set for himself and/or a present for someone else. All characters are engaged in an intense compulsion to consume. Consumption replaces production as the focus of interest. They argue that the stories reflect the dreams of bourgeoisie, where men can amass great wealth without having to deal with workers.[13] The original book also argues that the Disney comics feature a utopia, where poverty and unemployment are abolished. Donald Duck may constantly lose jobs, because of his own incompetence. But he does not remain unemployed for long, he is always able to move towards another job.[13] The exploitation of employees by their employers is never addressed in stories where Donald serves as the representative of all workers.[13]

Andrae notes that a lot has been written about the validity of the arguments in How to Read Donald Duck. What has often been ignored is the differences between the versions of the Disney comics presented in North America and the ones presented in Latin America. In translating the original American stories, Latin American publishers were often able to rewrite them and to add their own, ideologically-conservative texts to them.[13] An example is the story "Lost in the Andes!" (1949) by Carl Barks. Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie discover a fictional, isolated society in the Andes. The natives are worshiping the square shape and speak the English language of the Antebellum United States. The natives ask the Ducks to teach them something to improve their good spirits. In the original English (American) version of the text, the nephews have the idea to teach them square dancing. In the Chilean (Spanish) translation of the story, the nephews want to teach them to stand at attention in the presence of their superiors.[13]

A criticism of the book by Andrae is that the writers examine Disney comics originally written and drawn by Carl Barks, without actually being aware of the existence of Barks as an individual author. In fact there is no distinction in the work between the works of Barks and those of other Disney artists.[13] Translator David Kunzle was aware of Barks and briefly mentions him in the introduction to the book. Neither Dorfman, nor Mattelart even once mention Barks.[13] Another criticism is the limited sample of Barks stories actually used for the original book. Several of the stories date to the mid-1950s, when Barks was facing censorship of his work due to a new set of taboos in American comic books. These stories tend to be among the tamer ones in his canon of works.[13]

Andrae notes a faulty assumption in the original book, the lack of distinction between Disney comics and Disney animation. The Walt Disney Animation Studios was responsible for Disney's theatrical animated films, while the comics were created under license by various publishers. The writers of the book erroneously assumed that the Disney studio controlled both media.[13] The comics stories by Carl Barks were published by Western Publishing (through Dell Comics), which had licensed the Disney characters. And neither the Disney studio, nor the publishers actually controlled the contents of the stories involved. Carl Barks did not have to submit scripts for approval to his editors and was working with a degree of autonomy from the Disney empire. He was both writing and drawing his own stories for most of his career, with little editorial supervision. He even accepted lower rates than other artists working for Western Publishing in order to retain his artistic freedom.[13] As explained by Barks himself in an interview, a number of other artists were getting higher rates than him. But they were under the thumbs of the editors, having to make more "corrections" to their work and often dealing with less interesting story material. It was worth it for him to accept the lower rates, in order "to have the freedom to write whatever I wanted to write".[13]

As acknowledged by translator David Kunzle, the stories created by Carl Barks were not as innocent or as sugarcoated as other Disney products. Kunzle recognized that the stories contained elements of satire and social realism, elements often lacking in the world of comics. Kunzle in his own work The Parts That Got Left Out of the Donald Duck Book wanted to write in praise of Carl Barks' work, as an exception to the uniform Disney imperialist ideology. His publisher and the authors of the original book were unfamiliar with Barks' work and more interested in maintaining political orthodoxy than striving for accuracy. When he wrote his introduction to the book, they had asked him to cut back his praise on Barks and to reduce mention of the artist to a single paragraph.[13]

Andrae acknowledges a primary flaw in the thinking of How to Read Donald Duck and its textual analyses. The writers were using a reductionist Marxist model of culture, where any cultural superstructure reflects the economic base.[13] The paradigm they were following assumes that there is a single, monolithic imperialist ideology, and that the popular culture influenced by it contains no contradictions or oppositional discourses.[13] Andrae evaluates their concept of imperialism as ahistorical, acknowledging no historical context or background, and admitting no change over time.[13]

Armand Mattelart[edit]

According to a 2006 interview with co-author with Armand Mattelart, he had been turned his research towards media issues since 1967. In effect, he produced works of media studies.[14] During the three years of the Popular Unity government (between November 1970 and 11 September 1973), President Salvador Allende promoted the "Chilean way to socialism" but never challenged the freedom of the press. This allowed Chilean media owned by opposition forces, to big press agencies, and to transnational cultural industries to freely express their point of view. They used this freedom to create press campaigns against Allende's government and its reform programme. Such campaigns were relayed abroad by the press agencies Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI). Later hearings by the United States Senate revealed that these press campaigns were often financed by the intelligence agencies of the United States.[14] Spanish-speaking press groups installed in the United States imported comic books and magazines of all kind, using them to campaign Allende and to incite sedition in Chile. The Disney comics and their characters were mobilized in a propaganda campaign against the supposed tyrant, Allende. Disney's characters implicitly served as supporters and spokespersons American way of life. How to Read Donald Duck was in part written to address the situation.[14]

Mattelart acknowledges that How to Read Donald Duck has become a classic work in the fields of cultural studies and media studies. But it was also written as a manifesto. It sees the Disney comics and their characters as a cultural product and icons, which represent and symbolize a particular vision of the world and a way of life. A way of life which Allende's Chile was fighting against, in order to seek "another possible world". The book was grounded in a specific historical reality, and was intended to arouse debate on a cultural issue which had been mostly ignored by left-wing forces.[14]

How to Read Donald Duck was in part influenced by an earlier work, Mythologies (1957) by Roland Barthes. Mattelart argues that his book can be read as an extension of Mythologies.[14] Both the Spanish title Para Leer al Pato Donald and the literal English title How to Read Donald Duck were chosen in reference to the earlier work Reading Capital (Para Leer el Capital, 1965) by philosopher Louis Althusser.[14]

According to Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck decodes the ethnocentrism of media works produced by the United States, which he identifies as a "new imperial pole". The specific chapter From the Noble Savage to the Third World argues that Third-World people are depicted as "childlike" in Disney comics and in need of supervision by the "adult people" of the Western world. In his view this argument had not aged a bit by the 2000s. He viewed it as a current legitimation strategy of world hegemony. He cited the then-ongoing Iraq War (2003–2011) as an example of where this ideological strategy leads.[14]

Jadwiga E. Pieper Mooney[edit]

According to historian Jadwiga E. Pieper Mooney, How to Read Donald Duck was part of a wider change in policy in 1970s Chile. She calls the policy "Roasting the Duck".[15] In context, The Walt Disney Company enjoyed a wide cultural presence in the Chile of the 1960s, partly through educational films such as Family Planning (Planificación Familiar, 1967). The character Donald Duck was particularly prominent in Chile.[15] The Chilean leaders of the 1970s attempted to abolish what they perceived to be emblems of cultural imperialism. The writers of How to Read Donald Duck questioned the innocence of the fictional characters who presented "global" values in seemingly timeless stories featuring winners and losers. In their view, the characters' dialogues and interactions displayed a world dominated by race and class-based hierarchies; the very world which Salvador Allende and his supporters were attempting to reject.[15]

The Disney ducks were often dispatched in distant lands on apparent civilizing missions.[15] Chilean producers started promoting their own cartoons in order to rival them. A new publishing house called Editora Nacional Quimantú, created by Salvador Allende's government, started producing a number of limited-edition comic books. The best known among them, according to Mooney, was La Firme (also known as Upfront).[15] These comic books were produced in Chile, and were seen as part of Chile's national culture. A national culture whose importance was at the time promoted, and which extended to other forms of artistic production. In music, new movements such as Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) were seen as parts of a genuinely Chilean revolutionary process. In essence, the nueva canción movement in general was a revival of traditional Latin American musical styles, used in an effort to embrace indigenous cultures as part of what Mooney calls "Latin America identities".[15] The musicians of the movement also used their songs to protest against economic and political injustices, and to explore themes involving labor struggles, the exploitation of the workers by powerful patróns (bosses), and the suffering, poverty, and abuse of the people in their struggle for survival.[15] The music group Inti-Illimani in particular used their songs to promote the Peaceful Road to Socialism. The songs praised collective mobilization to serve collective needs, and contrasted it to the culture of competitive capitalism and to the material success of individuals. All part of the revolutionary culture of Allende's Chile.[15]

While How to Read Donald Duck criticized the gender roles and depictions of women in Disney comics, Mooney argues that the new icons of the revolutionary culture also tended to either depict women as passive and domestic or to completely ignore them.[15] The song "Venceremos" ("We Will Triumph", 1970), for example, explicitly glorifies male peasants, soldiers, and miners. Women are only mentioned in a brief afterthought.[15] The counter-comics produced to challenge the "foreign" Disney Ducks and their supposed imperialist ambitions, were no better in their depictions of gender roles. They featured gendered images of strong, masculine heroes and weak, dependent women. La Firme, in particular, often featured female characters who were unable to perceive the "proper revolutionary path" and were contrasted to male revolutionaries. About 40 issues of La Firme were used to examine specific topics involving exploitation. Tellingly, none of them addressed the topic of exploitation of women.[15]

According to Mooney, leftist media in Allende's Chile tended to treat women as sex objects and emphasized images of their long legs and large breasts. A 1972 issue of the women's magazine Ramona, which was affiliated to the Communist Youth of Chile and was in support of Allende's policies, promoted what it called "the decisive year of the woman". The accompanying picture was that of a nude woman wrapped in the Flag of Chile.[15] Carol Andreas, a foreign feminist who was active in Allende's Chile, wrote about her revulsion to the "heavy machismo" of local revolutionary culture.[15]

Sophia A. McClennen[edit]

Sophia A. McClennen notes that Dorfman was partly raised in the United States. He was personally familiar with elements of its popular culture, such as Amos 'n' Andy, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Esther Williams. Dorfman has admitted that, as a kid, he had bought into the notion of the American Dream.[16] Dorfman attended the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, when Berkeley's students on campus were becoming increasingly politicized. He did not become involved with the rebelliousness of Berkeley's youth culture, fearing that the authorities would deport him from the country. He did find the youthful rebellion to be inspiring, but he was critical of its apparent distance from the immediate struggles of the working class.[16] While Dorfman's initial works and personal writing were written in the English language, he decided while attending Berkeley to switch to writing in the Spanish language of Chile. This took place c. 1968, when Dorfman was 26 years old.[16]

Dorfman attained Chilean citizenship in 1967, and returned to Chile in 1969. He soon became actively involved in Chile's national politics, and worked on the election campaign of Salvador Allende.[16] Dorfman was a leftist activist and dedicated himself to "Allendista" politics. He decided to serve the cause by becoming one of its writers and culture workers. He became part of a successful socialist revolutions, one of the few of its kind to rise in power through peaceful means.[16] Dorfman believed that revolutions can take place through democracy and considered himself a pacifist.[16] In the Chilean presidential election, 1970 (September 4, 1970), Salvador Allende was elected the new President of Chile. Dorfman was ecstatic and the success of his chosen leader had a profound effect on Dorfman's life and literary work. Dorfman eventually started working for Allende's government, as a communications expert and media advisor.[16] Dorfman also gained a position in the government-affiliated publishing Editora Nacional Quimantú. The term "Quimantú" was chosen because it means "sunshine of knowledge" in the Mapuche language. Dorfman was responsible for the release of international classic works in affordable Spanish editions.[16] During 2 and a half years of activity, Quimantú managed to publish over 5 million books. The publishing house was also responsible for the publication of a number of magazines.[16]

How to Read Donald Duck was written in the context of Chile's ongoing cultural revolution. It was not only a critique of Disney comics, but a critique of North American cultural imperialism. Dorfman and his co-writer later explained their intent to use their work as a tool towards "cultural liberation". They had to target and criticize the cultural merchandise which the United States was exporting to the Third World.[16] According to McClennen, Dorfman's "attack on Disney" was fueled by his anger towards the popular culture of the United States. He felt that this culture had co-opted his identity as a young man.[16] Dorfman's "insider" knowledge of the United States helped to both sharpen his analysis and to make the work acceptable to the intellectual community of Chile. He reportedly had a "penetrating and intimate" knowledge of the United States.[16]

McClennen considers How to Read Donald Duck to have served as a sociological critique of media culture. She notes that this was an early work in Dorfman's canon, only his third published book. His first published work, The Absurd within Four Walls: The Theater of Harold Pinter, had been released in 1968. It was a work of literary criticism, examining the theatrical works of Harold Pinter and focusing on the violence, conflicts, and lack of communication within them. It also explored the political implications of the Theatre of the Absurd.[16] His second published work, Imagination and Violence in America, had been released in 1970. It consisted of essays on the works of Jorge Luis Borges and various other writers. He argued in this book that literature works to promote a mentality of fatalism and to provide hope. He also argued that literature assumes violence and fosters rebellion.[16] Dorfman had yet to publish his first novel, Hard Rain (1973). It was primarily a meditation on the relationship between art and politics. It also noted the potential disconnect between intellectuals and the reality of social struggle.[16] McClennen argues that Dorfman's first four books, when considered together, provide the foundations of most of his later literary work and its themes. They also reveal much about Dorfman's creative projects and their diversity.[16]

Following the 1973 Chilean coup d'état (11 September 1973), How to Read Donald Duck was banned in Chile and subjected to book burning. The burning was televised, and Dorfman himself witnessed it through a television set. He later assessed that he was probably the first writer in history to watch his own work burning live on television.[16] Dorfman was a wanted man in the new military dictatorship of Chile. He was able to hide for a while, first within an underground network of leftists and then within the home of the ambassador of Israel. He was advised to flee the country for his own safety, but was initially reluctant to do so. After learning that his wife Angélica was briefly held and questioned by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (National Intelligence Directorate, a secret police agency established by the dictatorship), Dorfman started fearing for the safety of his family and decided to escape Chile. He formally sought right of asylum at the embassy of Argentina.[16] Dorfman felt that Chile's new leader, Augusto Pinochet, was punishing the Chilean people for daring to dream of an alternative way of life, an alternative to the life predetermined for them since the time before their birth.[16] Dorfman was transported to Argentina, where he had been born back in 1942. His novel Hard Rain had already been published and won awards. Dorfman's new literary fame helped him secure a passport from Argentina. He used the passport to migrate to France, well away from Latin America.[16]

How to Read Donald Duck studied the colonizing impulses in the Disney comics exported to Latin America. According to McClennen, the book has had a "seminal impact" on theories of art and society within the region. The book became a bestseller and went through three printings in Allende's Chile. By the late 1970s, it had been translated in over 10 different languages. Over 500,000 copies of the work had been sold.[16] In historical context, the book was written during 1971 in Allende's Chile. The policies of Salvador Allende were "rapidly changing" the culture of Chile and the period was the heyday of social transformation in Latin America.[17] The book reflects its time of creation, a moment when it seemed that art, politics, and society could work together and lead to a better future.[17] In several ways, this hope did not come to pass. The mass media of Chile were never entirely freed from the influence of the United States.[17] The core concepts of the book, as defined by Dorfman in his memoir, is that Disney comics eliminated confrontation, penalized rebellion, ridiculed solidarity, caricatured critical thinking, and reduced all social conflicts to easily resolved psychological dilemmas. John Berger would later define the work as a handbook for decolonization.[17]

McClennen considers the book to have been influenced by Dorfman's optimism about the future of Chile. The book assumes that a change in government that has cultural support could result in a radical social transformation. Dorfman would later have to reassess several of his early notions. First, change is not an easily achievable goal. Second, he assumed that myths can easily be shattered. He later admitted that the myths of modern culture are deeply rooted in the minds of commoners.[17] He also questioned whether mass-media culture shapes or merely reflects the basic human tendencies. Elements which Dorfman viewed as "violent undergrowths" in fictional characters were re-examined and he came to realize that they match and accompany the deep-seated tendencies and fears of humanity.[17] Dorfman even changed his initial views about political art. True political art, in his new view, would need to resonate beyond the circle of those already convinced of its messages. It would need to respond to criticism and be revised. And the artists would need to seek more refined and sophisticated means to express and deliver their messages.[17]

While Dorfman has revised several of his early ideas since the time How to Read Donald Duck was written, McClennen notes that there have been two constants in all his non-fiction works on similar topics. Dorfman still argues that mass-media culture has negative effects. It tends to alienate, to infantilize, and to colonize its audience. An audience indoctrinated into accepting the social ideologies associated with capitalism and neoliberalism.[17] Dorfman also still argues that certain types of art, particularly literature, can help emancipate their reader. They can also inspire social activism.[17]

Since the time How to Read Donald Duck was written, Dorfman continues to serve as a critic of media culture. However, McClennen notes that he does not offer only negative criticism of the topic. His criticisms tend to be critical and constructive.[9] Dorfman reportedly considers art, media culture, and critique to be features in any "progressive social project".[9] Dorfman has been influenced by the theories of the Frankfurt School about the hegemony of media culture. But he also considers culture to a source for resistance and community culture, and media culture projects as essential for inspiring revolutionary struggle.[9] He considers both literature and other forms of high culture to be necessary for the development of critical consciousness. But has also defended the importance of the forms of art of low culture, such as cartoons, children's literature, and advertising. He believes that accessible art forms have the ability to inspire their audience.[9] McClennen finds similarities between the ideas of Dorfman and Ernst Bloch. Bloch suggested that cultural forms can inspire social reforms.[9]

How to Read Donald Duck has inspired a critical tradition in Latin America, dedicated to the study of the relationship between culture and dependency. The idea of the work that there was a rigid equation between the media of the United States and American imperialism has, however, been questioned and revised by later works.[9] The work is considered a groundbreaking analysis of the ways the Donald Duck comics were depicted and circulated in Chile. It has influenced intellectuals in both Latin America and the world at large.[9] Media analysts in Latin America have continued the study of the apparent connections between culture, identity, and social domination, building on the tradition of the work, among them Jésus Martín-Barbero and Carlos Monsiváis. A new generation of critics has written further works about the links between the identity of Latin America and media culture, among them Néstor García Canclini, Beatriz Sarlo, and Daniel Mato.[9] According to McClennen, the domination of Latin America by cultural imports from the United States has continued into the 21st century. This ensures that research of the topic will continue, as it is essential to understanding to understanding the tensions existing between local identities, and the global economic and political situation.[9]

How to Read Donald Duck was reportedly a pioneering work in research on the topic of The Walt Disney Company, its products, and other form of mass culture intended for an audience of children. Further studies and published works have considered the relations between the Disney Company as a corporation, the world economy, the imagination of children, consumer culture, and mass marketing.[9] Works influenced by the study of Disney's cultural impact include The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (2010) by Henry Giroux, Disney Discourse by Eric Smoodin, and Dazzled by Disney? by Janet Wasko, Mark Phillips, and Eileen Meehan.[9]

According to McClennen, the main aspects of media criticism by Ariel Dorfman can be located in just two of his non-fiction works: How to Read Donald Duck and The Empire's Old Clothes (1983).[9] According to McClennen, a strength of the former work is its critical analysis of the fictional world inhabited by the Disney characters.[9] The characters in question have formulaic ethics and resolve their problems in simplistic ways. The work critiques the superficial depiction of the world by the Disney comics, and the roles the Third World and the working class play in the stories.[9]

How to Read Donald Duck analyzes the internal ethical logic of the Disney comics. The writers hoped to unmask the "false innocence" of the stories, and to inspire both young and adult readers to reject Disney's ideology.[9] The writers were responding to a moment of historical crisis, when Chile's society was undergoing rapid and intense changes. While the work was published in Chile, and the writers had settled there, it should be pointed out that neither one of them was born in Chile. Both had moved there by choice. Both Dorfman and Mattelart were affiliated with the government of Salvador Allende, and were committed to its cause and its success.[9] The writers have explained the historical circumstances of Chile at the time of their writing. The Chilean nationalization of copper had already taken place. The United States had reacted by imposing an "invisible blockade" and organizing an embargo against the sale of Chilean copper. Both moves managed to devastate the economy of Chile.[9] Despite the blockade, the United States continued to provide military support to Chile. American media culture continued to be exported to Chile. According to John Berger, Disney comics were highly popular in Allende's Chile. An estimated 1 million readers per week purchased Disney comics. This was about 1/10th of the total population of Chile at the time, which was estimated to 10 million people.[9] The Disney comics were conquering the minds of their readers.[9]

According to McClennen, the Disney comics are insidious, masquerading themselves as innocent and light-hearted entertainment. How to Read Donald Duck set out to reveal the ideological message of the comics, their support of capitalism and imperialism.[9] The writers questioned why there are no parents in Disney comics, only uncles and cousins. This means the concept of the family is destroyed within their context. There is no potential dialectic between a father and his son, a mother and her daughter.[9] The children of the stories never grow up to become parents in their own right. Consequently, social authority is depicted as ever-lasting and never challenged.[9] There is both a lack of parents and absence of any hint of sexual reproduction within the stories. This is connected to another element missing from them, the depiction of material production. All characters apparently work in the service sector of the economy. There is no real workforce.[9] Characters who gain wealth, have only managed to do so through treasure hunting and looting.[9] The only depictions of an exchange of commodities, involve crafty imperialists who take advantage of ignorant savages. When Donald and his family travel to foreign lands, they fool the locals into trading precious resources for useless items.[9] There is a depiction of both wealthy and poor nations. But the poverty of the latter is attributed to the ignorance of the barbarians who inhabit them.[9] There is no labor, and no real leisure either. Donald Duck is frequently depicted as bored with his life and dreaming of his next adventure. His adventures invariably depict him using deception against other characters. Donald's antics are depicted as innocent fun.[9] The Disney comics gloss over the causes behind social struggle and real conflicts.[9] McClennen argues that once the writers' revealing insights on the stories are described, they seem blatantly obvious to the readers.[9]

The work has been one of the most influential works in the field of cultural criticism, and has inspired many later works. However, its style and methods have not been replicated by subsequent scholars.[9]

According to McClennen, the works manages to draw from the differing areas of expertise of its two co-writers. Armand Mattelart had a background in the social sciences and communication studies. Ariel Dorfman was primarily a scholar of literature and a creative writer in his own right.[9] The methods used in creating How to Read Donald Duck involved detailed close reading of the Disney comics, analysis of empirical data, and left-wing cultural critique. It combines historical, theoretical, and political analysis with empirical data, which was itself a rarity in its historical era. The work stands as an early example of interdisciplinary efforts in cultural studies, since it combines the methods of the social sciences with those of the humanities.[9]

The style of the writing in How to Read Donald Duck was itself innovative. As declared by the writers within it, they had no intention to use the "false solemnity" which was then associated with scientific investigation. They were familiar with the intellectual writing that preceded them, and consciously rejected its tendencies to use jargon and to make itself inaccessible to the general public.[9] They felt that leftist academic works had managed to distance themselves from the very people which they were trying to influence, a self-defeating method and a betrayal of the goals of proper "revolutionary critique".[9] The writers of How to Read Donald Duck intentionally used accessible and clear language. The writing style is playful, fun, irreverent, witty, and concise, intentionally distancing itself from the dry language of academic discourse.[9] In Dorfman's case, the writing style reflects the youthful enthusiasm of the writer. In 1971, when the work was written, Dorfman was less than 30 years old. Playfulness would, however, be evident even in works produced by an older Dorfman.[9]

The Empire's Old Clothes by Dorfman is in part a continuation of How to Read Donald Duck, with Dorfman turning his criticism to other fictional characters and to the reinforcement of capitalist ideology through their stories. In particular, Dorfman targeted the characters of Babar the Elephant and the Lone Ranger.[9] However, an older Dorfman had to revise his worldview in several ways. His romantic notion of dividing the world into "bad guys and good guys", and media texts into "good texts" and "bad texts" turned out to be overly simplistic and unrealistic.[9] His early belief that certain cultural forms oppress and others liberate, had to also be revised. The stories of Donald Duck, Lone Ranger, and Superman could not be the only sources of the human tendency to stereotype, to envy, and to dominate others. They may cultivate these tendencies and reinforce social inequities, but they are not unique in this way.[9]

Tanner Mirrlees[edit]

Tanner Mirrlees, a writer on the topics of cultural imperialism and cultural globalization, places How to Read Donald Duck within its historical context. The Chile of the early 1970s had an economy dominated by American corporations. The entire state had been under the influence of the United States for many years.[18] When the country experienced a socialist revolution, the American government and the American media corporations started supporting counter-revolutionary operations in Chile. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported local political movements and cultural organizations which were opposed to socialism.[18] Salvador Allende, the socialist leader of the Popular Unity coalition, was democratically elected the new President of Chile. His victory in the Chilean presidential election, 1970 was, however, only supported by a slim majority of voters. His political opponents were supported by the United States.[18] Allende was undemocratically deposed by the 1973 Chilean coup d'état (September 11, 1973). The coup had the backing of the CIA. Augusto Pinochet rose to power as a dictator.[18] Thousands of Chilean socialists were murdered by the new regime, along with other political opponents of Pinochet.[18]

In retrospect, Allende's rule of Chile was a rather short-lived revolutionary period for the country.[18] Allende and his government did attempt to counter the ideological effects of what they perceived to be American cultural imperialism. The media of Chile were in many ways under American influence. Chilean television networks imported much of their content from the United States, with American television being popular in the country.[18] The indigenous cinema of Chile was underdeveloped. More than 80% of the films viewed in the country were imported from the United States, indicating that American cinema dominated the market.[18] Several major newspapers and magazines of Chile were owned by Agustín Edwards Eastman, who was affiliated with an American corporation, PepsiCo.[18] The daily newspaper El Mercurio was funded by the CIA, and served as part of an anti-socialist cultural front. The front was controlled by the CIA.[18]

Allende's government formed Editora Nacional Quimantú, to serve as a national publication house. It was part of a cultural counter-offensive, intended to free Chile from American cultural influence.[18]

How to Read Donald Duck examines neocolonialist ideologies within the Disney comics. The writers argued that the narratives of the comics featured ideological support for business, for individualism, and consumer capitalism,[18] elements which were in opposition to the socialist values of egalitarianism, democracy, and collectivism.[18]

The narratives of the Disney comics were found to resemble colonial discourses from Europe.[18] Countries outside the United States themselves were depicted either as exotic or as backward paradises. Their indigenous people were depicted as dumb, ugly, inferior, or criminal.[18]

The writers of How to Read Donald Duck explored the exploitative conditions of comic-book production from the animation factory of The Walt Disney Company. They also made a connection from this to the ideological effects their products had in postcolonial states.[18] The writers identified a common class interest of Disney's cultural workers and the consumers of their products in Chile. They had a shared oppressor to confront, the Disney Company itself.[18]

Mirrlees considers the book to have been the first lengthy, post-colonial Marxist critique of American imperialist ideology and its presence within the global entertainment media.[18] It examines the conditions of American ideological warfare. It positions democratic socialism as an alternative to American economic and political expansionism.[18]


Thomas Andrae, who is an author on Carl Barks, has criticized the thesis of Dorfman and Mattelart. Andrae writes that it is not true that Disney controlled the work of every cartoonist, and that cartoonists had almost completely free hands unlike those who worked with animations. According to Andrae, Carl Barks did not even know that his cartoons were read outside the United States in the 1950s. Lastly, he writes that Barks cartoons include social criticism and even anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist references.[19]

David Kunzle, who translated the book into English, spoke to Carl Barks for his introduction and came to a similar conclusion. He believes Barks projected his own experience as an underpaid cartoonist onto Donald Duck, and views some of his stories as satires "in which the imperialist Duckburgers [sic][note 1] come off looking as foolish as—and far meaner than—the innocent Third World natives".[20]


  1. ^ The correct term is Duckburgians.


  1. ^ a b Jason Jolley. Ariel Dorfman (1942–). The Literary Encyclopedia (2009)
  2. ^ "Kaalgeplukt en doorgekookt: Ariel Dorfman over Donald Duck". De Groene Amsterdammer. 1 July 2009.
  3. ^ Dorfman A., Mattelart A. Para leer al pato Donald p. 141. Siglo XXI editors. 1983 (free translation)
  4. ^ Dorfman A., Mattelart A. Para leer al pato Donald p. 23. 1983. Besides the lack of descendants, there is a complete lack of libido or sexuality. The quote at the beginning of this chapter is remarkable:
    • "Daisy: If you teach me how to skate this afternoon I'll give you what you have always wanted.
    • Donald: Do you mean...?
    • Daisy: Yes... my 1872 coin"
  5. ^ Dorfman A., Mattelart A. Para leer al pato Donald p. 35. 1983.
  6. ^ Dorfman A., Mattelart A. Para leer al pato Donald p. 139. 1983.
  7. ^ Dorfman A., Mattelart A. Para leer al pato Donald p. 53. 1983.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Tomlinson (1991), p. 41–45
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an McClennen (2010), p. 245-279
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Mendoza, Montaner, Llosa (2000), p. 199–201
  11. ^ "How to Read Donald Duck". OR Books. Retrieved 27 August 2018.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i Smoodin (1994), p. unnumbered pages
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Andrae (2006), p. 3–30
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Constantinou (2008), p. 21–43
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Mooney (2009), p. 117–120
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u McClennen (2010), p. 10–17
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i McClennen (2010), p. 73–75
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Mirrlees (2013), p. 30
  19. ^ Andrae, Thomas (2006), Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book: Unmasking the Myth of Modernity, Univ. Press of Mississippi, ISBN 1578068584
  20. ^ David Kunzle. "The Parts That Got Left Out of the Donald Duck Book, or, How Karl Marx Prevailed over Carl Barks." ImageText 6(2).


Further reading[edit]

  • Robert Boyd. "Uncle $crooge, Imperialist" Comics Journal #138 (October 1990), pp. 52–55.
  • Dana Gabbard and Geoffrey Blum. "The Color of Truth is Gray." Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge Adventures in Color #24 (1997), pp. 23–26. Critical analysis by two experts on Carl Barks.
  • How to Read Donald Trump: On Burning Books but Not Ideas A 2017 essay by Dorfman.