How We Roasted Donald Duck, Disney’s Agent of Imperialism

I should not have been entirely surprised when I saw How to Read Donald Duck, a book I had written with the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart, being burned on TV by Chilean soldiers. It was mid-September 1973 and a military coup had just toppled Salvador Allende, the country’s president, terminating his remarkable experiment of building socialism through peaceful means.

I was in a safe house when I witnessed my book – along with hundreds of other subversive volumes – being consigned to the inquisitorial pyre. One of the reasons I had gone into hiding, besides my fervent participation in the revolutionary government that had just been overthrown, was the hatred the Donald Duck book had elicited among the new authorities of Chile and their rightwing civilian accomplices.

We had received death threats, an irate woman had tried to run me over and neighbours – accompanied by their children – had stoned the house where my wife, Angélica, and I lived in Santiago, shouting: “Long live Donald Duck!” It was later discovered that the 5,000 copies of the third printing of the book had been taken from a warehouse by the Chilean navy and cast into the bay of Valparaíso.

What had we done to incur such enmity?

Armand and I had denounced Walt Disney as an agent of American cultural imperialism, incarnated in the life, adventures and misdeeds of Donald Duck, that innocuous icon, then one of the most popular characters in the world. Probing hundreds of Disney comic strips – sold by the million on newsstands in Chile and countless other lands – we had tried to reveal the ideological messages that underlay those supposedly innocent, supposedly apolitical stories.

We wanted Chilean readers to realise they were being fed values that were inimical to a revolution that sought to unshackle them from centuries-old exploitation: competition rather than solidarity, prejudice rather than critical thinking, obedience rather than rebellion, paternalism rather than resistance, money rather than compassion as the standard of worth.

We wanted Chileans to realise they were being fed values inimical to a revolution … to understand how previous rulers had presented subjugation as normal, natural and benign

It was not enough, we felt, to change the economic and social structures that benefited a rich minority and their international corporate allies. It was also imperative to understand how the previous rulers of our land had presented this subjugation as normal, natural and benign; how they had been covertly selling us an American model of success and consumer affluence as the false solution to poverty and misdevelopment.

Just as copper and other resources usurped by foreign hands needed to be recovered for the nation, so too did our dreams and desires. We had to take back control, forge a new identity, devise new forms of entertainment. Our book was meant to contest the authoritarian plots imported from the US, to open spaces for stories of our own making.

Described in this summary fashion, How to Read Donald Duck might seem like another dreary academic, jargon-filled leftwing semiotic exercise condemning the bourgeois, capitalist, neocolonial cultural impositions. Although Armand and I were indeed university professors – and our research was underpinned by knowledge of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Umberto Eco and Antonio Gramsci – the language of our diatribe was accessible, playful, mocking and vivacious.

We used the Disney cartoons to suggest the aseptic, oppressive sexuality in the Duck family, the way third-world natives were depicted as savages and idiots, the way riches were never produced by workers but always by investors, and how villains were portrayed with racial bias. In this realm, female Ducks are flirtatiously worried about their beauty, yet strangely asexual (Daisy: “If you teach me to skate this afternoon, I will give you something you always wanted.” Donald: “You mean …?” Daisy: “Yes … my 1872 coin.”) And the model jobs for the Duck nephews when playing a game at school about the adults they want to become: “I’d like to be a banker!” says Dewey, echoed by Huey: “I’ll pretend I’m a big landlord with lots of land to sell.” Or take the witch doctor who brags about his nation being modern because “Gottee telephone. Only trouble is only one has wires. It’s a hot line to the World Loan Bank.”

Our book tried to be as amusing as the Duck we were disparaging, determined to compete with the very tales we were skewering. Perhaps it was this boisterous, sardonic tone that most infuriated the defenders of Disney as a paragon of virtue, as the wholesome king of innocence, as the uncle with the keys to the Magic Kingdom and eternal childhood. Was nothing sacred?

The book was also meant to serve a practical purpose. For the first time in history, the leftwing Allende government had the resources (TV stations, film studios, magazines, large publishing houses) to produce its own mass media stories. One way to facilitate a broad range of alternative narratives was to unmask the strategies of dominant culture as it manipulated and seduced consumers. With this in mind, How to Read Donald Duck was conceived as an instrument for the liberation of workers, students, intellectuals in the struggle for a more equitable Chile.

It made some sort of perverse sense, therefore, that a book that had been the product of the Allende revolution would suffer the sort of violence that the new military overlords of the country were perpetrating against so many supporters of the socialist government. The readers, real and prospective, of our Duck book were being executed, tortured, exiled and imprisoned (several soccer stadiums had to be turned into concentration camps to jail the many followers of the deposed president): a way of teaching the upstarts a lesson, to make sure they never again ventured to envision a different world.

Words, however, have a way of persisting beyond repression and censorship. How to Read Donald Duck – burned, drowned, forbidden in Chile – ended up having a life beyond our shores, as Armand and I discovered when, along with our families and our book, we escaped into exile. It was hailed as “a manual of decolonisation” by the art critic John Berger and translated into more than a dozen languages, among them English.

That edition was brought out in 1975 by a small London-based publishing house, which attempted to export 4,000 copies to the US. The whole consignment was seized, however, by customs acting on behalf of Disney lawyers, who accused the authors of piracy because we had, without authorisation, reproduced images that were part of their copyright. Represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, we won that suit, establishing what scholars have deemed to be a landmark case for freedom and fair use.

Disney might have lost that skirmish but it has, thus far, won the war for the soul of humanity. It is now one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world and keeps gobbling up companies (the latest: Twentieth Century Fox). We had insolently threatened to roast the Duck. Instead the Duck seems to be devouring us and the legacy we will leave to our children.

Even so, the book – which is now being published for the first time in the US and handsomely reprinted in the UK – may yet prove to be relevant in the pre-fascist era of Trump, Brexit and resurgent nationalisms all too reminiscent of the post-coup Chile of General Augusto Pinochet.

Dashed out in 10 feverish days, in the throes of a peaceful insurgency that beckoned with other urgent tasks, the book would not have been written in the same way in this new era. I try to be more attentive today to the complexity of cultural interchange, the fact that not everything generated by cultural workers in countries such as Chile is inspiring – and not all mass-media products absorbed from abroad, including the US, are negative. The Disney Corporation itself has evolved under pressure from minorities and feminists, and has distinguished itself by defending LGBTQ rights.

As I state in my memoir of the Allende years, Heading South, Looking North, it was perhaps misguided to assume that “millions of people in faraway lands are empty, innocent vessels into which the Empire passively pours its song, instead of tangled, hybrid, wily creatures ready to appropriate and despoil the messages that come their way”.

However, the values we impaled in our book – greed, ultra-competitiveness, overarching individualism, subjection of people with darker skins, derision of foreigners and immigrants (Mexicans, Muslims, Asians), suspicion of organised labour, a cult of wasteful consumerism, all of it sweetened by a false credo of unattainable happiness – are what animate many of those who enthusiastically embrace Trump and too many other bullying leaders as saviours promising a mythical past of nonexistent purity.

Though I stand by the scrutiny to which we subjected Disney’s falsely innocent world, what most matters to me today, what I cherish above all in what we wrote, is the joy that remains the book’s most incandescent feature – the joy of the Chilean people who did not fear to march towards the future, daring to redefine reality. In this time of dire crisis, perhaps our book can add its tiny seed to the struggle for a better humanity, which seems more necessary than ever on our imperilled planet.

This essay originally appeared in The Guardian.