Is the Disney Corp. consciously propagandizing in favor of capitalism? Do stories about Uncle Scrooge McDuck and projects such as the capitalist utopia Epcot Center fit into a broader ideological scheme?
That's the suggestion of a Marxist text called How to Read Donald Duck, written by Chileans Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart in 1973. And you know, I think they're right.
Not so many years ago, when I was a college freshman with rather naive, conservative notions about literature who felt (rationally enough) that he was threatened by Soviet ICBMs and Marxist literary critics, I probably would have instinctively rejected such an accusation against Donald and friends. But the Cold War is over, communism is dead, and I can afford to be more charitable and open-minded in my reading of Marxist theory—the stuff almost has nostalgia value now.
Dorfman and Mattelart are at their most insightful when describing the strange familial relations in Disney comics: "[S]ince power in Disney is wielded not by a father, but by an uncle [Donald, Scrooge, Mickey, etc.], it becomes arbitrary….Uncle-authority…not having been conferred by the father (the uncle's brothers and sisters, who must in theory have given birth to the nephews, simply do not exist), is of purely de facto origin, rather than a natural right."
Well, that seems like a perfectly sound observation, and many completely capitalistic fans of Donald Duck have probably asked themselves, "Where are Huey, Dewey, and Louie's parents?" When such an observation is presented in the context of the Cold War as an indictment of Uncle Sam, however, it suddenly seems like a more threatening revelation—which is exactly how Marxist critics in 1973 wanted it to seem.
I know I would have felt the need to rebut charges of an ideological slant in Disney a few years ago. How troubled I would have been by damning excerpts such as the following lines spoken by bourgeois rodent Mickey Mouse in evaluating his feelings for his dog Pluto: "OK, Pluto, you cost me around fifty dollars in damages this afternoon, but this reward leaves me with a good profit."
Of course, I now realize that capitalist symbolism is nothing to be ashamed of. More importantly, I realize it's a bit foolish to expect Disney products to be artificially devoid of moral biases when Walt Disney was an ardent Goldwater supporter in '64. He also used Mickey Mouse cartoons in post–World War II efforts to re-educate the Germans about democracy and capitalism. And as ABC's Prime Time Live pointed out (with worry), the Disney Corp. is a striking example of privatization, having secured permission from the state of Florida to run its own sanitation, irrigation, and security (inspiring Spy magazine to suggest turning all U.S. government functions over to Disney.)
So capitalist themes in Disney stories should come as no surprise. I'm now comfortable acknowledging Disney's biases, even ready to defend them. When Donald Duck struggles to get a petition to city hall, then finds out it will take 20 years for the city council to reach a decision, Dorfman and Mattelart see the story as oppressing the proletariat by teaching them that political action is futile. I see a pretty accurate fable about bureaucracy.
I'll admit Disney stories are simplistic. Donald's adventures in Unsteadystan and San Bananador probably don't capture all the subtleties of Third World revolutions. (Or as Dorfman and Mattelart would say: "There is a term which would be like dynamite to Disney, like a scapulary to a vampire, like electricity convulsing a frog: social class.")
Dorfman and Mattelart understandably saw the global distribution of Disney comics in 1973 as part of a pattern of cultural imperialism that included the CIA-backed coup in Chile. Perhaps they shouldn't be blamed for being spooked that the Disney Corp. has "the world's fifth largest submarine fleet." They'd probably be terrified if they knew that shortly before his death Walt secured (but never used) the rights to build a nuclear reactor at the future sight of Disney World.
As for me, I'm happy to see Disney in a new, politicized way. It makes me hope they really did freeze Walt, so those clever Disney scientists can resurrect him as a beloved spokesman for capitalism, his defrosted brain housed in one of the audioanimatronic Founding Fathers from the Hall of Presidents exhibit.
Todd Seavey is a writer in New York City.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Crazy Man's Utopia: Capitalist Running Duck".