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Disney has always spread propaganda Accusations of grooming children are nothing new

The children are parentless in Disney's universe

The children are parentless in Disney's universe


April 8, 2022   4 mins

“Disney is the worst enemy of family harmony.” You’d be forgiven for thinking those words were uttered yesterday, given the number of conservative politicians and pundits castigating Disney for “grooming children” following its criticism of the “Don’t say gay” bill.

In fact, the statement appeared just over 50 years ago, in a polemical analysis of Disney cartoons written by two Marxist militants, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman and the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart. How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic was published in Chile during the brief rule of Salvador Allende as part of an attempt by Allende’s leftist allies to push back against American cultural influence. The book became a bestseller, but after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, it was banned and publicly burned.

The Right’s current lament for the betrayal of “traditional families who want to hold onto innocent entertainment for their kids” proceeds from the premise that this “woke Disney” is a deviation from the company’s benevolent past. But Dorfman and Mattelart, all the way back in 1971, contested this assumption of innocence. Although their methodology is Marxian and their aims overtly anti-capitalist, their allegations foreshadow the American Right’s current concerns in surprising ways.

Much of the analysis from the two socialist radicals concerns the printed comic strips that circulated widely in Latin America, where movies and TV were less accessible to the impoverished majority. In particular, they focus on Donald Duck and his extended family. As they note, this is an odd family: Donald Duck, along with Mickey Mouse and much of the rest of the Disney pantheon, exists in a “universe of uncles and grand-uncles, nephews and cousins”. Indeed, “there is one basic product that is never stocked in the Disney store: parents”. The “innocence” of this world, it turns out, required even the exclusion of normative heterosexual coupling.

But the consequences of this exclusion are by no means innocent. “One is forced to the paradoxical conclusion,” they argue, “that in order to conceal normal sexuality from children, it is necessary to construct an aberrant world” — an “asexual sexuated world” that is nevertheless “suggestive of sexual games and innuendo”. The real significance of the disappearance of parental relationships is to universalise the capitalist “law of the jungle”.

In other words, the elimination of the nuclear family unit reduces all Disney characters to “island-individuals”, strivers for whom “all that is left . . . is to compete”. The patriarch of Duckburg, after all, is none other than Uncle Scrooge, who takes his name from the Victorian icon of cruel rapacity and avarice; the adventures of his nephews tend to concern the acquisition of even more treasures for his horde.

The point of all this, according to Dorfman and Mattelart, is to “lend innocence to the adult world”. In the dominion of Uncle Scrooge, “[g]old, criticized ever since the beginning of a monetary economy as a contamination of human relations and the corruption of human nature, mingle[s] with the innocence of the [child].” The riches he and his nephews acquire always lack a material origin: gold simply appears, with no source or origin, just as the children are parentless. This “simultaneous lack of biological reproduction and direct economic production is not coincidental”: Disney’s “innocence” requires eradication of “all reference to the real world”.

How to Read Donald Duck contains many of the expected Left-wing criticisms of patriarchy and gender roles, but it also includes observations that might be surprising to ideologues today. Notably, as one illustration of the propaganda functions taken on by Disney in the Global South, the authors remark that the US Agency for International Development has circulated films featuring Disney characters promoting contraception. They reinforce this association with the title of their chapter on Disney family dynamics: “Uncle, buy me a contraceptive
”

Like many radicals at the time, Dorfman and Mattelart saw the US state’s growing interest in controlling fertility in the developing world as consistent with a broader campaign to suppress the value placed on family in the subject nations of its economic empire; this was deemed to be in tension with values such as efficiency, productivity, individualism, and competition. Disney’s exclusion of references to reproductive sexuality, in this light, looks less like an attempt to protect childhood innocence, than part and parcel of the larger modern decoupling of sex from reproduction.

It all suggests that the supposed sexual innocence of Disney’s dreamscapes was never aligned with “family values” in the first place and the Right’s current war on Disney isn’t about family — it is simply the latest phase of its realisation that corporate America has now largely aligned itself with the values of the cultural Left.

For, in fact, Disney’s vast influence on the imaginations of children has been enabled by market society’s weakening of the authority of the family. With parents overburdened by the demands of work, important aspects of child-rearing are entrusted to the entertainment industry. Disney has capitalised on this exploding demand more than any other company. If we take “grooming” to simply mean instilling values alien to the family into children, Dorfman and Mattelart would suggest that Disney has never been innocent of this charge.

One might ask how much distance there really is between the de-sexualised world of the classic Disney cartoons and the ideals animating the newfangled “woke Disney” — which have lately exercised the Right. Notoriously, one of the core elements of contemporary “gender ideology” is to erase biology. The reigning orthodoxy now holds that to be a boy, girl, man, or woman is no longer a question of physiological features but of internally felt identity linked to stereotypes. This is not unlike the “asexual sexuated world” Dorfman and Mattelart found in Disney’s comic strips, in which gender stereotypes prevailed but the material reality of sex had been occluded.

The latest permutations of the Disney universe may be the result of “ideological capture” by woke employees, but they also reveal a continuity with the company’s past. Just as it was back in 1971, Disney today is a propaganda organ disseminating ideological narratives that legitimise the global economic order. At the postwar height of industrial capitalism, tales of deracinated treasure-hunting ducks instilled acquisitive individualism in children at the expense of older communal and familial values. In the new era of global, dematerialised speculative capital, Disney is simply purveying new dreams, where what is to be acquired is a commodified form of identity.

The Left has, unsurprisingly, come to Disney’s defence in recent weeks, and even Dorfman, who had a prominent career in US academia after his forced exile from Chile, has softened his views on his old antagonist. Commenting on the appearance of a new English edition of How to Read Donald Duck, he remarked: “The Disney Corporation itself has evolved under pressure from minorities and feminists, and has distinguished itself by defending LGBTQ rights.” The Right, convinced of Disney’s original innocence, has no critique of its propaganda function, only the uses it is currently being put to. The company’s imperial power over the global imagination, vaster today than ever before, faces no credible challenge today from either side.


Geoff Shullenberger is managing editor of Compact.

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Gem R
Gem R
2 years ago

Perhaps you could point people to this bill titled “Don’t say gay”?
This seems to be a leftwing propaganda phrase and it’s a shame to see this article tainted with it from the first paragraph.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 years ago
Reply to  Gem R

Agreed- do we really need the spin of 2 of Allende’s anti-capitalist propagandists to shed light on what is merely another “woke” capitalist company bowing to the pressures of the Neo Marxist’s agenda? Paleeez!

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

Is it normal for a $500 billion dollar global corporation to bow to the demands of some powerless employees with minority sexualities? If so, why?

US Steel didn’t bow to the private proclivities of its workers in 1910. Its management paid no attention to them. What’s changed?

Is it the needs of a newly global, de-materialized capitalism?

The author’s YARVINIAN explanation is intriguing.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Hickey
Quo Peregrinatur
Quo Peregrinatur
2 years ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Moldbuggian explanations for The Way Things Are increasingly suggest themselves, even to people unfamiliar with Yarvin.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Interesting perspective, which inverts the normal assumption that the left undermines the family while the right protects it.
As many have said, the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ no longer have meaning in this context, where corporate capitalism represents the former and someone like George Galloway the latter.
Yesterday I visited three websites. National Savings, the Co-op bank and Transport for London. ALL THREE had a photo on the home page featuring a happy smiling les bian couple, and in each case one was black and one was white. Doubtless such couplings exist, although rare in the general scheme of things – do they feel empowered or patronised by being celebrated in this way?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew D
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I think your gaydar is seeing things that aren’t there. Only in the Transport for London are the two figures standing sufficiently close to suggest some greater intimacy and even then as they are overlaid by boxes I can’t actually see very much of the two figures. In both the other photos there is nothing to suggest anything more than friendship.
It is true that women figure disproportionately and black women markedly so but that seems to be a common advertising theme now. I don’t see anything here undermining the family and promoting sapphic love.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I trust they were following COVID-19 guidelines?

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I acknowledge that in only one of the three is the suggestion overt, and concede that with the other two maybe it’s my over-active imagination. Perhaps that’s the advertisers’ intention…

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I agree with you; there is no reason to think the first two pictures were of lesbians

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Statistically aren’t ‘they’ about 3% of the population? Whilst the gold plated version, otherwise known as Trans, a meagre 0.58% of that?

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I think you’ll find they’re about 30% of the population, and white middle aged heteros about 2% – at least according to TV advertising.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew D
Hattie Simpson
Hattie Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

As a young lesbian woman, the idea that I am finally represented in adverts is a fact to be rejoiced at – not detested, as you so clearly do. After hundreds of years of ‘representation’ of white heterosexual couples why is it so wrong in your eyes that we finally have real representation. Yes, you may believe that these new advertising campagins feature minorities ‘disproportionately’ but when looked at in the context of decades, if not centuries, of advertising which contains no such representation then this idea of ‘disproportionate representation’ becomes one of pure fiction.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Perhaps they are using the demographic mix for knife crimes in London…

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Trans are 0,03% to be precise. The media leads you to believe it’s much higher, say 10% or 20%. The media are enemies of the people.

Rhonda Culwell
Rhonda Culwell
2 years ago

Disney sit-com programs have for many years centered around children who lie when convenient, disobey routinely and are loud and obnoxious. They are seldom held to account for their negative behavior. Instead, what should be teaching moments become parental apologies. My children were young in the 80’s, and we stopped watching most Disney programs then. I vividly recall years later turning it on one day for my granddaughter, and one of the children in the program yelled “I hate you” to her mother who was being perfectly reasonable, and the mother ended up being the one who apologized for the child’s emotional response. At that point we were totally done with Disney.
Disney is a good babysitter if all you’re after is something to keep the kids occupied, but our children deserve better. We should be teaching them integrity, and how to take ownership of their actions, and, here’s an old one for you, honor.

Max Price
Max Price
2 years ago

Granted but the marxists of old and the new left, essentially still marxists are nothing but destroyers. They are the bad guys!
It really is this simple; It’s not but it kind of is.
It’s terrifying that this distinction needs to be made.

Last edited 2 years ago by Max Price
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

The Parental Rights in Education Bill. Say it!

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago

Was Sebastian a crab or a lobster? This was an often fiery debate back when I was at school. He was a crab of course (note the missing tail) but many still insisted he must be a lobster as they could not see past their retrograde stereotyping of lobsters being pink, and Sebastian admittedly was, in part, pink.
A live action remake of the Little Mermaid is due for release in 2023 – I wonder how Disney 2.0 might circle this square?

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

An interesting article that provides me with food for thought about many of my own presuppositions on this subject. I have to agree with some of the criticisms in these comments. However, I think there is one point in particular that underlies the entire premise of the article, and that endures beyond any debates about whether or not the characteristics observed in Disney productions are attributable to a particular political stance.

the elimination of the nuclear family unit reduces all Disney characters to “island-individuals”, strivers for whom “all that is left . . . is to compete”. 

That emphasis on individualism has nothing to do with liberty. It has everything to do with the unbalanced, unhealthy emphasis on “I-want” individuality and self-fulfilment that lie behind many of Western society’s current problems, from family breakdown to the growth of gender ideology.
I suspect that I shall never look at Disney classics such as Mickey Mouse (b. 1928), Bambi (1942) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) in the way I used to. [By contrast, and for many reasons, I loath many of Disney’s more recent offerings, such as Frozen (2013)] I’m not sure whether to be grateful or to feel sorrow at my own loss of innocence.

Dylan Regan
Dylan Regan
2 years ago

Interesting piece and a refreshing perspective

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

This is a good example of why left-wing exegesis on just about any subject is garbage.

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
2 years ago

Walt Disney gave away his theology in a film called So Dear to My Heart 70 years ago. It was highly Gnostic.

Neil MacInnes
Neil MacInnes
2 years ago

Protecting the family by refusing to talk about LGBTQ issues.
Who has a family or extended family that doesn’t have an LGBTQ member these days?
How are these families being protected?
Takes me back to the 70s listening to gay friend’s dads telling queer bashing jokes.
Poor old Donald. I never realised growing up watching him all those years ago that he was an orphan. But he did have a girlfriend so there was some good old fashioned heterosexual love interest in there.
Edit: History needs to be censored apparently.

Last edited 2 years ago by Neil MacInnes
Lesley Keay
Lesley Keay
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil MacInnes

i am not sure that it is appropriate for schools to be talking to young children about sex, whether that be gay or straight. And, yes, i do believe that parents should have the right to decide. Children are being taught this stuff at increasingly younger ages and I am not sure who that benefits.

Neil MacInnes
Neil MacInnes
2 years ago
Reply to  Lesley Keay

Before you can be sure of anything you need to know what the lessons are. What they are actually going to be taught.
There is absolutely no information given, in this article or comments section or any other article or debate on this issue, that I have seen.
You offer none to back up your claim that “parents should decide”. Decide what? Based on what information? You have none.
Teaching children that men can love men and that women can love women and that some people can suffer from confusion about their own gender is NOT the same as teaching them about sex.
“Parents should decide”. Which group of parents? There are parents on both sides of this argument.
The last time parents actually decided what their kids were taught was when they hired a private tutor.
This is not a sensible discussion about what children should be taught it is simply a political rock throwing contest.
Nobody has offered any information on what will be taught. Most people have just divided down party lines and have taken to lobbing grenades into the issue.
The only thing children are going to learn from this debate is how stupid adults can be.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil MacInnes

Young people are developing all manner of neuroses about their sexual identities because LGBQT issues have taken forefront in the US public school system. I would say that the dominant agenda of education at the moment is the ‘queering’ of the curriculum. The demonization of ‘whiteness’ and ‘masculinity’ in children plus the celebratory attitude of teachers toward their students ‘coming out’ is one of the reasons why some children feel compelled to ‘transition’ into a different sexual identity. As an educator myself I harbor a deep and abiding suspicion of teachers who teach an agenda on the side and I fully support transparency and parental involvement in children’s schooling. One thing that usually runs common through these kinds of teachers is that they usually have zero interest in or knowledge of their subject-matter preferring instead to fill their students’ heads with their own brand of superficial and misguided politics.

Neil MacInnes
Neil MacInnes
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

You have simply lobbed another political grenade into this discussion.
It has nothing to do with ‘whiteness’ or ‘masculinity’.
As for ’queering of the curriculum’ we never had any success in ‘teaching’ gay people to be straight. Why should we have so much success in ‘teaching’ straight people to be gay?
Young people have always suffered from confusion about their sexual identity. They suffered from confusion before there were any gender or sexual education of any kind.
There is simply too much of an “us & them” component to large parts of your comment. You should spend some time investigating “moral attribution asymmetry”.