Week 9 – Commerce, Coercion, and America’s Empire

For this week I wanted to focus on Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s “From the Noble Savage to the Third World”, which I found particularly interesting. As someone whose watched several Disney propaganda cartoons produced during WWII, this document brought in familiar themes in many ways.

The book represents a form of cultural colonialism that is especially the hallmark of America’s affairs with the region. As the Chilean author puts it, “Aztecland, under its pseudo-imaginary name and harmful stereotypes of Mexico”, becomes that much easier to “Disnify” (201). That term, “Disnify”, I would argue is almost synonymous with “colonize”. Like colonization, “Disnifying” is all about seizing a domain – whether that be culture or land – for self gain. By flaunting archaic distortions of the “other” –  whether that be through lampooning their English (ex. “Whee! Rich trader buyee our old head hangers!”) or other naïve or primitive behaviors, Disney’s cultural power, especially with children’s entertainment, is a way to seize people’s minds and biases.

This, as the lecture mentions, stems in part from the tendency to “exoticize” the other – and in doing so, discard of the real nation and people’s behind the façade. But, as my anthropology class has made a point of teaching, other civilizations are not failed attempts at being modern or being more like us. Rather, they answer the same fundamental questions about life differently. Disney inadvertently proves this to be the case in the portrayal of Scrooge and his business dealings with the indigenous. Take Gu the abominable snowman for example. He is depicted as a “feeble, brainless Mongolian type” (202).

The way that Disney goes about solidifying this caricature is Gu’s ignorance of the value of Genghis Khan’s golden crown. Whereas Scrooge is cognizant of the crown’s worth, Gu is helpless in this matter, so much so that he is duped by Scrooge into exchanging that crown for a cheap watch. As the authors note, this kind of exchange occurs many times; “As each object of the native’s manufacture is taken away from them, their satisfaction and joy grows” (204). The sheer imbalance of the exchange; “a fistful of jewels for a box of soap”, sets up a marker for supremacy for Disney (204). Ariel and Armond note that it is this dynamic which robs countries both of their future and resources; all while Donald Duck acts as a benevolent and impartial model.

But just like how our present day plastic cash is, what gives a currency its worth is the broader society; there is nothing intrinsically valuable about a currency except that it is accepted to be legitimate. And of course other culture’s way of life will be different; just because a society predicates itself on the reciprocal exchange of coca leaves, for example, doesn’t mean that the “noble savages” of that society are incapable of understanding nor joining foreign production and civilization. Therein lies Disney’s primary fault, as the authors argue: he sees the world as something that should conform to his and more broadly America’s standards.

1 thought on “Week 9 – Commerce, Coercion, and America’s Empire

  1. sarita ponce

    Hello David,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this week’s readings. I also saw this ethnocentric attitude from the Disney comic writers. The line in that text mentions the role they are looking to impose on those who are not from the United States. For our study on Latin America, there are a lot of examples of the role that Disney has placed for Latin Americans. One example of this role implying is seen in the Three Caballeros. Ill just be looking at one, Panchito Pistoles. Panchito is described as energetic and fun-loving in the same sentence as they describe him as a bit vain and self-serving. It actually says on the DuckTales fan page that Pachito steals from Donald to pursue his musical career. So the Latino rooster is fun, vain and a criminal?
    What do you think?


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