Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Political Economy of Duckburg - Instalment 2: Family Life

One of the things that strike the observer of Donald Duck and the other famous inhabitants of Duckburg is their unusual family structure. The Ducklings live with their uncle Donald and their parents are never seen. Of course, Donald also has absent parents and hearing any of the main characters even say "mum" or "dad" is very rare while the comics are replete with uncles. In their highly tendentious book How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, Professor of Literature Ariel Dorfman and sociologist Armand Mattelart argue that the absence of parents removes solidarity and leaves the door open for wealth to establish society's hierarchy.
Indeed, save for the Beagle Boys' granddad, nobody I can think of in the Barksian universe has a parent or grandparent who plays a significant role in the comics. But this hardly proves Dorfman and Mattelart's point for several reasons. Firstly, the main characters are not too many, so it is believable that they are exceptions in Duckburg whose seemingly deviant family structures only require a small number of explanations. Scrooge's celibacy is part of his image as somewhat of a Byronic Hero, Donald and Gladstone Gander are his two closest nephews (along with Fethry Duck, though he is not part of the Barksian universe), but they are rivals for Daisy Duck. The Ducklings are too young to be interested in girls and Gyro Gearloose lives purely for his inventions. If the characters are not in stable relationships to begin with, why would they be parents?

Secondly, there are indeed many parents for "extras", passing characters merely used as necessary background. These characters are plainly not as important as are the main ones, but if a background recurs it indicates the presence of a norm. While one may have to look a bit closer to see them, there are indeed many parents in Duckburg. For instance, in 'The Half-baked Baker' (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories 210), the Ducklings talk about how some of their friends' parents are great successes and lament what a failure their uncle Donald is. Gyro Gearloose actually has a grandfather who is seen in Uncle $crooge Goes to Disneyland 1 (1957), though I suspect some translations will refer to him by the familiar Gyro even though given that the story relates events that took place long ago it is obvious that it cannot be he.

Thirdly, the only characters of suitable age and significant enough to warrant parents are the Ducklings, Donald, and maybe Gladstone and Daisy, but parents for any of these characters would make for less enjoyable comics. If Donald were the Ducklings' father rather than uncle, at least I could not see him being so wonderfully furious with them as frequently as he is. Avuncular traits have a greater domain than do parental ones. The same is true for Donald's relationship with Scrooge (there is the term "Dutch uncle" which fits their case). Gladstone and Daisy are borderline for warranting parents, but their knowing Scrooge in some sense obviates what little need they have for interaction with other elders. Parents are not going to be useful, so why introduce characters just to have them?

I mentioned how avuncular traits can vary more greatly than can acceptable parental qualities. This is because uncles lack the same incentives as parents have for raising nephews and nieces. Due to the biology of reproduction, an uncle expects to share one quarter of his genes with his nephew or niece, instead of the fifty per cent shared by parent and child. Still, one quarter is about twenty-five times as much as the one per cent of their genes which random strangers expect to share, so uncles can be expected to show some support for their siblings' offspring. All of this follows from selfish-gene-type thinking.

Literary critics have also wondered why only ducks of the same sex live together, but this observation also suffers from a small sample (Donald and Huey, Duey and Louie; Daisy and April, May and June), as well as from the inconvenient fact that Grandma Duck shares a roof with Gus Goose.

In conclusion, the preponderance of uncles and nephews rather than parents and children in the familial relationships between the main characters is explained by the fact that it permits greater variety in how they deal with one another.

The previous instalment of this series of blog posts is found here. The next instalment will deal with the geopolitics of the Barksian universe.

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