Animals with human traits have populated the fables of Aesop and the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm to entertain and educate children and adults for hundreds of years. Therefore, is no great surprise that this aspect of the genre of fairytales would be a major component of the animated film. To further understand the nature of anthropomorphism in animation, we must first analyze the psychological aspects. The psychological theory of anthropomorphism consists of three psychological determinants.[1]

There are many variables in the structure of psychological analysis of anthropomorphism but for the animated film it is the cultural implications that are specific to the medium. Thus, when considering culture as the independent variable, the elicited agent knowledge concerns itself with the ideological effects. In animated anthropomorphism, this coalesces into political dominance and economic controls. The effectance motivation acts upon the uncertainty that exists in the environment (such as war and financial instability) at the time of production of the media. And the sociality motivation within the culture variable concerns itself with individualism and collectivism that occurs during the production of the animated anthropomorphism. The cultural variable in a psychological interpretation of animated anthropomorphism leads us to the work of Louis Althusser and the Ideological State Apparatus.[2] The Ideological State Apparatuses as stated by Althusser are:

-the religious ISA (the system of the different Churches);

-the educational ISA;

– the family ISA;

– the legal ISA;

-the political ISA (the political system, including the different Parties);

– the trade-union ISA;
-the communications ISA (press, radio, and television, etc.);

-the cultural ISA (Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.).

Althusser defines ideology as the representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. This imaginary relationship is manipulated by the dominant hegemony with the assistance of the Ideological State Apparatuses to maintain the status quo through hailing the individual. Therefore, it can be stated within a reasonable degree of verification that the animated film (part of the Communications Ideological State Apparatus) commonly hails the viewer with anthropocentric images to introduce the dominant hegemony and its viewpoint.

Donald Duck is one of Walt Disney Company’s most recognizable and relatable characters. The character of the easily frustrated and mischievous duck with his barely understandable speech has been the foil of many antagonists since his debut in the Silly Symphony The Wise Little Hen (1934). Donald’s everyman quality appealed to the audience and his popularity rose to surpass that of Mickey Mouse and Goofy. It is the duck’s personality that has become very recognizably human in his frustration and his joy that makes his form of anthropomorphism the prime mover of the Ideological State Apparatus. To the extent that how Donald Duck is attired in the childlike sailor’s uniform can be interpreted as a hail to the audience of a capitalist or Marxist pseudo-military youth preparatory organization such as the Boy Scouts in the United States or the Young Pioneers in the former Soviet Union.

Figure 1. Uniforms as an expression of the Ideological State Apparatus – Boy Scouts – Young Pioneers – Donald Duck.

This is especially noted by the use of the Donald Duck in the pre-war 1940’s films that were produced as a result of the “Goodwill Tour” of Walt Disney and a group of his artists to South America at the request of the United States Government. Given the anthropomorphic duck’s popularity in South America (where he is known as El Pato Donald), there is an immediate sociality motivation implied. The people want to connect with the duck and see themselves in his actions. This is perhaps Donald’s greatest and most powerful influence to disseminate the ideology of the United States and the effort to stem the tide of the incursion of fascism and the rise of Naziism in South America.[3] In the Jose Carioca segment of Saludos Amigos, Donald is the American everyman that is shown how to live “La Vida Buena” (i.e., the good life), in the South American fashion by the rascal parrot Jose Carioca. This is taken to such an extreme that Donald could be called generally un-Disneyfied by the actions that put him in a sexual samba with a female in silhouette. Contrastingly, Mickey Mouse and Goofy are cleansed of any mischievousness or agency of perceived immorality by the usual Disney anthropomorphism. Donald Duck exults in the humanlike physicality that hails the South Americans as allies into the ideology of capitalist democratic freedom that is represented by the United States. Donald Duck’s action in this sequence also allows for acceptance and reassurance to the environmental stresses of a pre-war environment. This gives the audience some relief and comfort in the effectance motivation by reducing the anxiety of uncertainty. Hailing the audience again with a sense of reassurance in the realization that their culture is based on freedom. The Ideological State Apparatus in the form of the capitalist democratic United States can infiltrate the cultural normality and appear as if it was part of South American institutions from the beginning.

Figure 2. Donald Duck, Jose Carioca, and Mujer Hermosa from Saludos Amigos’ poster.

Anthropomorphism is a powerful psychological and ideological tool that when combined with the animated character can elicit responses to motivate individuals and groups into action. Donald Duck offered the general public the reality of human existence in an anthropomorphic ideological package that was positively effective during the pre-war, wartime, and post-war years from the 1940s until the early 1960s. Given the environment that we are now experiencing, perhaps it is time to take a new perspective on the impact of anthropomorphic animation in these areas. To avoid the violence and mitigate the unrest by the incursion of the Repressive State Apparatus, maybe we should at least in some form of the cultural aspect be Donald Ducking the issues.


Dorfman, A. (2018), How to Read Donald Duck : Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, New York: OR Books; 4th edition.

Easthope, A., et al. (1992), A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader – 2.3 Louis Althusser, from “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970), Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Epley, N., et al. (2007), “On Seeing Human: A Three-Factor Theory of Anthropomorphism”, Psychological Review, vol. 114, no. 4, October, pp. 864–86.

Mosley, L. (1990), Disney’s World. Archdale: Scarborough House.

Thomas, B. (2017), Walt Disney: An American Original. Disney Book Group.

Wells, P. (2002), Animation: Genre and Authorship. New York/Chichester: Wallflower Press.

Daryl Boman is an artist, writer, filmmaker, technologist, and Film and Media Studies graduate of the University of California – Santa Barbara.

[1] These determinants, introduced by a group of research psychologists at the University of Chicago are: applicability of anthropocentric knowledge (elicited agent knowledge), the motivation to explain and understand the behavior of other agents (effectance motivation), and the desire for social contact and affiliation (sociality motivation) (see Epley, N., et al., 2007).

[2] Easthope, A., et al., 1992.

[3] Thomas, B., 2017: 170-174.