Is the “Underduck” not positive enough for U.S. Americans?

In our family Disney comics are appreciated but by no means are we huge fans of the Mouse House or Mickey and his adventures. We are strong supporters of Walt Disney’s doability declaration, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” however, being German, we never really embraced the “cult” of Disney we observe with some of our American friends. We don’t dress up as Disney characters on Halloween, we don’t travel to Disney World once a year, and we don’t have an entire shelf of Disney DVDs at the house.

HBD.DDGrowing up in Germany, we did get plenty of exposure to U.S. culture in general, and to all things Disney. I remember reading the comic books that my dad bought at the newsstand. The Mickey Maus Hefte were in German and the translated version had a remarkable influence on colloquial German vernacular. For some reason I was always drawn more to the adventures (or rather, mishaps) of Donald Duck than to Mickey. So when I realized that today was the Underduck’s 80th birthday, I looked online to find relevant news material.

What I found surprised me a little: A quick Google search for “Donald Duck 80th birthday” yielded less than two dozen articles in English. Search for Donald’s Geburtstag in German and you’ll get literally hundreds of results.

This made me wonder: Why would German news media run several feature stories on the anniversary of a pants-less duck while it went almost unnoticed in its native land?

Is it possible that Germans can better identify with a character that continues to fail and never gives up? Do they like him perhaps because he’s the one that many of them can relate to, thanks to his almost human personality? He is sometimes envious of Mickey’s popularity, he gets easily agitated by his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie and he can be a little obsessed with money at times. His flaws are what make him adorable and despite of his shortcomings his friends and family know he’s a top-notch guy at heart.

“One of the greatest satisfactions in our work here at the studio is the warm relationship that exists within our cartoon family. Mickey, Pluto, Goofy, and the whole gang have always been a lot of fun to work with. But like many large families, we have a problem child. You’re right, it’s Donald Duck.” — Walt Disney

All these points should make Donald a likable character in the U.S. as well. So why is Mickey so much more popular in America? Because he is a winner? Because he has a more positive attitude than the often grumpy Donald? Because Mickey always achieves in what he sets out to do, while Donald is not as successful as his uncle, Scrooge McDuck?

I sense a cultural difference. What do you think? Leave a comment.

ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!

6 thoughts on “Is the “Underduck” not positive enough for U.S. Americans?

  1. Keen observations and smart commentary on your part. German attitude and culture being deeply ingrained in my own behavior pattern and thought process, I may only be able to answer subjectively. I appreciate that Donald is not afraid of failure, that he is not a superhero and that goodness wins in unexpected ways for him. In comparison, the Mouse is larger than life, setbacks lead to even larger grandeur and the happy endings are too sweet and easy for my taste.
    Comparing major German movies with main stream American box office hits you can see a similar pattern with a larger percentage of European movies to embrace the struggle, the grittiness of life, the dark and complex and tragedy, while superhero movies and happy endings draw a wider audience in the U.S. Maybe fueled by one culture’s need to acknowledge that life can be ugly and you will get your hands dirty if you want to dig yourself out any given hole and the other culture’s love for the overachiever, the promise of eternal sunshine. Oversimplified of course.
    So, a hearty Happy Birthday, Donald and a long, colorful life to you!

  2. This is a fascinating way to review cultural difference…fun, too. 🙂 I agree that Donald Duck is not positive enough for the U.S. audience – but oh that he was! I think it would have made the transition from U.S. child/teen to adult much better. Overachieving is overrated and impossible to sustain long term. I prefer being flawed yet persistent with a healthy amount of acceptance on the side. Is that a more German take? I don’t know much about German culture.

    Emily Grace

  3. Nice piece! I have two words for you, Schnitzelman 😉 – or, rather, a name: Erika Fuchs. Ms. Fuchs, who passed on in 2005 at age 98, was Donald Duck’s German translator, and is often credited – with good reason – as the person establishing DD’s cult status in Germany with her witty, original translations that played to current events and sensitivities in Germany, while at the same time taking a lot of creative liberty with the German language. That made her creations the target of many language “Volkstumsbewahrer” of her own – WWII – generation.

    EF Obit in Der Spiegel (if you read German, this best explains the phenomenon)
    Obit in Stern magazine

    But I’m sure there are a lot of additional cultural reasons at play for Germany’s post-war readers identifying with the Underduck…

    • Gerd,
      Of course, Frau Fuchs was critical in creating “Donaldism” (notice I linked to that phenom in this post). Did she only translate the Duck tales, though? In any case, Donald appears to be much more popular in many countries outside of Germany. I’m just wondering: Is it his grumpiness and is it Mickey’s happy-go-luckiness that swing the U.S. pendulum against Donald’s favor…

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