Mafalda: From Viral Marketing Stunt to National Icon of Protest

[Before we start today, I wanted to quickly link again to the comment thread for my last post. In a surprising turn of events, Kenny Penman, owner of Forbidden Planet Dublin, which I mentioned in my rant. Kenny argues some of my points, and sheds lights on others. While at the end we disagree, the discussion remains civil throughout, and I believe his contributions are a really important complement to my column. Please check it out! I also want to thank Journalista and When Fangirls Attack for linking to my Sailor Moon article! Welcome, Journalista and WFA readers!]
Mafalda: From Viral Marketing to National Icon
Look! That’s the world, you see? You know why this world is lovely? Because it’s only a model. The real one is a disaster! -Mafalda showing her doll a mapamundi.
I must admit, it’s difficult to make a concise blog post about Mafalda. It’s the kind of comic (or rather comic strip) that has had entire doctoral theses devoted to its analysis. Yet, despite its fame throughout Latin America and continental Europe, it has largely been ignored in the anglophone world. This is a great shame, I find, and a great loss to those readers not fortunate enough to experience the joy of encountering Mafalda. It was my first comic strip and still one of my favourites. Hopefully this post will tell you why, and make you curious enough to track down the collections in English (they do exist!).
Whenever I used to talk to people about Mafalda, I didn’t know what point of reference to compare it to in the anglophone world. Peanuts comparisons are easy, but they are quite inaccurate. Mafalda is a much more intricate work, more mature and deep, as well as being deeply subversive. I recently encountered Calvin and Hobbes for the first time, and my dilemma was solved. Mafalda is like Calvin and Hobbes, only with a cast of seven kids instead of two or three. It has the same imaginary childhood escapism, the same analogies with real world events, and a similar take on kids and parenthood. However, Mafalda is at times more brutal in its honesty, more depressing in its outlook and, crucially, much more interesting from a feminist perspective. This has made Mafalda an icon (and character) of protest throughout nations like its native Argentina, Uruguay, Italy and Spain (where the Franco regime forced a ‘For Adults Only’ label on the Mafalda books).
Mafalda is born out of the mind of Joaquín Salvador Lavado, a.k.a ‘Quino’, an Argentinian cartoonist who creates the character as part of an undercover marketing campaign (which we would now call ‘Viral Marketing’) for an electric appliances company. The deal fell through, thank God, and thus the strip proceeded to find its home in several publications. At this point, a look at the genesis of the comic may be timely, but fortunately that area has been covered, and I can move on to look at what makes Mafalda timeless for me.
With the background out of the way, just what is Mafalda, exactly? The premise is very simple: with no on-going storyline, Mafalda recounts the daily lives of Mafalda, a 7 year-old middle-class child living in Buenos Aires, as well as her friends and parents. As time goes by, more and more characters are added to the strip, each providing something unique in their personality which serves as a foil for Mafalda as for each other. Despite having very little character evolution, each of Quino’s creation has a life of their own, a personality that comes through in vastly different situations.
Let’s start with the protagonist. Mafalda is a child who doesn’t take no for an answer. As soon as she learns to read, she is immersed in newspapers half of the time, pondering on the problems of humankind. She comments on them with her friends, from the unique perspective a child can have on, issues such as the women’s rights movement, Vietnam, and Israel.
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Aside from her, the rest of the characters are easy to summarise in few words. Felipe is imaginative but depressed by school and homework. Manolito is greedy and ignorant, symbolising the shallow material obsession of capitalism. Miguelito is a selfish dreamer yet, unlike Felipe, he is more selfish than anything else. Mafalda’s baby brother Guille, is quite like Mafalda in many ways only younger and more demanding. Mafalda’s overworked father tries to answer his daughter’s tough questions while, at the same time, enduring a mid-life crisis.
Felipe and Mafalda
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Manolito and Mafalda:
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Miguelito’s take on life:
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Baby Guille and his Dad:
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The female side of the cast, however, proves infinitely interesting from a feminist perspective. Her mother Raquel, who dropped out of university to get married, provides a critique to the traditional view of women remaining at home. Her choices are often questioned by Mafalda, who is growing up in the midst of second-wave Feminism, and strongly believes it is time for women to take part in public life in a major way.
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Another hugely important female character in the comic is Susanita. She is often a foil and counterpoint to Mafalda. While the protagonist of the strip often ponders the great problems that face humankind, Susanita has but one aim: to become a high society lady, get married to a prestigious man, and have kids. Susanita is in fact obsessed with this, and considers alternatives to be unimportant or irrelevant. Indeed, she represents a certain conservative cynicism, and is based on the stereotype of the gossip-peddling housewife. Her confrontations with Mafalda often revolve around their drastically different outlooks.
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Finally, near the end of the comic’s life, Libertad (‘Freedom’) is introduced; her tiny size a symbol of the concept she is named after. She is a small girl who is, basically, a more radical version of Mafalda. The daughter of a couple of idealist young intellectuals, Libertad is constantly awaiting the impending social revolution which will bring justice to the oppressed masses. However, she lacks Mafalda’s healthy skepticism, naively regurgitating her parents’ ideas without much thought regarding their complexities.
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The characters are very uniform and their personalities do not evolve or change, but this is quite irrelevant, as Quino is a master of the ‘gag’ strip. Oftentimes, one can see the same basic joke presented in over a dozen strips, yet the presentation and delivery are so different that, despite having the same punchline (Manolito is ignorant, Susanita is shallow, Felipe is depressive), still manage to surprise and amuse.
The strip is made timeless due to the fact that many of the problems that concern the characters have endured: Vietnam’s ghost is now ever-present with Iraq; Israel and its neighbouring nations are still in conflict; women’s liberation hasn’t been achieved. And, of course, the more innocent side of the comic is also timeless: everyone hated school at some point, or knew a very selfish boy or girl. Many generations of Argentinian children grew up with the imagery of these kids, often trying to see where our personality ‘fit’ with these archetypes. Myself, I was somewhere between Mafalda’s inappropriate questions, Felipe’s escapist fantasies, and Miguelito’s unabated selfishness.
For Argentinians, there is another timelessness feature of Mafalda: the representation of cultural features of our society which remain largely unchanged. The ghost of militarism is ever-present, with the 1966-1970 period seeing the comic become slightly less overtly political due to the dictatorship of General Juan Carlos Onganía. Free market capitalism is still a huge concern, as is U.S. imperialism. Many women in Argentinian society still aspire to little other than being a wife and a mother because of society’s pressures. Indeed, in Buenos Aires it is common to say of women obsessed with these trappings ‘she is such a Susanita’. Other characters are synonymous with personality quirks (Mafalda=contrariness; Manolito=greed; Miguelito = selfishness; Felipe=idealism with bouts of depression).
For this column, I’ve been re-reading my Mafalda collections. Every time I return to it, I find something new that draws me in. As a child, I was amused by the adventures of kids like me. In my adolescence and college years, the politicisation I experienced was reflected in the comic, and I finally got all those jokes I was too young to understand before. Now, I see the strip was incredibly subversive in feminist terms (though perhaps not in gender terms).
At the time, comics in Argentina (and largely, all over the world) did not feature female characters who were more than a relative or love interest of the hero of the story. It is very interesting to me that, over 20 years before its creation, Mafalda stands up to Bechdel’s Test much better than hundreds of comics that came afterwards. Not only that, but what fascinated me is that Mafalda actually… subverts Bechdel’s Test.
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See, Bechdel’s Test (though originally applied only to films) requires three points: 1. Two or more women who 2. Speak to each other about 3. Something besides a man. The point of this is that in film and many media, women have been unfairly depicted exclusively in supporting roles of the main male characters. In Mafalda, a regular gag involves Susanita talknig about her future husband and home life, but this is subverted by Mafalda’s frequent observations that these are superficial ambitions. Mafalda tells Susanita that a woman ought to see past these limited horizons set by society. The conversation thus ceases to be about a man, and becomes one about how and why women may hold these limited ambitions.
I guess you can see now why I consider Mafalda to be one of my favourite comics, perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered. Here is where I have to tell you its flaws, and sadly I have come to realise they do exist. The first flaw that comes to mind is subtle racism. Let’s clear something up first: Mafalda herself declares often her distaste with racism, her disgust with anyone that can dehumanise another human being in such a manner. She often calls for human understanding and world peace. However, at the time the comic began, Mao’s declaration were a source of grave concern for many in the West, who feared a Third World War if the two Communist colossi united their forces to invade. This is reflected in many comics in which the characters are scared of the Chinese people due to their massive numbers.
Moreover, Manolito is, though relatively harmless, a slightly racist stereotype. In Argentina, it is common to call a Spaniard ‘Galician’, this being a strong cultural stereotype. These stereotyped features and attitudes include: large thick eyebrows, lack of education and outright ignorance, as well as greed. The stereotype of the ‘Galician’ is exactly what Manolito represents: brutish and ignorant, with a materialist mentality that is only concerned with money. Thankfully, Quino’s writing allows Manolito to rise above the stereotype as a character, becoming more a critique of a very Argentinian kind of greed.
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Finally, and this is a personal issue of mine, Mafalda often displays a rather naive nationalism, the kind that is promoted to children. It’s very hard to form an opinion regarding this, because the Argentina of 2008 is not the same nation as 44 years ago. Indeed, three years after Mafalda ceased publication, my country endured the most bloody dictatorship of its history, which murdered over 20,000 of its own citizens. A ‘Western Catholic Capitalist’ oppressive regime, it was intrinsically nationalistic, ending with the lamentable Falklands War. After that, nationalism in Argentina has never meant the same thing. Perhaps foreseeing this, Quino stopped the strip quite suddenly in 1973, as the nation began spiralling into violence, which would culminate in the aforementioned regime.
As a final critique, while traditional gender roles are questioned very often throughout, gender identity is seldom an issue. It only comes into play when, by accident, someone preys on the fears of the ‘older generation’, and this is very infrequent. Generally, Quino uses this as a tool to display the conservative attitudes of previous generations. What may appear so normal as to be ignored by youth may be perceived as ‘depraved’ by an older character (usually a passers-by).
Closing thoughts? I don’t have many. Mafalda is the best kind of comic strip, in my honest opinion. It is funny, it is endearing, but it can also challenge the outside world, and has little pretense and a lot of hope for humankind. It’s a fantastic second-wave feminism comic strip while, at the same time, being much broader in scope. It offers a complex image of children very much at odds with the traditional view of a child as an innocent angel. And it is always, always, insightful, shallow, depressing, hilarious, thoughtful and profound. Often all at once.
Now, for a useful tidbit, I’ve tried to track down English-language editions of Mafalda. This is difficult: an old British edition of the books is lost to the mists of time, and to this day there is no U.S. edition (U.S. publishers rejected the strip in 2004 saying it was too complex for children). Regardless, Mafalda has been finding an audience in English, thanks to its publication by the Argentinian publisher of the collections, Ediciones de la Flor, which still sell by the thousands. The translations aren’t always 100%, after all a few strips rely on wordplay that is untranslatable cultural lingo or slang. But for what is possible, it is an appropriate adaptation (I own 3 of the 5 collections in English). Here are some sites that stock the collections in English. For now, only 5 out of the 10 books have been published so far. If you want to search for it yourself, the books are published as Mafalda and Friends.
Amazon UK
Finally, if you’re a Spanish speaker, I recommend Toda Mafalda. It is a coffee-table sized book which includes all the ten collections, as well as extra strips and illustrations made by Quino of his characters down the years. It includes tributes by artists and cartoonists as well.