Disruptive Mama Ruins Mary Poppins

mary poppins blackfaceI grew up loving Mary Poppins. Though born more than ten years after it was made, I even got to see it on the big screen when the good people of St. Vincent DePaul daycare took us downtown on the train for a special screening. Full of funny words, housecleaning with a song, chalk drawings that become real, a harsh father who is made loving again, what kid could resist it?

I thought I’d enjoy re-watching this classic with my own children. But I did so recently and noticed some disturbing aspects of the movie (I’ve never read the books). This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and I’m not a historian nor am I going to take the time to go back to the film and get exact wording where I’ve missed it. I think my perception of the film as a white mom who is multitasking while her kids play the movie on repeat is actually a valuable filter in this case.

  • The children request a nanny who is “fairly pretty,” as if a woman matching society’s beauty standards should factor into her value as a childcare professional.
  • There is much made of the mother’s suffragette status, but no reference the role Black women played in the suffrage movement. It may be a small plot point and not seemingly worthy or exploring in detail, but the suffrage movement in the US and elsewhere (in this case the UK) is universally presented as driven by white women, thereby cementing society’s false image of white women as more intelligent, passionate, and having more agency.
  • Speaking of Black people, let me recount how many non-white actors and extras there were in the movie: NONE. While certainly white people made up the majority of the early 20th Century population of London, there were people of color as well. When we don’t represent people of color in movies that become sources of nostalgia, we associate those wonderful lands of childhood imagination with whiteness.
  • Banks was verbally and emotionally abusive. He devalues his wife and children and attempts to use totalitarian control to run his household. His wife is savvy and does a fair job of puffing up his ego while quietly running things “behind the scenes,” but she must exert any control she has in ways that will not alert her husband to the fact that she does anything less than worship him. As for the children, he dismisses their thoughts and wishes out-of-hand. The fact that Mary Poppins comes in and changes his heart re-enforces the false notion that abusive men can be changed if only they are loved and shown a better way. This is exactly the thinking that has us indulging abusive men as a society and has their partners feeling guilty if they push back against abuse or leave it all together. In other words, the famous “I’ll just fix him!” narrative.
  • Let’s talk about labor rights. This nanny, whose bedroom is adjacent to/part of the nursery, requests only one day off every two weeks. Right, then.
  • After taking the children on an adventure in which they have jumped into a cartoon chalk world, Mary Poppins tucks them into bed at night adamantly denying that any of it happened.
  • Is the chimney sweep scene, where all the white characters end up black with ash, a nod to blackface performances? I can’t say for sure, but it’s creepy. And when I looked it up, I discovered this note regarding one of the booksMary Poppins Opens the Door: “One quick word of warning: the American edition currently most widely available contains a few words in the first chapter that are reflective of attitudes in the period, but which parents may find offensive, perhaps especially since the character receiving the racial insults is, as careful readers may note, in blackface.”

In short, the beliefs created by and/or adhered to by Mary Poppins, not unlike many movies from the inception of film until, well, now (but exemplified by this Golden Age of Hollywood), become interchangeable with the warm fuzzy memories of our childhood. While Mary Poppins is set in Britain and based on a British author’s books, it is a product of Hollywood and undeniably a thread in American culture.

When I think of the era hinted at by Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” part of that is the world of old movies. The ones in which everyone is white, except for the cheerful slaves or odd foreigners. The problem with trading on that nostalgia is that those worlds never existed. America was never all white (after all, white people stole this land from people of color) and there is nothing cheerful about being a slave.

I’m not suggesting that we trash these old movies, though, truly, would that be so bad? But if we want to share these films with our children now, let’s be sure to discuss what’s wrong with the picture they’re painting so they don’t perpetuate racism, classism, and abuse and they can learn to view modern media through a critical eye as well.

Speaking of modern media, I’m curious to see if the late 2018 remix will do better, but not holding my breath.

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