We’ve been watching a lot of Mary Poppins around our house lately. It was a favorite of mine when I was a child, but I’ve only now become struck by how political a film it is. The over-arching narrative of aloof, self-absorbed parents seeing the light and reconnecting with their children is both obvious and common, but it has some surprising messages for adult takeaway scattered among the magic and musical entertainment.
Pro-capitalism, personal responsibility and personal achievement: Mr. Banks expresses a certain amount of anger (of the kind most humans feel and express when it is pointed out to them that they are not behaving correctly) at the upsetting of his proscribed world by Mary Poppins, then is disgraced and fired from his position at the bank, but once he has learned the lesson that his children and their development are more important than money, he is restored to the rightful place at the bank in recognition of his hard work and achievement, as well as in recognition of the lessons his bosses have themselves learned about the important things in life. He will be a more well-rounded human being and a happier one in adding to, rather than subtracting from or replacing completely, his previous life.
Anti-feminism or at least anti-childish forms of protest: Mrs. Banks leads a dual life as a featherbrained suffragette and a completely submissive wife (“Ellen, put these [protest materials] away, you know how the cause infuriates Mr. Banks”). Her main form of interaction with her children is an occasional run of interference for them with their father. The writers’ benign contempt of her political activities is seen in the way she palms off the care of her children in order to go to Downing Street “to throw things at the Prime Minister” or to dash off to lead “our gallant ladies in prison” in song. Her transformation is more symbolic than her husband’s: The pageant banners she and her fellow suffragettes wear are sacrificed as kite-tails in the closing “family quality time” scene.
There is a danger in hanging too much political message on a piece of light entertainment; the objective of a happy ending alone is almost enough to explain these details away, but the “almost” makes it intriguing. These messages appear to come from the screenwriters rather than from the original Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers; though it’s been a while since I read them, the emphasis was more on the fantastic nature of Mary Poppins and her acquaintances, the theme more along the lines of “magical nanny makes household run smoothly and everybody happier” rather than teaching the parents to create this outcome themselves. And if I am misremembering somewhat, the mistake is slight: If the objective were to teach the family to help themselves, there would not be such a long string of sequels with titles like Mary Poppins Comes Back. Though the film, written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi of many other Disney classics like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Blackbeard’s Ghost, does a fine job of visually creating the magic of the central character Travers envisioned, Disney’s Mary Poppins combines a familiar set of lessons with a less common set of details that make it interesting and possibly downright anathema to feminists and anti-capitalists. To which I say, more power to ya, Mary.
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