“Mary Poppins” thoughts from 2010

I recently (about five minutes ago, actually) ran across this short essay which I wrote last year, with the idea then of posting it on Jeannine’s blog after she wrote this post about the "Mary Poppins" movie. But I decided it perhaps was a little too long and too argumentative, so I posted a much abbreviated version as a comment on that page, and did it anonymously (this was back before I had gotten my livejournal account).

Why am I posting it now? I guess because I liked it, and always felt that it would have been fun to rebut what I considered the fairly silly claims of misogyny that Jeannine mentioned were thrown at the movie by one of her students. And seeing as nobody comes to this blog anyway, what’s the harm? 

So here it is. — PL


"Pete’s Essay re: "Mary Poppins" June 4, 2010

Back on April 29th of this year, when Jeannine posted her blog entry about "Mary Poppins", in which she discussed her Children’s Literature students’ papers comparing a novel read in class to a film adaptation of same, I was stunned (well, maybe more like mildly flummoxed) to read that one of her students considered the Walt Disney film version to have included a "misogynist smear campaign". The exact quote:

“Apparently when the male film writers put their heads together to think up the perfect hallmark of a bad mother, they decided she must be a feminist. No wonder P.L Travers was upset, she probably had not expected the adaptation of her whimsical children’s book to include a misogynist smear campaign.”

Having watched "Mary Poppins" several times during the course of my life, most recently when our daughter Emily was young, and having very fond and positive memories of the movie, I was baffled by this description. "Misogynist"? Isn’t the definition of that word "hatred of women"? Try as I might, I could not recall any such vile sentiments, oblique or overt, in the Disney adaptation. My recollection of the treatment of women in that movie was that it was even-handed, with perhaps a bit more sympathy for the female characters than for the male. I remember the fledgling Suffragette, Mrs. Banks, as being a strong woman trying to balance the responsibilities of an early 20th century middle-class British household and family with her own growing sense of female empowerment — not an easy task, especially in that era.

But, knowing how time can often (though not always) play tricks with one’s recall, I thought it appropriate to watch the movie again. Jeannine was agreeable, so — after buying the latest DVD version, with new behind-the-scenes special features — we sat down and watched it. And enjoyed the heck out of it.

"Misogynist"? Not even remotely close, in my humble opinion. The characters were exactly as I remembered them, and Mrs. Banks feminism was, as I had thought, positively (if SLIGHTLY comically) rendered. I loved this line in her big musical number, "Sister Suffragette":

"Though we adore men individually
We agree that as a group
They’re rather stupid"

Now, consider that this line was featured in a "family" movie made back in 1964 (hardly an era of all-pervasive feminism), and the sly subversiveness of it becomes even clearer. To me, the inclusion of just that one line renders any claim that Disney’s adaptation of "Mary Poppins" is — in any way, shape or form — "misogynist" completely silly.

And as for the screenwriters’ supposedly including Mrs. Banks’ feminism as the "perfect hallmark of a bad mother", I simply don’t get that. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Banks are presented as truly "bad" parents, but more like slightly clueless and distracted parents. Among other things, Mr. Banks is distracted by his work at the bank, and Mrs. Banks is distracted by her Suffragette activities (as well as her myriad household responsibilities). Important distractions all, but they ARE distractions… things that take both parents’ attention away from those two children who need them to be more present. And the film, at least, ends with both parents realizing that fact, and with the promise that they will try to do better. Nowhere, at least as far as I could see, is is stated or implied that Mr. Banks is going to quit working, or that Mrs. Banks is going to cease being a Suffragette — they are just going to try to be better parents.

After watching the movie with Jeannine and discussing it at length with her (and, I will confess, singing with her some of those catchy tunes), and hearing her talk about the difference between the original book (which she has read and taught), I was inspired to read at least the first "Mary Poppins" book to see how it and the Disney film matched up.

After reading it, I could see how P.L. Travers might have been disappointed in how Uncle Walt and his crew had adapted her work. It really is quite different. But I truly believe that if they had made a straight, literally "by-the-book" adaptation, it very likely would have bombed as a movie. At the very least, it would not have become the fondly-remembered entertainment icon it is today.
As someone who has had some experience in having my work successfully adapted into different media (TV, movies, videogames), I know how it can feel when the adaptation veers away from one’s cherished vision of one’s original. And sometimes, one is legitimately horrified by foolish and pointless changes. But other times, the changes are necessary and right. And in the case of Walt Disney Studios’ adaptation of "Mary Poppins", the changes made were overwhelmingly in the latter category. — PL"


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