Disney's Mary Poppins: a fair cop?
The thing that Travers would never, ever explain was who exactly Mary Poppins is. And Mary Poppins, as Jane and Michael Banks often lament in the stories, “never explains anything.” Rewatching the film recently, I was pleased to see that she states this herself, when confronted by Mr. Banks; the movie is truer to Travers’ vision that I’d remembered, for if Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins smiles a lot more than the character in the books, she is almost as strict and no-nonsense. Travers’ Mary Poppins refuses to acknowledge the magical adventures that the children share with her, waxing indignant when they mention having taken tea upside down or floated through the park by the strings of balloons, exploits Mary Poppins seems to regard as undignified. “On his head? A relation of mine on his head? And turning about like a firework display?” she asks wrathfully as they return from one outing on the bus.
This attitude seems to bother some contemporary readers. I’ve seen them complain that the Mary Poppins of the books is “mean.” Yet Jane and Michael adore her, and so did I; her tartness only made her more alluring, perhaps because I mistrusted adults who pandered to me in gooey, ingratiating tones like the ladies of “Romper Room.” In her way, Mary Poppins embodied the enigma of adulthood, all the things grown-ups knew that I didn’t and all things they could do that I couldn’t. And if she was always scolding the Banks children for dragging their feet or whining or behaving like the inmates of a “Bear Garden,” well, it was usually a fair cop. Besides, what good is a mystery whose initiation rites come too easily?
For mystery is what Mary Poppins embodied, and what has piqued imaginations since her creation.
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Travers Goff is depicted accurately in “Saving Mr. Banks” as a failed, alcoholic banker with frustrated mystical yearnings, but inaccurately as a doting, attentive father. Instead, Travers described both her parents as almost neglectful and as wrapped up in themselves: “I was allowed to grow in the darkness, unknown, unnoticed, under the earth like a seed.”
The dubious notion that Mr. Banks in the Mary Poppins stories was based on Goff comes largely from “Mary Poppins, She Wrote,” by Valerie Lawson. This biography, the source of “Saving Mr. Banks,” is worth reading because it’s the only life of Travers we’ve got, but it’s also badly marred by a forced, lumbering whimsy that is at best irritating and at worst confusing. According to Lawson, Travers’ life consisted of one long quest for a father figure, but “Mary Poppins, She Wrote” doesn’t inspire the sort of confidence required to sell such a reductive summary of what was in truth a complex and contradictory life.
Even so, Lawson’s biography does not portray Travers as two-dimensionally as the film does. You would never know, for example, from “Saving Mr. Banks” that Travers was a worldly, well-traveled woman who had been an actress in a touring troupe before turning to writing. Or that she wrote frankly erotic poetry for newspapers and that after she left Australia and was living a flapperish life in London during the 1920s, she became a protegé to the circle of Irish writers that included William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Faolain and George Russell (“AE”), all of whom admired her work. These writers, she once wrote, “cheerfully licked me into shape like a set of mother cats with a kitten.” Probably bisexual, Travers never married but lived with a woman for a decade and adopted a boy from an impoverished Irish family. She lived on a Navajo reservation for two years during World War II.
What this cosmopolitan figure found most unfathomable about the Disney version of her book was the way it treats the Banks family as a problem that Mary Poppins has arrived to solve. Travers thought the Banks family as she wrote them were just fine, perfectly normal. But among other things, the Disney team felt they needed to explain why someone like Mrs. Banks was hiring a stranger to take care of her own children. (It was common practice for a member of her class.)
Having the film hinge on the saving of Mr. Banks was DaGradi’s solution to the narrative problem presented by the book, which is really a collection of tales, not a single plot. In fact, most of the stories in any given Mary Poppins book could be easily transplanted to one of the others without creating much of a problem, although new Banks children do get added along the way. Travers viewed the individual chapters as fairy tales, timeless narratives set in a world that never changes much. Instead of forests, castles or cottages inhabited by woodsmen, kings or tailors, the Mary Poppins tales take place in the perpetual childhood of Jane and Michael, in which they never get older and the adults around them — the other household servants and neighbors like Admiral Boom and Mrs. Lark — are as iconic as the gods in the Greek pantheon.
Anxiety and reassurance about the integrity of the family is central to American family films, and to a lot of American children’s fiction, too. Dorothy is always trying to get back to Aunty Em. British children’s fiction tends to get caught up in the romance of adventure for its own sake. (“Doctor Who” is part of this tradition.) In the American-made film version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” for example, the Pevensie children are portrayed as worried about their soldier father and eager to reunite with their mother, while in C.S. Lewis’ novel, they don’t give their parents a second thought and end up spending upward of a decade in Narnia without a qualm. Making “Mary Poppins” a story about how Mr. Banks learns to appreciate his children and to spend more time playing with them is probably the most significant and most Americanizing change the Disney team made.
As Travers saw it, the Mary Poppins books (in which the parents are decidedly minor characters) were not about magic suddenly intervening to fix a crisis that disrupts everyday life. Rather, they reveal the wonder that resides within every ordinary thing. The little old lady who runs the candy story down the block also hangs the stars in the sky. There’s a whole world inside that decorative plate. Your nanny goes to a celestial circus on her evening out and her mother was a great friend of the cow who jumped over the moon (“… very respectable, she always behaved like a perfect lady and she knew What was What.”)
While some of this surely comes from Travers’ spiritual interests, you could never tell as much just from reading the books. They are perfectly translated to the language of childhood, suffused with an enchantment at discovering the world and its endless surprises. Here is the fanciful longing that makes kids talk to their stuffed animals and tell themselves that miniature people live in the backyard. Central to that enchantment is not knowing. There is far more power in whoever you imagine Mary Poppins to be than there could ever be in an explanation. And that’s why Travers never explained her.
We live in a disenchanted world, especially when it comes to pop culture narratives. Today, it’s nothing but endless and idiotic explanations. Every character must come supplied with a suitable back story and plausible if not outright redundant motives to justify everything they do. No one can become a crime fighter simply because they hate crime and injustice. The real reason has to be a murdered nuclear family member — spouse, parent, child or sibling — whose death must be (yet can never truly be!) redeemed.
And so, according to “Saving Mr. Banks,” P.L. Travers could not have written “Mary Poppins” because she felt like telling a modern-day fairy tale and maybe needed the money, or let alone because she was summarily seized by the muse. No, she had to be nursing an unresolved trauma — daddy issues, of course — all of which can be laid to rest by handing over her baby to that ultimate daddy figure, Walt Disney. Those lingering emotional issues also explain why Travers gave the Disney team such a hard time during the production of the film, why she so perversely resisted their idea of fun and their vision of what “Mary Poppins” really meant. It wasn’t that she resented their attempts to drain the wilder magic out of her creation. It was that she just needed a good session of pop culture therapy, and to have herself completely and conclusively explained. (“SavingMary Poppins: As if the sugary 1964 film weren’t enough, Disney has put P.L.Travers dark, magical heroine into therapy,” Laura Miller, Salon.com)
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But among other things, the Disney team felt they needed to explain why someone like Mrs. Banks was hiring a stranger to take care of her own children. (It was common practice for a member of her class.
Sensible of them. What exactly does it mean for something to be a common social practice? Seems like it almost puts it beyond further analysis, even perhaps sanctifying it. If a whole bunch of people want to reject their children, sacrificing them to some delegate of the destructive grandmother, is this common practice? Or just impossible, you silly! of course?
while in C.S. Lewis’ novel, they don’t give their parents a second thought and end up spending upward of a decade in Narnia without a qualm.
Brutal. It's like what immature parents are capable of who only have kids for the light and attention kids put to them, and then abandon them for Paris or chocolate or fantasy/romance novels or whatever when they're out of cute infancy and onto pleasure-complicating late childhood and adolescence. It's only great because if you identify with it, you imagine the abandoned hoping the whole time you might be thinking of them, which you hope they one day discover, you weren't; not at all.
No, she had to be nursing an unresolved trauma — daddy issues, of course — all of which can be laid to rest by handing over her baby to that ultimate daddy figure, Walt Disney.
Now you're concerned over the handing over of babies? She should have coddled it and kept it to herself, to ensure it had the legacy it deserved? But at least the people she had wet-nurse it in some respects did a better job of raising the righteousness of this concern.
These writers, she once wrote, “cheerfully licked me into shape like a set of mother cats with a kitten.
Wonderful. I have nothing but fond memories of those intent to lick me into shape as well. Actually, that's not quite right. I used to complain that their always scolding me for dragging my feet or whining or behaving like the inmates of a "Bear Garden" suggested there was something rather perversely wrong with them, like they were projecting onto me, and possessed were spanking some ghost of their bad selves rather than me for whatever awful I just did.
But I came to appreciate it was actually all a fair cop. Every once in awhile I still think it maybe a bit awry that they felt the need for me to take off my pants and fondle my privates, but that too I understand now as just common practice — every school master once did this, as Richard Dawkins recently reflected. Just common social practice for a particular time and place, so it couldn't have done much harm.
With this piece, you've complicated our appreciation of the enchantment of not knowing — exactly what gives birth to those terrors in non-Disney fairy tales that so appeal to children anyway? The universal? Or particularly dreadful experiences particular to each one of them that fortunately are being winnowed out through time (though maybe not so much with this “Go the f*ck to sleep” fad).
And how again is everyone moving on to the syrup of Disney just our dumb American hatred of the cosmopolitan? Sounds convincing, but maybe it should be tested. The movie was uplifting and an awful lot of fun — one further magnificent bravado show that post-war wasn't going to be anything like the Depression period before it. And from what all you’ve told me, I’m almost afraid to read the book — it'd be like letting hooks onto me that post-war Disney magic had spared me ever having had to really know.
@Emporium If a whole bunch of people want to reject their children, sacrificing them to some delegate of the destructive grandmother, is this common practice?
Good gods, what an ignorant and bigoted assumption to make. You seem awfully wedded to your coddling, cooing version of childhood - no child must ever experience an uncomfortable moment, and OF COURSE every child wants to spend every minute with their parents and never EVER leave them even for a second, or else they're "brutal" and somehow not human. You must have had a very stifling and fear-filled childhood.
@Serai1 I said nothing of the kind. Being handed over to strangers to be raised, is worth a raised eyebrow. Disney's people raised theirs, which strikes me as commendable compared to Laura's "it's just what people do," and your "what are you, someone who believes children need to be coddled all the time rather than learn the world for themselves"? "What of it if there are predators and dangers — without them kids stay soft and unprepared for the harsh adult world."
Progressives have historically insisted on the more kind approach, and if lucky, changed everyone else's opinions eventually; or if unlucky, weren't a match for those invested in harboring and sanctifying barbaric customs, and shipped themselves off elsewhere.
@Emporium @Serai1 Being handed over to strangers to be raised,
A truly idiotic statement. It sounds as though they hand over the baby, never to see it again.
But I must ask, exactly how long is a hired caregiver a stranger? For example, Princess Diana's nanny (the one who took care of Will and Harry for 15 years) - do you think they would consider her a stranger?
Operation Enduring Boredom
@Emporium— "Sensible of them. What exactly does it mean for something to be a common social practice?"
I agree, and I don't understand Laura Miller's objection to this alteration. Disney was making the film for an American middle-class audience, wasn't it?
Sensible of them. What exactly does it mean for something to be a common social practice? Seems like it almost puts it beyond further analysis...
No, but it does have implications for what needs to be analyzed.
For example, a film that portrayed the Banks parents' turning over their children to a nanny as part of a general social dysfunction in Edwardian England might or might not be fair, but would at least be an engagement with a society that existed. To portray the same thing as merely personal neurosis is to assume your own assumptions about how the world should work are more universally shared than they actually are.
Likewise, I know better than to think of your writing about child abuse in a manner flaunting your own self pity - even though it's not clear whether you have actually experienced such abuse or not - as a purely personal vice.
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