Last week, a friend from abroad (well, Scotland) came to stay with me. One of my more academic and intensely cerebral of friends, she has the kind of analytical eye which perceives social connections within the world with laser beam accuracy and verbally articulates her findings in the most enviably eloquent fashion as to leave me jaw agape, like a complete dullard. She carries herself with an authenticity rarely found in one’s daily encounters, living and breathing her personal politics to a commendable, though sometimes exhausting degree. The kind of person who denigrates X-Factor as symbolic of our society’s complete decline into political and moral apathy and fetishisation of celebrity, refusing to participate in any such forms of prescribed vacuity; unlike someone such as myself, who rants and raves about the cruddiness of X Factor and other cheap, thoughtless programming which follows the same elimination formula and then secretly revels in Made in Chelsea, a show which reveres the very sort of people the world should be ignoring.
So when we were watching TV and an advertisement for the theatre production of Mary Poppins appeared, I took a deep breath when my friend declared that she had ‘an issue’ with the original film, anticipating I was in for another moral diatribe about class politics or something of that ilk. I had always had a soft spot for the 1964 version of Mary Poppins as Julie Andrews reminds me of my paternal grandmother (something about the red cropped hair in The Sound of Music I think is perhaps where it started); whatever my friend’s issue, I doubted I would feel as strongly.
“What’s your issue with Mary Poppins then?” I asked somewhat flippantly.
She responded by reminding me (I can barely remember the content of the film as it must be over twenty years since I last saw it) that the entire premise for Mary Poppins gracing the Banks’ home with her presents was because she was needed and the reason she was needed was because Mr Banks was obsessed with career progression while Mrs Banks had performed a dereliction of motherly/wifey duty by selfishly going off and becoming a Suffragette – a finer detail often lost on a child (I just remember the mother being “too busy” to be available for her children) which of course, makes it all the more insidious.
Mrs Banks is depicted as a somewhat flighty, selfish and blinkered creature, dedicated and valiant in her politics yet completely incapable of heeding the day-to-day needs of her family and staff. So muddled is her head with matters of the sisterhood, that her efforts in finding a suitable nanny for the children continually end in disaster. As Mr Banks clearly illustrates:
“Choosing a nanny for the children is an important and delicate task. It requires insight, balanced judgement and an ability to read character. Under the circumstances I think it maybe apropos to take it upon myself to select the next person.”
The inference of course being that Winnifred is far too daft to carry out such a task efficiently.
Mrs Banks is a parody of female political tenacity, a source of comic value for the film. At the same time, she is utilised as a means of tacitly reminding us that selfishly pursuing one’s own goals in life can be damaging to one’s children. Once realising the “error of her ways”, Mrs Banks returns to home and hearth and with a final nail in her Bolshevik coffin, cheerfully surrenders her Votes for Women banners for use as a “proper tail” on Jane and Michael’s “proper kite”. Interestingly, when Mr Banks realises the error of HIS ways and begins to loosen up, he is rewarded by being made partner at the bank, despite having inadvertently killed his boss. In other words, he is gratified materially and personally, receiving the unexpected gift of career progression which he had coveted throughout the course of film. Mrs Banks however is rewarded with the happiness of her children and full time motherhood (this we can deduce is the fate which befalls her as Mary Poppins is no longer needed) and that (apparently) should be enough for women.
Call me a bleeding heart liberal, but I find Disney’s decision to make Mrs Banks a Suffragette (in the original book I believe she was the struggling mistress of the household) perverse. While I certainly agree that the welfare of one’s children should not be marginalised, surely Mrs Banks’ pursuits to gain basic civil rights for women warrants a certain degree of respect. Instead it is depicted as something whimsical which eventually proves irreconcilable with her responsibilities as wife and mother. It trivialises the whole Suffragette movement and reinforces the idea that women do not belong on the streets rallying for a better world, but rather at home ensuring that their children are bathed and tucked up in bed while their husbands sit comfortably, pipe and sherry in hand.
So while I may be more disposed to turning a blind eye to certain social ills than my dear Scottish friend, I was grateful for the enlightenment in this case. It has helped sharpen my eye as it were and heightened my senses against the perniciousness of gender inequality, both nuanced and overt.
Sorry Astrid, no Mary Poppins for you.