So, I came across this article by way of another article that Google shoved in my face. Somehow it knows I’m really into Mary Poppins and Emily Blunt lately. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still feels like my guilty pleasure is on display or something. It could be worse, I suppose.
Anyway, the essay argues that Mary Poppins is “flirting with blackface”.
When the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews) accompanies her young charges, Michael and Jane Banks, up their chimney, her face gets covered in soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks even blacker. Then she leads the children on a dancing exploration of London rooftops with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep, Bert.Daniel Polack-Pelzner, The New York Times
This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature. “Don’t touch me, you black heathen,” a housemaid screams in “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” (1943), as a sweep reaches out his darkened hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to quit: “If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door,”she says, using an archaic slur for black South Africans that recurs on page and screen.
It’s obvious that if Mary Poppins were published today, it wouldn’t go over well at all. But we can’t always examine history through a modern lens. Sometimes, it has to be looked at in the context of its own time period. If these slurs were a problem in the 1940s, there’s no way P.L. Travers would have been published. But she was; society didn’t recognize these words or sentiments as slurs.
And I really don’t think Disney was trying to be controversial either. But there’s more:
The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key. When the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step in time on a roof, a naval buffoon, Admiral Boom, shouts, “We’re being attacked by Hottentots!” and orders his cannon to be fired at the “cheeky devils.” We’re in on the joke, such as it is: These aren’t really black Africans; they’re grinning white dancers in blackface. It’s a parody of black menace; it’s even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film’s racial hierarchy. And it’s not only fools like the Admiral who invoke this language. In the 1952 novel “Mary Poppins in the Park,” the nanny herself tells an upset young Michael, “I understand that you’re behaving like a Hottentot.”Daniel Polack-Pelzner, The New York Times
I mean, Mary Poppins has a friend who’s a chimney sweep. What do you expect? No one was making fun of anyone at all. And anyway, it’s just a story, and fiction at that. It’s not meant to offend anyone. I’m not trying to absolve P.L. Travers or Disney of accountability or anything like that. I’m just trying to point out that if we view everything through today’s societal lens, we lose important context, and we risk sucking all the fun out of both Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns.