The iconic enchanted nanny Mary Poppins recently came back into the spotlight with the release of Mary Poppins Returns, Disney's sequel to its beloved 1964 film classic, that many saw as a loving tribute and worthy addition to the P.L. Travers characters' shining legacy. Now, the character has been put back in the spotlight for a not very "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" reason.
According to an op ed published in the New York Times by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a professor of literature at Linfiled College in Oregon, the original film starring Julie Andrews and Travers' books are filled with racial prejudice. Based on what, you might ask?
Remember this delightful scene from Mary Poppins?
Throughout the "Step In Time" dance sequence, and the "Chim-Chim-Cheree" song that proceeds it, Poppins, Bert (Dick Van Dyke) and the children Michael (Matthew Garber) and Jane Banks (Karen Dotrice) are covered in soot following one of Bert's chimney sweep assignments. Pollack-Pelzner associates the scene with blackface.
"One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is of Mary Poppins blacking up," his op ed reads. "When the magical nanny... accompanies her young charges... up their chimney, her face gets covered in soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks even blacker."
The obvious, knee-jerk reaction to this claim would be, "Of course Mary, the children, and the dancing sweeps have soot on their faces. They were chimney sweeps. They were not promoting blackface. End of conversation."
But, Pollack-Pelzner does not stop just there.
"This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature," he writes, before describing the use of the phrase "black heathen" to describe a chimney sweep in the 1943 novel Mary Poppins Opens the Door. He follows that by mentioning how, in the film, Admiral Boom (you know, that crazy guy in the ship on the roof of his house) sees the dancing sweeps, shouts, "We’re being attacked by Hottentots (an old racial slur)!" and orders his cannon to be fired at the "cheeky devils."
When you put it that way, it kind of makes you go like this:
On the other hand, given Disney's tainted history of racism (see Dumbo, Song of the South, Walt Disney's alleged opinions), it does not seem that surprising. Whether or not this analysis will have a lasting effect on the enchanted nanny's legacy remains up in the air. But, who knows? You might see a protest of Mary Poppins Returns at the Oscars this year.
What do you think? Should Disney apologize for what may be a display of racial insensitivity, or does Pollack-Pelzner need a spoonful of sugar to help his medicine go down? Let us know in the comments below!