The fantastical adventures of Mary Poppins are for many a treasured part of childhood. From beloved books by PL Travers to the Disney classic Mary Poppins movie and even in the recent Mary Poppins Returns appeals to audiences of all ages. However, not everyone is so nostalgic for the nanny.
In an editorial by The New York Times, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, an English professor at Linfield College, argues that the story has troubling racist overtones which, although stemming from the original books written by Travers, permeate the films. Pollack-Pelzner specifically cites one of the most memorable scenes from the 1964 film – the one in which Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) is seen “blackening” her face with soot while dancing with chimney sweeps.
“One of the most indelible images from the 1964 film is of Mary Poppins blacking out,” Pollack-Pelzner writes. “When the magical nanny accompanies her young proteges, Michael and Jane Banks, into their fireplace, her face becomes covered in soot, but instead of wiping it away, she valiantly powders her nose and cheeks even blacker. Then she drives children on a danceable exploration of the London rooftops with Dick Van Dyke’s smoky chimney sweep, Bert.”
The scene itself may not be problematic, but its roots are. According to Pollack-Pelzner, Travers’ books make disturbing associations between the blackened skin of chimney sweeps and racist stereotypes. In the 1943 novel “Mary Poppins Opens the Door”, a maid shouts “Don’t touch me, you black heathen”, while later, when the chimney sweep approaches the cook, the maid threatens to quitting, exclaiming “If that Hottentot goes up the chimney, I’ll come out the door. To understand why this is so problematic, the term ‘Hottentot’ is an archaic slur used to describe black South Africans – and it is also a term used in the Disney film.
Mary Poppins Returns Nor is it immune to criticism. Pollack-Pelzner goes on to note that the film starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda itself flirts with troubling issues of race from the source material. It specifically references a scene from the first “Mary Poppins” novel published in 1934. In it, the children encounter a scantily clad black woman with a naked child. The book uses an offensive term – “pickaninny” – to describe the child as well as the black woman who speaks in minstrel dialect. The scene was so problematic that the San Francisco Public Library banned the book, an act that prompted Travers to update the scene, changing the dialogue and turning the offending characters into an animal, specifically a hyacinth macaw.
This same macaw eventually appears in Mary Poppins Returns as a wealthy widow named “Hyacinth Macaw” who is naked except for “two feathers and a leaf” – a description eerily similar to the description of the woman in the original book.
Pollack-Pelzner’s article raises several interesting points and he also clarifies that these issues are not an indictment of the movies. Instead, the context simply shines a light on the troubling elements of the source material as well as what it notes is a larger problem with Disney reaching for racist tropes as a source of entertainment. However, not everyone sees it quite that way. The article sparked a whole online debate about the subject, with many people focusing on the sweeping scene, saying it’s not racist at all.
Whatever your opinion on the situation (and you can check out some of the debate on social media below) Mary Poppins Returns was very successful and not only at the box office. The film is currently nominated for several Oscars, including Best Original Song for “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”
Mary Poppins Returns is in theaters now.