Mary Poppins, Go Away!
We don’t know what to do about strong women.
Since Mary Poppins Returns was snubbed for Oscars, and nobody is going to talk about the film anymore, I feel like I have to. Mary Poppins was one of my favorite books growing up, and I absolutely loved the mid-80’s Soviet TV musical. I didn’t see the Julie Andrews classic until recently, though.
Pretty much all reviews of the sequel I’ve read focused on the politics of the film. That’s understandable considering that the film was needlessly politicized, pretty much like everything else these days. There is the blue stocking grown up Jane, the big sister from the book and the 1964 movie. She organizes rallies and wears pantsuits, albeit any resemblance to Hillary ends there: Jane, played by Emily Mortimer, is far too warm and personable to be a proper impersonation of the former FLOTUS’s steely ambition.
Yet when Jane flirted, she handed out a flier to some labor rally. Sad! And she flirted with the guy who was once our first black Jesus reimagined as a rapping Founding Father.
Like I said, pundits were stuck on class in that sequel. Given that it’s set in Britain, and Britain is very much a class-conscious society, I suppose it’s not entirely wrong to evangelize the movie-going kids about socio-economic hierarchies in the context of topsy-turvy china repairmen.
Except that beside the fixation on class issues, the Brits are also known for fetishizing childhood, and P. L. Travers’s book is very much in this tradition. It is decidedly not at all about class: the Banks children are deliberately sheltered from any manifestation of real world unpleasantness. Even if their parents inadvertently worry about money, it’s usually done for comic relief. The book is about a family, and about childhood, and it’s soaked in whimsy.
It is a strange book, and the original American motion picture was, please don’t get triggered, weird. The iconic nanny is no touchy-feely mama type. She was cross, haughty, and narcissistic. She’d get horrible reviews at Care.com.
I think I understand Mary better than today’s post-millennials, or whatever this generation is called — I lost track. I grew up within the Soviet educational system which trended sadistic. Yes, I had some wonderful teachers, and a challenging curriculum. However, corporal punishment was common in elementary school, and emotional abuse, especially public shaming, prevailed until graduation. My high school Russian literature teacher was most sadistic of them all. She remains the most terrible, awful lasting influence out of all teachers I’ve had in my lifetime. She was almost certainly KGB — I might divulge about that some day.
So, Mary. She did not do corporal punishment, or public shaming, but she had a sadistic streak. A terrible, witchlike, androgynous figure, who descends from the sky in a stripy skirted suit, holding an umbrella and large bag. Her nose is both prominent and pointy, and on multiple occasions describes herself as handsome. She becomes both a mom and a dad to Jane and Michael, and John and Barbara.
Mary has a whiff of Baba Yaga, but only a whiff because, unlike Baba Yaga, she doesn’t eat little boys, she disciplines and entertains them.
I know I’m spewing sacrilege here, but the Julie Andrews film made quite a mess of the character. It tried to make sense of the magical nanny, to soften her with The Spoonful of Sugar That Makes The Medicine Go Down, while holding on to the crossness of the P.L. Trevor’s prototype. I don’t think it worked.
In the recent release Emily Blunt gave us the Mary who was softer still. She didn’t come across as awe-inspiring and incomprehensible. Blunt played the nanny whose towering coolness is only a thin veneer under which exists a woman so warm and nurturing, parents would only be too happy to pay $25 an hour for her childcare services. I’m sure she’s state-certified in something, too.
Blunt has that prominent pointy nose thing going for her, and the costume designers dressed her in stiff and stripy dark coats. She wears hats, a top hat in one scene, even. But in this day and age, when we paint thick eyebrows on models’ faces, and drag out “trans women” to define female beauty, Blunt doesn’t strike as a particularly androgynous type.
I don’t mean any of that to diminish either Blunt or the film. The film was highly enjoyable, and the lead actress has successfully reinterpreted the archetypal magical disciplinarian for the generation of kids subjected to helicopter parenting and barrages of positive reinforcements. I know it doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, so let me put it this way: although the title character of Mary Poppins Returns is very different from the one I read about in the books, she is cohesive, and the movie is compelling. In fact, it makes more sense than the prequel.
Our culture seems a bit at loss when it comes to strong women. Emily Blunt, I’m learning, has recently worn a pink vagina dress to some social. Give me a break!
A failed would-be nun is placed as a help in a house of a wealthy prominent widower. She defies him, and shows him how to love his children. And, she climbs any mountain with him. That’s a strong woman.
Fraulein Maria may still pass the test for an admissible female character, but girls today are inundated with stories about socially engineered princesses who don’t need men. Romance has been demoted from the building block of the narrative to maybe a sideshow secondary to the empowerment message.
Because love stories are disappearing from children’s entertainment, other types narratives are losing their luster — there is no longer anything special about them. Stories about friendship or finding proper parental figures tend to become stories about politically correct role models.
The allegedly strong female protagonists are not quite as enchanting as they used to be. There is no strike of genius that created them. They appear as if they were put together by committees: self-rescuing, physically strong, fish-eyed.
Mary Poppins is a different kind of a strong woman. She projects the mysterious primordial energy that fuses the power of the two sexes, and is both awesome and incomprehensible. She’s not at all the nurturing teacher ideal of ours, but a goddess of discipline and wonder. That might be how our kids still see us, but this worldview is completely outside the contemporary parenting universe.
I suppose we just don’t know what to do with her, so we fill the otherwise perfectly entertaining movie with cheep political fluff, and we keep talking about that fluff.
So, I propose to keep making Mary Poppins movies: maybe one day we’ll come up with something that reflects the spirit of the original.
I’m not banning my kids from watching Mary Poppins Returns to shield them from politics, in fact I took them to see it soon after it was released. Who cares about pantsuit-wearing blue stocking community organizers! The lesson to learn here is to filter out all propaganda, and enjoy life. After all, my childhood was horribly politicized, and I turned out OK. I think.