Mary Poppins’ fantastic adventures are a cherished part of childhood for many. From the beloved books by PL Travers to the classic Mary Poppins movie from Disney and even the recent Mary Poppins Returns, audiences of all ages will be charmed. However, not everyone is that nostalgic about the nanny.
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, an English professor at Linfield College, argues in a comment for the New York Times that the story has some disturbing, racist tones that come from the original Travers books but invade the films. Pollack-Pelzner specifically cites one of the most memorable scenes in the 1964 film – the one in which Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) makes her face “black” with soot while dancing with chimney sweeps.
“One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is the blackout of Mary Poppins,” writes Pollack-Pelzner. “When the magical nanny accompanies her young protégés Michael and Jane Banks in her chimney, her face is covered with soot, but instead of wiping it off, she playfully powdered her nose and cheeks even blacker. Then she leads the children on a dancing exploration of the Londoners Roofs with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep Bert. “
The scene itself may not be problematic, but its roots are. According to Pollack-Pelzner, Travers’ books make some disturbing associations between the blackened skin of chimney sweeps and racist stereotypes. In the novel “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” from 1943 a maid yells “Don’t touch me, you black heathen”, while the maid later threatens to quit when the chimney sweep approaches the cook and shouts “If the Hottentot goes” in the chimney I’ll go out the door. “For the context of why this is so problematic, the term ‘Hottentot’ is an archaic arc used to describe black South Africans – and that term is also used in the Disney film.
Mary Poppins Returns isn’t immune to criticism, either. Pollack-Pelzner further notes that Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are flirting with the film itself with the troubling racial issues from the source footage. It specifically refers to a scene from the first novel “Mary Poppins” 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 and lets the black woman speak in the minstrel dialect. The scene was so problematic that the San Francisco Public Library banned the book, which in turn led Travers to update the scene, change the dialogue, and turn the offensive characters into an animal, especially a hyacinth macaw.
The same macaw ultimately appears in Mary Poppins Returns as a wealthy widow named “Hyacinth Macaw” who is naked except for “two feathers and a leaf” – a description that strangely resembles the description of the woman in the original book.
Pollack-Pelzner’s play gets to the heart of some interesting points and also makes it clear that these issues are not an indictment against the films. Instead, the context just sheds light on the troubling elements of the source material, noting that Disney poses a bigger problem reaching into racist tropics as a source of entertainment. However, not everyone sees it that way. The play has sparked quite a debate online on the subject, with many people on the chimney sweep scene hanging out and arguing that it’s not racist at all.
Whatever your make of the situation (and you can check out some of the social media debates below), Mary Poppins Returns was not only quite successful at the box office. The film is currently nominated for several Academy Awards, including a Best Original Song nomination for “The Place Where Lost Things Go”.
Mary Poppins Returns is now in theaters.