Mary Poppins (Image: Disney)
The chimney sweep dance in Mary Poppins, led by Dick van Dyk’s affable jack-of-all-trades Burt, goes back to “blackface” tropes, claims an academic.
In an article in the New York Times, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Professor of English and Professor of Gender Studies at Linfield College, Oregon, said the sequence in PL Travers’ book means “Racial Panic.”
Pollack-Pelzner flatly calls the scene ‘blacking-up’, and while it may seem harmless, it has other more disturbing connotations.
“This could seem like a harmless comic scene if Travers’ novels didn’t associate the blackened faces of the chimney sweeps with racist caricature,” he writes.
“’Don’t touch me, you black pagan,’ yells a housemaid in Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943) when a wave extends his dark hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to stop: “If this Hottentot goes into the chimney, I’ll go out the door,” she says with an archaic bow for black South Africans that keeps coming back on the page and screen.
“The 1964 film repeats this racial panic in a farce. As the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step on a roof in time, a sailor’s car, Admiral Boom, shouts, ‘We are being attacked by the Hottentots!’ and orders his cannon to be fired at the ‘cheeky devils’.
“We’re joking as it is: They’re not really black Africans; they are grinning white dancers with black faces. It’s a parody of the black menace; it is even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film’s racial hierarchy. And it’s not just fools like the admiral who refer to this language. In the novel Mary Poppins in the Park, published in 1952, the nanny herself said to an angry young Michael: ‘I understand that you are acting like a Hottentot.’ “
Pollack-Pelzner has also pointed to other examples of archaic, racially charged language in Travers’ Poppins books, where her books were actually banned from the San Francisco Public Library in the early 1980s.
The story goes on
Travers later rewrote the chapters in a revised edition of the book in which Poppins and Jane and Michael Banks were transported to a South Sea island where the nanny used the offensive term “Pickaninny” and spoke in a racially charged South American dialect.
However, she later said that she “did not do this as an excuse for everything I wrote, the reason is much simpler: I do not want Mary Poppins to be hidden in a closet”.
Disney has not yet commented on this.
However, Pollack-Pelzner posted online after the article was published in The Times: “The main reason I wrote this article was to hope that a Disney manager would read it, revisit the upcoming Dumbo remake, and ask whether it’s there was all just a little bit racist that you might want to reconsider before it hits the big screen.
“After writing this article and receiving tons of hate messages in response, I learned one thing about the alt-right: You like Mary Poppins!”
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