You know you’re losing your mind when it’s 4 am and you’re nursing your newborn and what’s running through your mind is a lame attempt to recall the analytical diagrams you learned to use in your college senior critical theory class to deconstruct texts so that you can apply them to Mary Poppins.
I can’t stop thinking about Mary Poppins.
I’ve been watching it way too much and I want to keep watching it. For one thing, Julie Andrews is amazing. I find myself watching her closely to see when the Mary Poppins veneer will drop, but the mask seems completely nonporous. (And yes, she won an Oscar for it – can you believe it? An Oscar for a kid’s movie? And yet, she completely deserves it.)
But as I’ve been thinking about motherhood and work, the storyline of Mary Poppins has popped in, and I’ve noticed a few things about it that are kind of interesting that I’d never thought about before.
Take a look:
Okay, so Mary Poppins is essentially a story about a nanny whose presence magically transforms a father from being a stuffy, distant, order-freak to being a jolly, engaged dad. Their relationship is at the crux of the story (hence the highlighted line above). It’s not about the kids so much as it is about the father, MP as the catalyst.
The diagram above shows how the four main adult characters are contrasted, opposed, and compared to each other to create the conflicts, both major and minor, that run through the story.
And how does she do it? Of what exactly does her magic consist? Well, she brings to the female/domestic sphere the element of Art – music, dance, singing, paintings – and causes it, through the children, to infect the male/business sphere. In this case, Art reveals to those it touches a truth about life that allows them to live freely and happily, a truth innate to children that adults tend to forget: That the structures of culture and rules are essentially absurd, random, silly; they do not make up reality; the seriousness with which we treat money and power and banking damages our connections to the heart of life, which is our connections to others and to our imagination. All the things Mr. Banks stakes his identity and security upon are just as imagined / invented as the adventures the children experience with MP. He discovers that “supercalifragilisticexpealidocious” – utter babble – is the only response to getting fired from his job, that indeed, his job is ephemeral, fragile, not as sturdy as he had believed, and he discovers the essential inherent impermanent and absurdity of life.
This is a very postmodern, buddhist kind of realization – how funny to find it in this staple of Disney creations.
The other two more minor characters provide counterpoints to Mr. Banks and MP.
Contrasted to the strict Mr. Banks is Bert the chimney sweep, whose job changes to that of kite seller or music maker or artist depending on his whims or the needs of the moment. He lives a flexible life in relationship with the world and people around him. He doesn’t have the house/family stability of Mr. Banks (we’re never really sure where he lives), but he can therefore survive and lives a fuller life – he is the reed that bends in the wind, while Mr. Banks is the rigid stick that snaps, to borrow an image from the Tao te Ching.
Then there’s Mrs. Banks, whose character’s actions / treatment puzzles me. She’s constantly seen escaping the house in a flurry to go fight for women’s rights – ostensibly, she could be at home with the children, but apparently she doesn’t want to be nor does the film hold her responsible for doing so.
She is in the process of fleeing the domestic sphere, abandoning her ‘place’ with the female servants and the nanny, but her duty is not called into question in the same way as Mr. Banks.
From this I can only conclude that the film is saying that the health of the family requires Mr. Banks to come home/go fly a kite, not for Mrs. Banks to stay put, which is amazing, given the year this film was produced and the Victorian era of its setting.
My general conclusion: The film underscores something I firmly believe: if women are going to achieve equality in this culture, it’s not just women who need to be enlightened and fighting for their rights – it’s the men who need to give up their ideals of patriarchy and paternalism, indeed it’s the whole system that needs to be revolutionized (thus, all the male bankers are out flying kites at the end of the movie).
This is essentially a movie about an anarchist revolution (anarchy in the true definition of the term).