By Daniel J. McLaughlin
A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as the song from 'Mary Poppins' goes. But there could be a bitter taste in your mouth the next time you watch the Disney musical.
An academic claims the children's books, and the film adaptation, have racist undertones.
Is the story about the magical nanny no longer Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner attacks the "shameful flirting with blackface" in the Mary Poppins canon. The professor of English and gender studies at Oregon's Linfield College looks back at the 1964 Disney film, as well as the books by P. L. Travers, for racism.
For instance, in the 1943 novel "Mary Poppins Opens the Door", a housemaid shouts at a chimney sweep: “Don’t touch me, you black heathen!" The cook in the tale also threatens: “If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door."
A "Hottentot" is an archaic slur for black South Africans. This word was present on both page and screen: it was used by the character Admiral Boom in the film, who shouts, “We’re being attacked by Hottentots!”
The academic also notes that the first Mary Poppins novel, published in 1934, included a "negro lady" with “a tiny black pickaninny". A "pickaninny" is an offensive term for a black child. The character also uses minstrel dialect.
The use of minstrelsy and blackface runs in both Travers' work and Disney musicals, Pollack-Pelzner observes.
The Spectator's Dominic Green, however, attacks the op-ed, calling it "another piece of elite idiocy" that features in the New York Times.
While some of the words used are offensive to modern American taste, he argues, they were in common use in their time. The now-offensive phrases were value-neutral when Travers created Mary Poppins. "Pickaninny", for instance, had its own entry in the Collins Dictionary of 1908.
Green calls Professor Pollack-Pelzner a "professional pearl-clutcher", who deliberately conflates Travers’ novels and the film adaptations so "he can get his name in the papers". He also accuses the academic of "projecting white American guilt on to a batty children’s novelist".
P. L. Travers wrote eight Mary Poppins books between 1934 and 1988. They follow the story of a magical English nanny, the eponymous Ms Poppins, who takes care of the Banks children on a series of adventures.
It was adapted into a Disney musical film in 1964, featuring classic songs such as "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", and "A Spoonful of Sugar". It starred Julie Andrews in her feature film debut as Mary Poppins, and Dick van Dyke as Bert (with his notoriously awful attempt at a Cockney accent).
The 1964 film won five Oscars, including Best Actress for Andrews, Best Original Music Score, and Best Original Song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee").
A sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, was finally released 54 years later, making it one of the longest gaps between film sequels in cinematic history.
It hit cinemas in December, starring Emily Blunt as the magical English nanny, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack (an apprentice of Bert), as well as Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as the older Banks children. Dick van Dyke also made a cameo in the 2018 film.