Like all Disney movies, Mary Poppins is full of whimsy and adventure, good guys and, if not bad guys, at least shades-of-grey guys.
And as we celebrate the film today, on its fiftieth anniversary, let's not forget its feminist perspective.
At the center of it all is Mary Poppins, a no-nonsense nanny who gets the nursery cleaned and the medicine down. Yes, she works in a feminine profession, but with her impeccable negotiation skills, she’s an inspiration to the modern childcare economy—the average worker made only $19,510 per year in 2012. She’s gentle with the children, but firm enough to subvert the stereotype of woman as nurturer-and-nothing-else. She’s a balanced female character, full of good manners and grace but also judgmental about others’ laughter styles, and she's a master of reverse psychology. She seems to have a gentleman friend in Bert, the chimney sweep and street artist played by Dick Van Dyke, but they are not exclusive, as he hints in “Jolly Holiday,” and she certainly doesn’t take him into consideration when it’s time to pack up and move on to her next gig. Plus, she’s magic!
Psychoanalysis of the liberated Ms. Poppins aside, the movie had a strong message for its 1964 audiences. That year, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act banned employment discrimination on the basis of sex; Roe v. Wade was still nine years away. Watching Mrs. Banks, played by the incomparable Glynis Johns, parade through the movie’s London townhouse singing about women’s suffrage was a reminder to American audiences that there was still a long way to go. “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats,” she sings in the first song of the movie. “And dauntless crusaders for women's votes...Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done, Sister Suffragette!"
If Mrs. Banks is the voice of progress, her husband Mr. Banks is the voice of tradition. A straight-laced banker, he expresses his own worldview in the movie’s second song, “The Life I Lead:"
It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910
King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men
I’m the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege
I treat my subjects, servants, children, wife, with a firm but gentle hand—noblesse oblige
This patriarchal perspective can’t stand up to the organized mayhem Ms. Poppins brings into his home. Young Michael Banks wants to buy birdseed from the bird woman his nanny has told him about, but his father wants him to invest his tuppence in the bank. The boy tries to get his money bank, confusing other customers and causing a run on the bank—a sign of social upheaval if ever there was one! All this challenge to the status quo (plus his newfound unemployment) causes Mr. Banks to reconsider his narrow stance on power and order. In a reprise of his earlier melody, he sings:
My world was calm, well ordered, exemplary
Then came this person with chaos in her wake
And now my life’s ambitions go, with one fell blow
It’s quite a bitter pill to take
With a little help from Bert, who’s well-versed in reverse psychology himself, Mr. Banks puts the pieces of his repressive puzzle together—or rather, pulls them apart—and ends the movie enlightened and unburdened, finally bonding with his children as they fly a kite together. Ms. Poppins takes flight herself, on to the next household that needs saving from authoritarian ideology.
Well done, indeed, Sister Suffragette. Elsa of Arendelle has nothing on you.