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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Yes, Mary Poppins is Actually a Bit Racist

Nobody reads anymore. They just seethe and share without bothering to perform even the most perfunctory scratch test to see if their outrage is actually justified.  And then there is the counter-offensive of seething and sharing by people who are upset over how hyper-sensitive everyone is over nothing.

I'm talking about the latest rumblings over Disney’s classic family film, Mary Poppins, being accused of having racist content.

In this case, it certainly wasn't worthy of extensive outrage... but it also wasn't exactly nothing.

I’ve seen at least ten posts this week screaming about how silly it is that the PC police are all woke about the ‘blackface’ scenes (where Julie Andrews and the kids smear soot on their faces to look more like Dick Van Dyke and his fellow chimney sweeps.


The problem is, if anyone had bothered to look around a bit, they would have learned that the blackface issue isn't any sort of reference to minstrel shows, but rather an anachronistic colonial reference from the British Empire's crowded closet that keys into a historical [white] British fear of black Africans.

The central problem is the use of the word 'Hottentots' in the film as an obscure homage to an earlier book version of Mary Poppins where chimney sweeps were insultingly mistaken for Hottentots (an archaic slur for black South Africans).

Here's the relevant passage from an excellent article that explains what are, IMHO, a couple of small but real problems that most people wouldn't even catch (not because the racism isn't there, but because it is buried in an historical anachronism that the typical Disney audience - then or now - wouldn't recognize):

Writing exclusively for The New York Times, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner – a gender studies professor at Linfield College in the US – claimed the iconic chimney sweep scene where Andrews and Van Dyke sing ‘Step in Time’ could be seen as ‘racist’ because their faces are covered in black soot. Rather than wiping the soot off her face, Mary Poppins rubs it in, making her face dirtier. Pollack-Pelzner pointed out that the scene may seem comical – if it weren’t for P. L. Travers’ novels on which the film was based.

He pointed out that in the 1943 book Mary Poppins Opens the Door, a housemaid calls a man a “black heathen” when he reaches out his hand and later calls him a “Hottentot” – an archaic slur for black South Africans.

For Pollack-Pelzner, the film is problematic because character Admiral Boom calls chimney sweeps in the film Hottentots.

“We’re in on the joke, such as it is: These aren’t really black Africans; they’re grinning white dancers in blackface,” he wrote. “It’s a parody of black menace; it’s even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film’s racial hierarchy.”

Pollack-Pelzner pointed out Hottentot was also used in 1952’s Mary Poppins in the Park novel, with Mary herself reportedly telling a young child that he’s behaving like a Hottentot. [source]

So yeah, there's some problematic stuff there, even if almost nobody today would recognize it as such. 

To be clear, I'm not suggesting banning the film, any more than I would suggest banning Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' because of the anti-Semitic treatment of Shylock, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories over his unflattering reference to Jews which are jarring to a modern reader, but reflect the typical sentiments of the audience for whom it was written. 

I'm just saying that it is a teachable moment that is being mostly missed because most people would rather rage than teach (or learn).

BTW, it took me exactly one quick Google search to find both the New York Times article and the well written piece I've excerpted above.  So maybe look around just a tiny bit before trying to show everyone how woke you are.

Posted by David Bogner on February 6, 2019 | Permalink


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Excuse me? How dare you ask people to appreciate nuance and context? How dare you ask them to educate themselves on a topic? That's what retweets are for!

Posted by: David Staum | Feb 6, 2019 7:12:28 PM

Wow - very interesting. When I first saw the story, it seemed like an over reaction. However now it makes sense!

Posted by: Rishona | Feb 8, 2019 11:46:58 AM

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