The New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner where he implies that Disney’s classic 1964 film Mary Poppins is racist.
Pollack-Pelzner, who is an English, Gender Studios, and Shakespeare professor at Linfield College in Portland Oregon, takes issue with the scene where Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins shoots up a chimney and her face gets covered in soot and she doesn’t wipe it off.
“One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is of Mary Poppins blacking up. When the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews) accompanies her young charges, Michael and Jane Banks, up their chimney, her face gets covered in soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks even blacker. Then she leads the children on a dancing exploration of London rooftops with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep, Bert.”
He adds, “This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature.”
The Linfield College professor explains:
“Don’t touch me, you black heathen,” a housemaid screams in “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” (1943), as a sweep reaches out his darkened hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to quit: “If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door.””
A Hottentot is a racial slur for the non-Bantu indigenous population in South Africa.
Pollack-Pelzner then connects the chimney sweep “racial caricature” to the 1964 film.
“The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key. When the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step in time on a roof, a naval buffoon, Admiral Boom, shouts, “We’re being attacked by Hottentots!” and orders his cannon to be fired at the “cheeky devils.””
He goes on to even connect the supposed racism to the current Mary Poppins Returns films. He specifically needles out a performance by Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack, a cockney lamplighter. The two perform “A Cover Is Not the Book” which retells a number of Travers’s stories from her novels. Pollack-Pelzner points out one specific verse, “One of these verses refers to a wealthy widow called Hyacinth Macaw, and the kicker is that she’s naked: Blunt sings that “she only wore a smile,” and Miranda chimes in, “plus two feathers and a leaf.””
Pollack-Pelzner explains this is in reference to a 1981 revision of Travers’s first Mary Poppins novel from 1934, “In Travers’s 1981 revision, the “negro lady” became a hyacinth macaw who speaks genteel English.” He adds, “In the 1981 revision of “Mary Poppins,” there’s no mention of her attire; you’d have to go back to the 1934 original to find the “negro lady” with “a very few clothes on,” sitting under a palm tree with a “crown of feathers.”
As Pollack-Pelzner continues his op-ed, he moves from implying that Mary Poppins is racist to targeting Disney as a whole. “Disney has long evoked minstrelsy for its topsy-turvy entertainments — a nanny blacking up, chimney sweeps mocking the upper classes, grinning lamplighters turning work into song.”
He concludes that Mary Poppins Returns might even be a racist serenade with the song, “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”
“In this latest version, Mary Poppins might be serenading Disney genres, outdated but strangely recurring, in the Oscar-nominated song “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” when she reminds us that “Nothing’s gone forever, only out of place.””
What do you make of Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner implication that Mary Poppins and Disney are racist? Do you think he makes a strong argument or is he completely off his rocker?