Mary Poppins, race and cultural inheritance

I watched Mary Poppins for the first time in a long time over Christmas (3.45pm, Boxing Day, BBC1). Presumably like most contemporary viewers who understood the allusion, I bristled uncomfortably at the movie’s passing reference to soot-faced chimney sweeps as ‘Hottentots’, and wondered whether anyone at the BBC had thought about how this awkward scene might go down with its Boxing Day audience. 

My discomfort will be familiar to anyone who has read the ‘classics’ of children’s literature to kids, for such references are far from uncommon. The adult reader is faced with the option of either skipping objectionable passages or of critically reflecting on them as indictments of racisms past. The option selected will depends on the type of source material: for me, the for-laughs treatment of ‘Cannibals’ in Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books make these sections unreadable, while (although it makes for pretty heavy bedtime reading) representations of ‘Indians’ in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ’Little House’ saga can with the right framing provide critical insight into the values of US settler colonialism.

Contemporary discussion of such material tends to line up in a predictably polarised fashion. On the antiracist spectrum we get the advocacy of censorship or critical engagement, supplemented by the championing of different stories: alternative canons, recent productions, front and back-stage diversity. On the spectrum of racial disavowal we get arguments defending childhood innocence from the intrusion of supposedly adult themes, voices protecting the realm of creative expression from a proto-totalitarian political correctness, or a resistance to judging the cultural productions of the past by the criteria of today.

It’s the latter argument that fascinates me if it’s applied to a cultural text like Mary Poppins. The show’s Boxing Day scheduling confirms it as an artefact of a collective past: the sort of thing that parents or grandparents might watch with children. These viewing practices are characterised by nostalgic sharing – the repetition of the adult’s own childhood enjoyment and their desire to pass this on to another generation. To be disconcerted by the film’s Hottentot reference is therefore to call into question more than just one’s uncritical enjoyment of Mary Poppins: it is to jeopardise this act of cultural continuity; it is to call into question the legitimacy of the past to which the adult remains attached, and which continues to inform their sense of themselves and their place in the world.

Cultural change around the language of race is not therefore just to do with a dispassionate historical reckoning that a Hottentot reference broadly acceptable in 1964 would not pass muster in the present. It is an undermining of our own pasts, insofar as we conceive of our individual and collective cultural histories as shaping who we are. If significant fractions of Mary Poppins’ Boxing Day audience are resistant to the diagnosis of racism in this artefact of cultural inheritance, it is because it opens up the past that constitutes us to suspicion. It seems to demand the reappraisal of a realm with which until now we had been comfortable, which we had taken for granted, and in which we have lived our lives. 

This same process is at work in recent high-profile sexual abuse stories: what is disturbing to our culture about Jimmy Saville or Harvey Weinstein is not the abusive actions of these men, but the recognition that they operated in a culture that on some level condoned and supported that abuse. What disturbs is not how abusers behaved, but how we behaved. We behaved according to the norms of cultures that we have subsequently learned to read as abusive. We allowed practices we would not condone today. The risk of attachment to the culture of the past is, therefore, the possibility that it might come back and indict you. 

Acts of cultural reappraisal happen all the time. We register them when we refer to a movie or a book as ‘dated’, acknowledging that a gap has opened up between ourselves and the moment of origination. (Perhaps the forthcoming Christmas 2018 Mary Poppins reboot is an acknowledgement of this gap, that we have all moved on). But it’s true that certain cultural texts hurt us more than others. The original Mary Poppins movie has long been a privileged artefact of cultural inheritance, and as such it has the power to make us realise that the culture that we build our lives upon is capable of calling us into question.


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