Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sexing Mary Poppins, and Saving Mr. Banks, Part 1

The Disney version, and friend.

I always thought Mary Poppins was a lesbian.

Or at least even when I was a little boy, before I knew what a "lesbian" was, I somehow understood Mary Poppins was a sexual outlier - like so many other figures in children's literature. She simply existed outside the reproductive cycle of heterosexuality (as her audience did); she was mature, yet somehow pre-pubescent; and her readers instinctively sensed that kinship. But then back in the day, the abnormal was all but the norm in children's literature, whose leading lights included P.L. Travers, the creator of Poppins (and a bachelorette who set up housekeeping with other women), Peter Pan's J.M. Barrie (who was obsessed with little boys), and Alice's Lewis Carroll (likewise, only with little girls).

Perhaps something in the structure of the fairy tale allows for this strangely cunning masquerade, I don't know. But the kid-lit closet couldn't survive the translation of these sources into mass-media vehicles. The sad news is that the suppression of the facts about so many children's classics - in short, that they disguise sexual eccentricity (to put it mildly) - has perhaps inevitably led to a new, postmodern genre of doubly sanitized pop expression.

Take, for instance, Julie Andrews. I knew for certain that Mary Poppins wasn't Julie Andrews, the stern but scrumptious anchor of "the Disney version" of the original tales, who came equipped with her own hetero-normative beard (a van Dyke - a "Dick Van Dyke," in fact, which must count as some sort of triple entendre).

Oh, make no mistake - I adore "the Disney version" of Poppins, as I did when my parents took me to see it in 1964, at one of those cinemas that had a veil which parted like a négligée before the screen. The movie struck me then as long, and somewhat placidly paced. (It still does.) But in between the talky parts, there were flights of fancy that sent me into wide-eyed rapture. (They still do.)

A young Travers as Titania on the Australian stage.
And I adored Andrews - bright-eyed and fresh as an apple, a chaste goddess with the voice of a lark (or robin), she was warm yet strictly remote, and thus tickled a child's sublimated sexual pleasure centers without ever actually arousing any of them. Which engendered an air of mystery that extended well beyond her ability to hang out on clouds; her very identity was scrambled; she was somehow a British nanny, and yet also the American girl-next-door; and while she had a boyfriend, he didn't really seem to be her boyfriend.

This was all curious enough; but when I picked up the first of the original books two or three years later, I was stunned to discover yet another,  entirely different figure. Bumptious and defiantly vain - despite the fact that we're repeatedly told she's quite plain - Travers' Poppins is a tyrant with a striking edge of masculine, working-class weirdness. (Indeed, she often mutters to herself, "Strike me pink!" - which insinuates that she is not, naturally, pink.)

And the rambling, formless adventures Poppins embarks on with her young charges (there are four kids in the books, not two) are bizarre in a Bloomsbury-on-acid kind of way (in one scene the Pleiades drop by to say hello). But then Travers was her own daft brand of mystic, and was (like many a former actress) devoted to astrology. What's more, her characters venture out among the proletariat, as the author leaned decidedly to the left; they consort with chimney sweeps and zookeepers - and her setting is the economically pinched 1930's, not the fat Edwardian years of the Disney film (in the books, the Banks house is even "the shabbiest on the street"). 

Even more startling, the original Poppins taps into a world that's off-handedly uncanny - tables and chairs and umbrellas routinely talk back to you - and studded with vignettes that suggest real horror (not for nothing was the young author a fan of the Brothers Grimm - indeed she sometimes referred to all stories as "Grimms").  In the end, the heroine of Mary Poppins, believe it or not, is a kind of lesbian Cockney witch - which as a precocious seven-year-old I understood in that way that children understand everything that is intimated but never articulated.  She was the nanny that Travers imagined she herself might be, should she ever master a few of the dark arts, that is.

So it's no surprise the author vehemently rejected commercial overtures from Disney (which began in 1938 and were regularly renewed); her essentially bohemian works not only existed outside his cloying universe, in a way they were opposed to it. Disney determinedly eradicated destabilizing sexual valences from his product (while Travers repeatedly sneaked them into hers), and he was famously anti-feminist and anti-Communist (and even anti-union - in fact he denounced union organizers at Disney as communist infiltrators to the House Un-American Activities Committee).

And let's not forget that his brand of German-American über-cuteness was often just crass, and that while the man himself was perhaps no more bigoted than his times (even if he was pals with Leni Reifenstahl), his work was sometimes tainted with racist or anti-Semitic tropes (scenes from the original edition interpolated back into Fantasia, below).

The racist edge of Fantasia's dreadful Sixth Symphony episode.

So it's quite hard to imagine a slightly dotty Aussie lesbian warming up to the likes of Walt Disney. But the mogul was determined, as his daughters innocently adored the Poppins books - and so his offers kept going up, even as Travers' income from her books slowly went down.

So there was much at stake in her struggle over the rights to Mary Poppins - even if it was inevitable, perhaps, that she would ultimately cave. But if you think any of that battle actually makes its way into the anodyne Tom Hanks-Emma Thompson vehicle Saving Mr. Banks, think again - as we'll see in the second half of this two-part article.


  1. _"...her essentially bohemian works not only existed outside his cloying universe, in a way they were opposed to it. Disney determinedly eradicated destabilizing sexual valences from his product (while Travers repeatedly sneaked them into hers)."_

    Agree insofar as this refers to the Disney version of Mary Poppins, but respectfully disagree insofar as it refers to Disney's work in general (or at least to the feature length animated movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties, meaning the center of his work).

    Comic Disney is sexless - including the trademark cute woodland creatures and things like Tinkerbell or the topless centaurs in Fantasia, which are merely parodies of sexuality. But when Disney aspires to the serious sublime, sex becomes present implicitly - the dark woods, with the princesses standing out against them as islands of light, in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty; the violently churning ocean and the inside of the whale in Pinocchio - and more explicitly - the femmes fatales (the evil queen/stepmother/fairy) sexually jealous of younger women; the prince and princess invariably getting married at the end, implying conception (Pixar's films, which never do, make a telling contrast; so, for that matter, does Mary Poppins, who is, as you've already noted, effectively sterile).

  2. I didn't say Disney was "sexless;" indeed, in a way he was obsessed with sex - but he was deeply anxious about it. You do quote what I said, but I'll repeat it: Disney "determinedly eradicated destabilizing sexual valences from his product." I think we can categorize such tropes as "dark woods" and "princesses standing out against them as islands of light" as modes of that anxiety. Likewise the widely noted power of Monstro's phallic bulk breaking through the churning waves of "Pinocchio" is largely dependent on sexual dread (although of the male, not the female, organ). Sexual horror is everywhere in Disney, particularly when sex is coupled with political power (hence the reliance on aging femme fatales as villains). But this is hardly the bohemian stance toward sex; indeed, I think Travers would have been especially sensitive to his stock of sexy female villains, all of whom are bent on killing their nubile, passively fertile replacements. Mary Poppins is certainly odd, and she exposes her charges to strange and disturbing visions, but like most of the gay characters in children's literature, she's not at all malicious - indeed, she's entirely benign.

  3. Thank you for the reply.

    I apologize for misunderstanding your use of the word "eradicate" as indicating a refusal to represent sex as opposed to an anxious representation of it.

    That said, in the article, and again in your description of Mary Poppins as "entirely benign", you still hint at an interesting (and possibly disturbing) question: To what extent does the "bohemian" tolerance for sexual eccentricity - by now also the stance, more or less, of the mainstream liberal and libertarian contingents of the upper middle class - depend on the belief that there essentially isn't, or shouldn't be, much of anything dangerous about sex? (That is, that whatever danger is involved with sex is almost all the result of artificially imposed social hierarchy and repression or, alternately, that society should train people in such a way as to make sex entirely - or at least almost entirely - safe.)

  4. Well, that probably IS the bohemian stance toward sex. It may not be correct, but that's the stance. And Disney's was an opposing stance - that one form of sex was transcendent, while most others were threatening.

  5. I hope this is going to be one of your multi-part postings in which you post more than just Part One!