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    5. Why Disney's 'racist' Mary Poppins could have been so much ..


    Why Disney's 'racist' Mary Poppins could have been so much worse

    Julie Andrews in “discriminatory” Disney film. classic Mary Poppins. Photo: Alamy

    Of all the words that can cause resentment and anger in modern society, “Hottentot” doesn't rank high on the list. It is an outdated term that was primarily used colloquially in the 18th and 19th centuries, typically to refer to someone as a “barbarian” or similar uncivilized person. It originally referred to the Khekho, a nomadic society of South Africa, and was adopted first by Dutch settlers of the region before coming into use in England in the 17th century.

    Even by the early 20th century, the word was considered outdated, a kind of slang used by people wanting to mark themselves out as eccentric and outdated. So when the character of Admiral Boom in the beloved 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins was to be shown as both old-fashioned and slightly insane – as if firing cannons from his roof wasn't enough – it was an easy stretch for the film's screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi to ask the admiral to mention this term not once, but twice.

    First, he asks the Banks children, in Poppins' care, if they are going to “fight the Hottentots,” and then, in a riotous and perhaps entirely un-CG scene in which London chimney sweeps dance on rooftops , their faces blackened with soot, the admiral was alarmed enough to announce: “The Hottentots are attacking us!” before ordering fireworks to be lit to repel the invaders.

    Traditionally, these scenes have been considered purely comic rather than offensive or problematic. However, the BBFC has now announced that the film's classification will be upgraded from U to PG on the grounds that the film contains “discriminatory language”. The official BBFC website does not provide any further specific explanation for the change in the film's certificate, which changed the film's content from “suitable for everyone” to the warning “some scenes may be unsuitable for young children”.

    This is all the more surprising as the BBFC entry for the film suggests: “A few scares are quickly resolved, the tone is light and cheerful.” However, now his “discriminatory language” has elevated him into a higher category altogether, meaning the “light and cheerful” tone does not necessarily prevail.

    The real reason the changes have been made, of course, is that, like any other government body, the BBFC is set on anything that might offend audiences in 2024, and must deal now with controversial issues that were once considered unresolved. harmless. In a painful statement, they said: “From our research into racism and discrimination, we understand that a key concern for parents is the possibility of exposing children to discriminatory speech or behavior that they may become upset about or repeat without realizing the potential offence.”

    This reflects the findings of the 2021 report, in which the board wrote: “Historic racial/supremacist language may remain acceptable in PG as long as it is contextually justified (e.g., historical context) and is not accompanied by aggravating factors (e.g., violence, threat.” Meanwhile, the “n” word cannot appear in anything below level 12A, except in “exceptional circumstances.” The statement concludes: “Content with immediate and explicit condemnation is more likely to receive a lower rating.”< /p> Dick Van Dyke in the film “Mary Poppins” Photo: Alamy

    However, Boom's actions and words are not condemned; without a doubt, in In the 2024 version of the film, there will be a scene in which the admiral is immediately rebuked for using the term, but in the unreconstructed sixties, he is free to use the now-banned word without such immediate and obvious condemnation.< /p>

    The changes are likely to affect few. After all, only the strictest parents would forbid their children from watching PG films, and Mary Poppins, 60 years later, remains a family favorite that has delighted generations of viewers. However, when it comes to issues of race and discrimination, Disney may have been following this particular case with more attention than usual due to the author whose books the series is based on. Pamela Lyndon Travers, better known as P. L. Travers, was an Australian-British writer who achieved international fame in the thirties with the Mary Poppins series, which eventually ran to eight books, published between 1934 and 1988.

    The saga of her agreement to sell the rights to her creation was dramatized in greatly sanitized and airbrushed form in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney; the film, of course, was produced by Disney itself. But if they had known about the controversy that would engulf Travers a few years later, they might have avoided the project altogether.

    The first Poppins book, entitled simply Mary Poppins, was the main inspiration for the film that followed three decades later, when a magical and mysterious nanny arrives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London and takes her young charges on adventures. , opens her umbrella and is carried away by the wind, although first she promises that she will return one day: which she does, repeatedly.

    Author Mary Poppins P. L. Travers in the 1950s Photo: Getty/Popperfoto

    Nevertheless , among the charming and wholesome antics, there is a chapter that has probably caused more controversy than anything else Disney has adapted in the 20th century, simply called “Bad Tuesday,” in which Poppins takes the children on a trip around the world, visiting a variety of nation and nationality. .

    Only the most racially and nationalistically sensitive writers could write this chapter without offending, and Travers, a strong personality who spent her early years in Australia during the discriminatory “White Australia” policy, which sought to ban non-white immigration into the country, either did not know about the potential upset, or simply didn't care. Thus, this chapter includes a number of racial stereotypes, the most problematic of which is a “black woman”, holding in his hands “a tiny black picanni without clothes”.

    The character then speaks in a dialect that even in 1934 would have been considered almost inappropriate when she speaks of the Banks children: “Oh, but they're very white babies. You want to put a little black shoe polish on them. It may have been acceptable in the mid-19th century, in the era of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, but by then it was old-fashioned at best and downright racist at worst.

    Travers was not deaf to murmurs that the chapter had gone too far, and subsequently revised it twice: once in 1967 to eliminate the most obvious racial stereotypes, and again in 1981, when Poppins and the children now visit a wide variety of animals , and not, as in the original, Native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans. The second and final change was a direct response to the San Francisco public library system's decision in 1980 to remove Mary Poppins books from its shelves, citing negative stereotypes they contained.

    Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers in Saving Mister Banks Photo: Disney

    Of course, this is an incredible precursor to the post-facto editing seen in the books of many authors – from Roald Dahl to Ian Fleming – and only the fact that Travers herself was responsible for the changes, rather than some well-meaning editor, may make them more acceptable.

    However, this was not the only instance of poor expression or tone in the Poppins series. When a soot-covered chimney sweep encounters a maid in the 1943 film Mary Poppins Opens the Door, she shouts, “Don't touch me, black heathen,” before declaring, “If that Hottentot comes down the chimney, I'll go out the door.” »

    The books occasionally contain outdated or offensive language, such as when Michael Banks is sternly told, “You won't act like a Red Indian, Michael!” and another time Poppins sighed to her young charge: “I understand that you are behaving like a Hottentot.” Even today, such sentences and attitudes still appear in books: perhaps it's time for another round of “improving” their problematic qualities at the hands of some sensible editor.

    If Travers herself had held uncomplicated colonial views, then she might have been criticized by reasonable people. On the contrary, it was much more complex and multifaceted. During World War II, she spent two summers living with the Navajo Indians on their reservations in New Mexico, which her biographer later called “one of the great events of her life.” Travers later spoke highly of her experience. “The Pueblo Indians gave me an Indian name and told me I should never reveal it,” she said. “Every Indian has a secret name as well as a public name. This really touched me because I have a strong feeling about names, that names are part of a person, very personal to everyone.”

    In later television interviews Travers gave, she proudly wore Navajo jewelry that was given to her in during her stay there. with them, claiming that she wore it every single day as a reminder of this important period in her life.

    However, while she was a wealthy and beloved literary figure, Travers demonstrated ambivalence about aspects of her early work. In 1972, she told academic Albert Schwartz: “Remember, Mary Poppins was written a long time ago, when racism was not so important.” But she also acknowledged the feelings of others. “About two years ago, a schoolteacher friend of mine who is a fan of Mary Poppins and reads it to her class all the time, told me that when she got to this part, she always cringed if there were black kids in her class. – she told Schwartz. “I decided that if this happened, if even one black child had problems, or even if she had problems, then I would have to change it.”

    Anticipating the contemporary conversation about racial sensitivity, she noted: “Various of my friends, artists and writers, have told me: “No, no! What you wrote, you wrote. Wait!” But, I thought, no, if even the slightest one of these babies gets hurt, I will change this!”

    Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins. Photo: Alami

    However, in an interview with the Paris Review in 1982, she deplored these actions: “What seems strange to me is that although my critics claim to have the best interests of children at heart, the children themselves have never objected to the book. In fact, they love it. That's exactly what happened when I was asked to speak to a loving crowd of children at the Port of Spain library in Trinidad. Another time, when a white teacher friend of mine explained how uncomfortable she felt reading Pikaninny dialect to her young students, I asked her, “Are black kids offended?” “Not at all,” she replied, “they seemed to enjoy it.”

    Travers liked to portray herself as confident in these matters. “How much of a disservice are being done to children by some people who occasionally, with good intentions, offer to act as their representatives?” one day she asked. Many would agree with her then and now. However, she was also pragmatic about why she changed her characters to animals. “I didn't do it as an apology for anything I wrote,” she explained. “The reason is much simpler: I don’t want to see Mary Poppins hidden in the closet.”

    The BBFC's decision to issue a certificate to Mary Poppins for using the word “Hottentot” is probably inevitable in the current climate, but the much-loved nanny won't be revoked. At least Mary Poppins might have found all this “nonsense and nonsense” quite funny.

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