Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Reformation of Mrs. Banks in Disney's Mary Poppins

Well, Taegan seems to be learning quite a bit about movie adaptation from our little Mary Poppins unit. Since we watched the Disney film version a couple of weeks ago, she has noted several differences between the book and the movie. This is typical: she often quietly observes something and then brings up its various aspects over the course of the next several weeks or even months, continually thinking through the issues raised by the occurrence. Soon after we watched the film, for instance, she expressed her disappointment that John and Barbara don’t appear in the movie. (I think the scene in which the babies talk to a bird was her favorite in the book!) Several days later, she commented that while the book said that Mary Poppins is plain, in the movie she is very pretty. And yesterday she announced, in what seemed like utter indignation, “In the movie, Mary Poppins says that she is never cross, but in the book she is cross all the time!” Indeed, Mary Poppins, the movie, is frustratingly dissimilar to the book.

This is not news to the critics, who have thoroughly outlined all the ways that Disney changed the story (much to the dismay of PL Travers, according to a great article in a 2005 issue of The New Yorker, which reports on the author’s lengthy negotiations with Disney and her troubled response to the film). As Donald Levin points out after citing many of the differences between the book and the film, “the entire narrative line of the Disney movie is fabricated” (116). Most interesting to me, of course, are the drastic differences between the portrayal of Mrs. Banks in the book and her depiction in the film. Mrs. Banks plays a very minor role in Travers’s version, merely peeking into the nursery every once in a while to check on how the children are faring with Mary Poppins. She is also a static character, just as uninvolved in her children’s care—and as committed to the notion of utilizing a nanny—at the end of the novel as she is at the beginning. In the film, though, Winifred Banks starts out as a committed suffragist who marches in support of votes for women and condones the throwing of eggs at Winston Churchill. At the end of the movie, however, Winifred is transformed into a model mother, using her suffragist sash, so dear to her at the movie’s opening, as a tail for the children’s kite. She is thus depicted as putting aside her rallies and controversial ideals in order to return to the nursery upon Mary Poppins’s departure. In the end, then, the film restores the Banks household to its rightful order, with Mrs. Banks as the primary caretaker of the children.

Of course, in this way, Disney’s 1964 Mary Poppins says more about its own historical moment than life in a British household in either the 1930s, when the book was set, or the 1910s, when the story in the film is supposed to take place. As Anne McLeer points out, roles for middle-class women were beginning to change in the 1960s, but many Americans were nostalgic for the romanticized nuclear family of the 1950s (4). The film, therefore, works to contain anxieties surrounding the fact that women were more and more often seeking fulfillment outside of the home by “bolster[ing] the ideal American family structure of breadwinning father, stay-at-home mother, and children” (McLeer 5).

My question is this, then: if Mrs. Banks’s characterization demonstrates a cultural response to the increasing empowerment of women in the 1960s, what will her characterization in the theatrical version—which opened on Broadway in 2006 and has experienced continued financial success for the past four years—tell us about how we feel about women and motherhood today? Stay tuned. I will report back after we see the musical on June 6th. And I’ll let you know what Taegan has to say about how Mary Poppins’s demeanor—supposed to be haughty and “cross,” according to the book—comes across in the play.

Bibliographic Note: Critics have discussed Winifred Banks’s characterization extensively. See Caitlin Flanagan and Lori Kenschaft in addition to McLeer.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Caitlin. “Becoming Mary Poppins: PL Travers, Walt Disney, and the Making of a Myth.” The New Yorker. 19 Dec. 2005 ( 26 May 2010.

Kenschaft, Lori. “Just a Spoonful of Sugar? Anxieties of Gender and Class in Mary Poppins. Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children's Literature and Culture. Ed. Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. 227-42.

Levin, Donald. “The Americanization of Mary: Contesting Cultural Narratives in Disney’s Mary Poppins.” Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays. Ed. Leslie Stratyner and James R. Keller. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. 115-23.

Mary Poppins. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Perf. Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke. Walt Disney Studios, 1964.

McLeer, Anne. “Practical Perfection? The Nanny Negotiates Gender, Class, and Family Contradictions in 1960s Popular Culture.” NWSA Journal 14.2 (2002): 80-101.


  1. I feel so ignorant! Until reading this post, I had no idea Mary Poppins was a book. Love the final question about the relation to motherhood. I'll stay tuned...

  2. You are not ignorant, Hailey! I didn't know either until we decided to see the play and I did some research about it. Thanks for the comment, though!

  3. What a fascinating discussion! I am not a fan of Caitlin Flanagan (see here for a review that explains better than I can why: but her New Yorker article on the history of the movie/book, which I'm very glad you pointed out, is--I admit--both fascinating and well written.

    I remember my mother taking me to see Mary Poppins when it first came out. (It may have been my first movie altogether . . . either that or Sound of Music; those two are among my most cherished memories of outings with my mother). I was entranced, of course.

    I can't wait to see what you two think of the play!

  4. Wowsers, Dani. This is a scathing critique of Flanagan's anti-gardening sentiments! Very well written and convincing, I must admit. On another note, it is very interesting that you mention Sound of Music in the same breath as Mary Poppins. The McLeer article that I cite in this post considers both of them together and argues that they do a similar thing in that they both contend with feminism by displacing the family issues being faced in the US in the 1950s and 60s to other shores, Mary Poppins to England, of course, and Sound of Music to Austria, I think.

  5. You're right, there's a core message underlying both those films about "real woman" and their roles. I agree with your comment above that feminism seems to be the butt of the joke (or, perhaps more exactly, a woman who defines herself outside of the traditional roles is the real butt of the joke)--but might one argue that if Mary Poppins argues against suffragettes (the film, of course), that Sound of Music argues against the unfulfilled unmarried state of a nun? I think that's a POWERFUL message in that movie, actually. Or--to spin it more positively--love is the greatest fulfillment of all?

    The two movies are intertwined in my mind. 1) They both came out around the same time, give or take a year. 2) They both starred Julie Andrews, who was THE cinematic darling at the time. 3) They were both wholesome family musicals. 4) I associate both with my mother, who as a True Innocent half-lived in such movies, and passed her love of them on to me.

    There WAS a big push against the emerging 60s culture, I think now, but at the time they were both part of the Big Cinema of the day. And being ancient, I at least dimly remember these things . . .

  6. I am also a professor, and have written about Mary Poppins. I happened upon your Blog when I was searching for articles about the film, and I read a number of your other posts as well - very interesting. If I remember to do so, I'll send an email to your gmail.