If you're worried about Mary Poppins being racist, then you're focusing on the wrong thing

Calling out racist subtext misses the Dumbo-in-the-room – that white supremacy is the origin story of modern Western Europe and its annexed colonies

Victoria Anderson@victoria_and_
Monday 04 February 2019 16:16
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Mary Poppins branded racist by US academic

First of all, an admission. I've never seen Mary Poppins all the way through. While I know the chorus of Supercalifragilistic-et cetera off by heart – albeit not intentionally – jaunty chimney-sweeps and gaudy nannies just aren't my thing.

(My son, however, has seen Mary Poppins multiple times – apparently never when I've been in the same room.)

But now, an article written by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in the New York Times has caused a stir by claiming that Mary Poppins is – pause here for a sharp intake of breath – racist.

Oh yes, indeed. Specifically, the professor draws attention to the books on which the film is based, featuring as they do occasional casual racist references that were wholly unexceptional in the mid-20th century. He also highlights visual parallels between the British sub-tradition of music-hall cheeky chappie chimney sweeps and the American tradition of blackface minstrelsy which, he claims, are subtly conflated in Disney's film.

Pollack-Pelzner – who, interestingly, is a professor of Shakespeare studies, rather than popular visual culture or race – argues that blackface minstrelsy is “part of Disney’s origin story”, referring to an 1933 Mickey Mouse short which features dear old Mickey in blackface.

In fact, blackface minstrelsy could be said to be underpin all of American mainstream popular culture as it evolved in the first half of the 20th century; certainly in terms of music, stage and screen. Blackface minstrelsy – white performers blacking their faces and parodying black people in a grotesque (at least to contemporary tastes) commingle of comedy, music and dance – was far and away the most popular form of public entertainment in pre-movie-era America.

And if we're calling a politically-correct-gone-mad spade a spade, then let's not be shy.

The so-called “n****r shows” were a fundamental staple of American entertainment right the way through the 19th and into the 20th century, eclipsed only when the movies became popular.

The 1930s vogue for movies based on musical revues (Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, for instance) can only be considered a direct descendant. Accordingly, traces of blackface are found throughout early movies, from Ku Klux Klan epic Birth of a Nation (1915) – the film that launched a thousand sheets and the first ever film to be shown in The White House – to the assortment of US animated shorts that were still being shown on British TV when I was a child in the 1970s. And let's not even mention the Black and White Minstrel Show.

What's perhaps more interesting than the professor's set piece is that it's caused controversy. I think there's something that we need to establish before we start picking through Mary Poppins for scraps of subliminal racism.

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It ought to go without saying that the most crudely racist imagery in US and British popular culture – such as Scottish writer Helen Bannerman's enduringly popular character Little Black Sambo, written in 1899 and republished as a children's favourite for decades – was only the most obnoxious tip of a vast, largely unseen iceberg.

The current controversy over Mary Poppins misses the point to the extent that it seems to suggest that opaque and subliminal racism in popular culture is the exception rather than the rule.

Calling out Disney for racist subtexts misses the Dumbo-in-the-room, being that white supremacy is THE origin story of modern Western Europe and its annexed colonies, and naturally forms a subtext to much of our popular discourse.

This being so, begs the question: why, then, should we be continually surprised and freshly outraged on finding more or less explicit traces of racial semiotics in popular culture?

It is both baffling and mildly depressing. Less common would be to find historical examples that contradict and counteract racist stereotypes. Of course, what's talked about less than white supremacy is its intended effect, which is black shame – but perhaps that's another story for another day.

Victoria Anderson is author of Wings a collaborative book also by comic artist Wallis Eates and the men of HMP Wandsworth

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