Thursday, March 03, 2005

The perfect nanny

"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking."

I've lived most of my life according to this dictum. But I've come a long way, baby.

I knew about Mary Poppins as a kid, and I knew all the songs from the movie (we had the soundtrack), but I didn't see Disney's Mary Poppins until I was about 20. My reaction at that time: "You know, she can be quite a bitch." That was the child in me responding to the disciplinarian and trickster. She was not the permissive enabler that I'd imagined was every child's vision of nanny perfection.

Helena received Mary Poppins on DVD for Christmas, and we've been watching it quite a bit. Now that I'm a mother, and a working one at that, this movie is a little more meaningful. Helena, meanwhile, is charmed, but I can't honestly say that I understand what the appeal is to her (except for the umbrella).


On the rooftops of London. Posted by Hello

Would you entrust your children to the care of someone so vain (constantly checking the mirror) and irresponsible (eschewing errands in favour of personal business), impertinent and disrespectful? who casually lets the children run off by themselves while she cavorts with her "boyfriend" (a street performer no less)? who takes the children to the racetrack? spends her time traipsing across the rooftops of London with a host of filthy characters (she may as well be hanging out on the docks) and trails them into your home?

It wouldn't surprise me in the least if illicit substances were involved. Teaparties on the ceiling, stepping into pictures...

Is she not worse than your average teenage babysitter?

But it turns out that she is in fact practically perfect, just the right balance of fun with responsibility, clever in the arts of distraction and persuasion so vital in caring for children. Brimming with tough love. (Maybe it's this that children respond to.)

The year is 1910. Mrs Banks is a suffragette, and arguably a working mother — working for the Cause at any rate. The film was made in the 1960s, with a whole other kind of feminism taking place. Pioneering times for women.

Interestingly, the women in this movie seem to have it all together. Mary Poppins, of course, is practically perfect in every way. Even Cook, in a minor role, has common sense and her wits about her, knowing the order of things and maintaining all as it should be. Mrs Banks exudes confidence, devotes her energy to the cause while still effectively managing her household — dealing with staff, loving her children, and stroking her husband's ego, exerting her influence but never stepping on his toes. She never questions Motherhood, her place at home, or the work/home divide. She's as much a superwoman as Mary Poppins.

It is the men who need saving.
Although we adore men individually.
We agree that as a group they're rather stupid.


The Telegraph reviewed the recent London stage production of Mary Poppins, but I feel many of the points are equally relevant to the film:

The biggest shift is to make Mary Poppins a parable about adulthood rather than childhood. The lesson that the children are taught is to empathise with their father. Mary Poppins decides to leave when she has bestowed what is now called emotional intelligence on Mr Banks.

Eyre says this is a show for anyone who is part of a family. It could be an election model for a hard-working family. Here is a London couple in the throes of a childcare crisis. Mr Banks is converted to the joys of the work/life balance. The fairytale ending is that he gets to spend more time with his family while simultaneously achieving a huge pay rise...

The main difference between artistic portrayals of childhood stories and Disney is the shade of darkness. Eyre, on Radio 4, was keen to evade the "dark" cliché, preferring the word "complicated". But it is broadly true that the great narrators of childhood — J M Barrie, Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket — portray childhood as a sorrowful or savage state. There are shades of Barrie in the portrayal of Mr Banks, an unloved child becoming a lost adult.

Nannies also have a literary ambiguity (as in life). I was expecting a Turn of the Screw character, from the pre-publicity about Poppins's repressed sexual desire and malign disruptiveness.

In fact, she is more of a super management consultant figure flying in to fix family life.


"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking." Perfect people, I have learned, allow just enough sentiment to seep through, to soften the edge.

As the 35-year-old mother of a toddler, I have fallen in love with this movie, not just as a guide to dealing with children but to balancing life. And one of the greatest movie dance sequences of all time. (And I can't wait to get my hand on the books.)

New York Times review.

In an aside to a recent discussion of the Christianity in the upcoming movie of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, was actually a follower of the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff," Mr. Kaplan said. "Her books were imbued by mysticism, the idea that all is one and one is all. But the film became a family drama in which domestic issues, the role of the children and the prospect of the working world were the themes, rather than the great chain of being or the universality of humanity."


For the curious:
Esotericism in Mary Poppins.
What Travers wrote on Gurdjieff.
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