The women’s suffrage subplot in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (dir. Robert Stevenson, US, 1964) has come to dominate the popular memory of the history of the turn-of- the- century women’s movement. This essay examines how the film’s imaginative portrayal of women’s suffrage, especially in Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s song “Sister Suffragette,” highlights some of the most significant and problematic pro-suffrage tactics developed in Britain and the US. It also reveals the characterization of Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) to be deeply influenced by misogynistic anti-suffrage stereotypes and media. The upheaval of the Banks household, in turn, reflects the chaos anti-suffragists believed would result from upturning social hierarchies based on gender, class, and race. Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) and Bert (Dick Van Dyke) repeatedly destabilize masculinity and femininity, yet they do not seek to discard patriarchal social structures; rather, in the mode of anti-suffrage media, their presence ultimately works to reinforce these very hierarchies and endorse bourgeois respectability. Despite such tensions, many popular commemorations of Mary Poppins assume the film’s representation of women’s suffrage to be inherently feminist. Some go so far as to use Mary Poppins as a vehicle through which to reflect on feminist and women’s history. This essay challenges the assumption that the film seeks to offer a positive commemoration of suffrage history, suggesting instead that Mrs. Banks and the Mary Poppins suffrage subplot might be more productively understood as offering an ambivalent—even anti-suffrage—representation of the Anglo-American suffragette.
Ana Stevenson; “Cast Off the Shackles of Yesterday”: Women’s Suffrage in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. Camera Obscura 1 September 2018; 33 (2 (98)): 69–103. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-6923118
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