There’s a new documentary about feminist icon Gloria Steinem airing on HBO Monday, and while I am definitely a fan, on a personal level, Mary Poppins has had a larger influence on my life. I’m not talking about the (awful) Disney movie starring Julie Andrews, but the Mary Poppins of the series of books by the same name by P.L. Travers; and also the audio recordings of the stories dramatized by Maggie Smith in the title role, (now, sadly, discontinued.) Though she may not often be grouped as a feminist of Steinem’s caliber, she is actually quite a pioneer in her own right, and a fantastic role model.
For one thing, Mary Poppins is one of the smartest people I know. Despite being firmly working class, Mary Poppins continually impresses everyone around her with her quick thinking, her wit and ingenuity. For example, when she visits her cousin to get the Banks’ piano tuned and the whole group winds up on the ceiling laughing, it is Poppins who gets them down with a simple, “It’s time to go home.”
She is also magical. By sheer force of will, or supernatural mental power, Poppins is able to convince anyone of anything. In the episode where they visit the zoo at night, she not only speaks to and is accepted by animals, but also asks the hamadryad snake not to eat Michael, and he obeys. The snake even gives her his skin for free, which she wears as a belt. She is magical, like Snow White, but always intelligent and respected, and not easily fooled.
Moreover, though she could clearly do anything and doesn’t really need money – how could a person who can fly on an umbrella need money? – she CHOOSES to spend her time raising children. Where are those examples in literature? She doesn’t condescend or talk down to them; and though she is very firm, there is never a doubt she loves them. Often, child-rearing is regarded as dull and forgettable – Poppins treats it with the intelligence, dignity and joy I try to bring to my children. She makes it seem like the most important thing in the world, and if the world doesn’t know that, it’s just ignorant.
Though Poppins herself doesn’t actively fight for women’s suffrage, she does care for the children of a woman who does, and clearly she is a strong, independent, modern woman who not only supported suffrage, but is emblematic of why women deserved it. She makes her own way, is unmarried and travels the globe on her own, taking care of herself. As a child trapped in my home until I was 18, the life I dreamed of was Mary Poppins’. Her iconoclasm gave me courage, especially since I often saw myself as the black sheep. Yes, Gloria Steinem is amazing too, but she is incredibly beautiful, single, childless and wealthy. So I have more in common with Mary Poppins who may be less overtly charming, but has just as much integrity. Poppins’ prickly personality appeals more to me, and it’s less people pleasing (read: traditional) than Steinem’s. I find her almost pathologically comforting, which is a role often filled by male characters in literature or mythology: Zeus, Jesus, Judd Hirsch on Taxi. Plus, did I mention she travels through the air by umbrella???