It may have been a while since you carefully watched the first 20 minutes of Mary Poppins. As I child, I didn’t watch them at all; I just distracted myself until “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
Here’s what happens: The nanny wants to quit. Mrs. Banks comes home and sings a song about suffrage, then realizes the nanny is quitting and the children are missing. Mr. Banks comes home and sings a song about patriarchy, then realizes that the children are missing and the nanny is quitting.
My kids spend the first 20 minutes of the film alternating between “Why are they doing that, Mommy?” and “Mary Poppins is going to come soon.”
I can’t help but admire Disney’s boldness, beginning a children’s movie with songs that will interest them not at all. From their subtle humor (“Noblesse oblige”) to their subject matter, these songs are meant more for the adults watching the film with their children. And I submit they are meant to start teaching the adults, as well.
Everyone is constantly interrupting each other’s songs in these 20 minutes. The nanny keeps trying to announce her resignation (and say the children are lost) during “Sister Suffragette” while Mrs. Banks sings bravely on. Once Mrs. Banks is apprised of the situation, she proceeds to try to tell Mr. Banks—who does the exact same thing to her that she just did to the nanny, ignoring her persistent interruptions (“Dear, it’s about the children”) to proceed with his orderly song and routine.
Why the constant interruptions? I actually don’t think the interruptions themselves are the point; the point is that the singer won’t stop singing.
Mr. and Mrs. Banks both have agendas. They are important agendas: women’s votes, provision for the family. These things make them feel needed—and these things are, indeed, needed. But these parents are so wrapped up in those agendas that pressing matters for their family are repeatedly brushed off as interruptions before forcing themselves upon their notice. And of course, the children themselves are viewed much in the same light.
One can easily imagine them today on their phones. Mrs. Banks tweets heroically in her quest for justice; Mr. Banks checks the stocks on his app. It’s not bad, what they’re doing. Just like in the movie, they feel like they need to do it. What their smartphones do is bring the opportunity home.
I’ve read several articles that argue that part (not all, but part) of what keeps us going back to our phones again and again is that sense of being needed. There’s a deliciousness to it: the world needs me to bring this to its attention. The election needs me to post this important article. My client needs me to answer this text right away. So often, we can ignore the people right in front of us to respond to the false sense of urgency of having all the world at our fingertips.
The alternative to this agenda-driven lifestyle in the film is Mary Poppins. In my memories of Mary, I held an angelic Montessori-style nanny who always gave the children her full attention and the fun they were missing. That would be the easy polarity many modern films might settle for (we’ll see what the new Mary Poppins does). But no, Mary Poppins is not a “Let kids be kids” nanny. She is no-nonsense, strict, and corrective. Yes, she takes Jane and Michael on magical trips. She also scolds them for talking nonsense when they reminisce about those trips.
What she does do is let her own agenda be interrupted. On a walk to the park, she rolls her eyes at Bert’s suggestion to go into the picture, but she makes it happen and proceeds to enjoy herself. While dragging the children out on a mission to the fish-monger, she allows herself to be sidetracked by a dog, who tells her that Uncle Albert is on the ceiling. Shenanigans ensue. On her day off, she still follows everyone up the chimney and joins them in their fun (annoyed at the prospect but fully present once she’s on the rooftops). Those are the three biggest “fun” song numbers in the film: all interruptions to Mary’s original agenda.
By doing these things, Mary isn’t primarily there to “save the children” from their parents’ distraction. Jane and Michael are resilient, accepting of their parents’ foibles. There’s no hint of resentment or rebellion brewing.
No, the plot of the movie (as pointed out in Disney’s self-congratulatory and perhaps duplicitous Saving Mr. Banks) is that Mary is there to save Mr. Banks himself. She’s not saving him from future rebellion, but from future regret. Even if Jane and Michael grow up to be loving, respectable adults who always enjoy their parents at holidays, Mr. Banks has missed something huge if he continues as-is. As Bert sings when he gets a crack at talking to Mr. Banks,
You’ve got to grind, grind, grind
At that grindstone
Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve
And all too soon they’ve up and grown
And then they’ve flown
And it’s too late for you to give.
In the end of Mary Poppins, Mr. and Mrs. Banks both accept an interruption to their agendas. Mr. Banks responds immediately to the opportunity of a windy day; Mrs. Banks’ suffragette banner is used as its tail (it is submitting to the family’s needs now, not the family to its needs). It’s a happy ending.
What will our ending be?
The thing about smartphones is that our agendas creep in even more insidiously. We can think we’re having family time: a walk, a movie, a restaurant. But we still check our phones every five minutes. They’re on the table at the restaurant. It’s not as obvious that our agendas are taking us away; we’re still physically present with our kids, after all. But our kids are smart, and though they may not show open resentment, they’ll soon figure out where they fall on the scale of what makes Mommy and Daddy feel fulfilled. Heaven forbid they fall below a client. Heaven especially forbid they fall below Facebook. I’m preaching to myself.
While ruminating on Mary Poppins, I remembered a mom I used to babysit for. She only had a landline, and she warned me that she would never answer the phone when I called, but she would always listen to my message and call me back. I used to think it was strange. Now I think it is brilliant. Her family didn’t submit to her phone. Her phone submitted to her family.
Since the day I noticed the interrupting first 20 minutes of Mary Poppins, I’ve kept my own phone on silent on the kitchen counter (not in my back pocket). I miss some photo opportunities that way, but I view it as relishing an even more important opportunity. I enjoy my kids a lot more when they’re not interrupting my agenda. But they, like Jane and Michael, weren’t meaning to interrupt. It was the huge place my agenda took up that was the real problem.
Photo Credit: Grannies Kitchen via Flickr. CC