Why Disney’s ‘racist’ Mary Poppins could have been so much worse

Julie Andrews in Disney's 'discriminatory' classic Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews in Disney's 'discriminatory' classic Mary Poppins - Alamy

Of all the words that are likely to inspire offence and anger in today’s society, “Hottentot” is not particularly high on the list. It’s an antiquated term that was mainly used in the 18th and 19th centuries in conversation, generally to refer to someone as a “barbarian” or similarly uncivilised individual. It originally referred to the Khoekhoe, the nomadic society of South Africa, and was taken up firstly by the Dutch settlers of the region, and then passed into English usage in the 17th century.

Even by the beginning of the 20th century, it was seen as old hat, the kind of slang that was used by people wishing to mark themselves out as eccentric and given to archaic usage. Therefore, when the character of Admiral Boom in the much-loved 1964 Disney picture Mary Poppins had to be shown to be both old-fashioned and faintly mad – as if firing cannons from his rooftop wasn’t enough – it was an easy stretch for the film’s screenwriters, Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, to have the admiral refer, not once but twice, to the term.

On the first occasion, he asks the Banks children in Poppins’s care whether they are going to “fight the Hottentots”, and then, in a riotous and perhaps deeply un-PC scene in which London’s chimney sweeps are dancing around on the rooftops, their faces blackened with soot, the admiral is sufficiently alarmed to announce “We’re being attacked by Hottentots!” before ordering fireworks to be lit in order to repel the invaders.

The scenes have traditionally been thought to be purely comic, and not as offensive or problematic. Yet the BBFC have now announced that the film’s classification is going to be raised from a U to a PG, on the grounds that the film contains “discriminatory language”. No further specific explanation is given on the BBFC’s official website for the film’s change in certificate, which has taken the content from being “suitable for all” to warning “some scenes may be unsuitable for young children”.

It is all the more surprising because the BBFC’s entry for the film suggests “A few scary moments are quickly resolved and the tone is light and fun.” Yet now its “discriminatory language” has seen it raised into a higher category altogether, meaning that the ‘light and fun’ tone is not necessarily prevalent.

The real reason why the change has been made, of course, is that, like every other public body, the BBFC are attuned to anything that might give offence to audiences in 2024, and must address now-controversial matters that were once considered to be harmless. In a pained statement, they announced that “We understand from our racism and discrimination research that a key concern for parents is the potential to expose children to discriminatory language or behaviour which they may find distressing or repeat without realising the potential offence.”

This reflects the findings of a 2021 report in which the board wrote: “Historical racial/racist language may continue to be permissible at PG as long as they are contextually justified (for example, historical context) and not accompanied by aggravating factors (for example, violence, threat.” The ‘n’ word meanwhile cannot be featured in anything beneath a 12A, save in “exceptional circumstances.” The statement concludes: “Content with immediate and clear condemnation is more likely to receive a lower rating.”

Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins
Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins - Alamy

Yet Boom’s actions and speech are not condemned; no doubt in a 2024 version of the film, there would be a scene in which the admiral is immediately upbraided for his use of the term. But in the unreconstructed Sixties, he is free to use the now-forbidden word without any such immediate and clear condemnation.

Few are likely to be affected by the change. After all, only the strictest of parents would forbid their children from watching films with a PG certificate, and Mary Poppins remains, 60 years on, a much-loved family picture that has delighted generations of viewers. Still, when it comes to issues of race and discrimination, Disney may have been watching this particular case with more attention than usual, because of the author whose books the series was based on. Pamela Lyndon Travers, better known as P.L Travers, was an Australian-British writer who achieved international renown in the Thirties with the Mary Poppins series, which eventually ran to eight books, published between 1934 and 1988.

The saga of her agreeing to sell the rights to her creation was dramatized in considerably sanitised and airbrushed form in 2013’s Saving Mr Banks, starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney; the film was, naturally, made by Disney itself. But had they been aware of the controversy that would envelop Travers a few years later, they may have shied away from the project altogether.

The first Poppins book, simply entitled Mary Poppins, served as the main inspiration for the film that would follow three decades later, as a magical and mysterious nanny arrives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London, and, after taking her young charges on a range of adventures, opens her umbrella and is carried away by the wind, although not before promising that she will return one day: as she indeed does, a variety of times.

Mary Poppins author PL Travers in the 1950s
Mary Poppins author PL Travers in the 1950s - Getty/Popperfoto

Yet amidst the charming and wholesome antics, there is a chapter that has probably aroused more controversy than anything else Disney adapted in the 20th century, entitled simply ‘Bad Tuesday’, in which Poppins takes the children on a whistle-stop tour of the world, visiting a variety of nations and nationalities.

Only the most racially and nationalistically sensitive of writers might have managed to write this chapter without causing offence, and Travers, a robust character who spent her early years in Australia at the time of the discriminatory ‘White Australia’ policy, which sought to forbid non-white immigration to the country, was either unaware of the potential for upset or simply did not care. Therefore, the chapter includes a range of racial stereotypes that features, most problematically, a “negro lady,” holding “a tiny black pickaninny with nothing on at all.”

The character then speaks in a dialect that, even for 1934, would have been considered near-the-knuckle, when she says of the Banks children “My, but dem’s very white babies. You wan’ use a li’l bit black boot polish on dem.” This may have been acceptable in the mid-19th century, in the era of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, but by then, it was at best old-fashioned, and at worst simply racist.

Travers was not deaf to murmurs that the chapter had gone too far, and subsequently revised it twice, once in 1967 to remove the most overt racial stereotypes and again in 1981, in which Poppins and the children now visit a variety of animals rather than, as in the original, Native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans. The second and final change was a direct response to the San Francisco public library system’s 1980 decision to remove the Mary Poppins books from its shelves, citing the negative stereotyping that could be found within them.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks - Disney

Certainly, this is an uncanny precursor of the after-the-fact editing that has been visited on many authors’ books – from Roald Dahl to Ian Fleming – and only the fact that Travers herself was responsible for the changes, rather than some well-meaning editor, can make them more acceptable.

Yet this was not the only such instance of unfortunate language or tone in the Poppins series. When a soot-covered chimney sweep encounters a housemaid in 1943’s Mary Poppins Opens The Door, she screams “Don’t touch me, you black heathen”, before announcing “If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door.”

Throughout the books, there are casual uses of antiquated or offensive language, such as Michael Banks being sternly told “You will not behave like a Red Indian, Michael!” and, on another occasion, Poppins sighing to her young charge “I understand that you’re behaving like a Hottentot.” Even today, the books still feature such sentences and attitudes: time, perhaps, for another round of ‘improving’ their problematic qualities at the hands of some right-thinking editor.

Had Travers herself been uncomplicatedly colonial in her attitudes, then she could be pilloried by the right-minded. Instead, she was far more complex and multifaceted than that. She spent two summers during WWII living with the Navajo Indians on their reservations in New Mexico, which her biographer subsequently described as “among the great experiences of her life”. Travers later spoke highly of her experience. “The Indians in the Pueblo tribe gave me an Indian name and they said I must never reveal it,” she said. “Every Indian has a secret name as well as his public name. This moved me very much because I have a strong feeling about names, that names are part of a person, a very private thing to each one.”

In later television interviews Travers gave, she proudly wore the Navajo jewellery that she was given during her time staying with them, claiming that she wore it every single day as a reminder of this important period in her life.

Nonetheless, when she was a wealthy and well-beloved literary figure, Travers displayed an ambivalent attitude towards aspects of her earlier writing. In 1972 she told the academic Albert Schwartz: “Remember Mary Poppins was written a long time ago when racism was not as important.” But she also acknowledged the feelings of others. “About two years ago, a schoolteacher friend of mine, who is a devotee of Mary Poppins and reads it constantly to her class, told me that when she came to that part it always made her squirm if she had Black children in her class,” she told Schwartz. “I decided that if that should happen, if even one Black child were troubled, or even if she were troubled, then I would have to alter it.”

Anticipating contemporary conversation about racial sensitivities, she remarked that “Various friends of mine, artists and writers, said to me, ‘No, no! What you have written you have written. Stand by it!’ But, I thought, no, if the least of these little ones is going to be hurt, I am going to alter it!”

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins - Alamy

Yet in an interview with the Paris Review in 1982, she expressed regret for these actions: “What I find strange is that, while my critics claim to have children’s best interests in mind, children themselves have never objected to the book. In fact, they love it. That was certainly the case when I was asked to speak to an affectionate crowd of children at a library in Port of Spain in Trinidad. On another occasion, when a white teacher friend of mine explained how she felt uncomfortable reading the pickaninny dialect to her young students, I asked her, ‘And are the black children affronted?’ ‘Not at all,’ she replied, ‘it appeared they loved it.’”

Travers liked to portray herself as robust on these matters. “How much disservice is done to children by some individuals who occasionally offer, with good intentions, to serve as their spokesmen?” she once asked. Many would agree with her, both then and now. However, she was also pragmatic as to why she had changed her characters to animals. “I have done so not as an apology for anything I have written,” she explained. “The reason is much more simple: I do not wish to see Mary Poppins tucked away in the closet.”

The BBFC’s decision to raise the certificate of Mary Poppins for the use of the word ‘hottentot’ is probably inevitable, in the current climate, yet everyone’s favourite nanny is in no danger of cancellation. Mary Poppins, at least, may have found all this “stuff and nonsense” rather amusing.