On Mary Poppins and Feminism

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen Mary Poppins.

Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever noticed its not-so-subtle critique of patriarchy.

I noticed the vaguely feminist critique of patriarchy in Mary Poppins on a recent viewing with my daughter. I think it is classically stated in Winifred Banks’ (the mom) song on women’s suffrage: “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” I love this. And, quite honestly, I’m not sure I can argue (though I’m not sure I would say that I adore men, even on an individual basis).

Throughout the movie, the father, George, is portrayed as obtuse to the real values in life and is regularly manipulated by Mary Poppins in the interest of his children. Later, when Jane and Michael (the children) visit the bank with their father, the movie takes aim at capitalism as it is made clear that the capitalist enterprise is less valuable than feeding birds. Amen? (I’m not a huge ornithophile.)

A wise man (who I imagine would rather not be dragged into this blog post by name) told me once that anyone who has a daughter ought to be a feminist. Well, I have a daughter.

Now, feminism comes in all shapes and sizes, as do feminists. Some are militantly against what they consider phallocentric (or phallocratic) structures and thought patterns and certainly this has its place from time to time. Others are genuinely mad at men, some for very good reasons. Still others offer critiques, from gentle to stringent, aimed at unsettling a self-assured patriarchy in order to allow the voices of women to be heard as equals. Being a man myself, and not a self-hating one, I think I fit in the last category.

I want to be an advocate for my daughter. I want to fight for a world in which she is allowed the same freedom of self-definition and the same capacity to follow her dreams as a man has. [1] I don’t want her to be treated as a sexual object by over-sexed men who are incapable of seeing her as a person. I want her to be able to function as an equal member of society whose views matter. Who wouldn’t want these things for their child? Therefore, since I want that for my daughter, I must also want that for every daughter…and every woman is someone’s daughter.

Sadly, I think that Christianity has been far too slow to jump on the feminist bandwagon. (Of course, since some of the earliest advocates of women took aim at the church, I can understand a little bit of reticence, even if I wish it had happened differently.) Even on the most patriarchal reading of the Bible, my desires on behalf of my daughter can only be justified, not controverted. [2] Women and men are created in God’s image: “And then God created humanity (ha-adam) in his image, in the image of God he created them (otam), male and female he created them (otam)”[3] For Paul, Christians “are all children of God though faith” where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free-person, male or female.” [4]  This is not meant to eliminate differences, people are still women and men, but, as part of the “new creation,” we are equals before God. [5]

This should lead Christians to be enthusiastic supporters of women, fighting for them when they are treated as less than men. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. So, I just want to say that I’m sorry to all the women who have been suppressed rather than supported by Christians. And, to every Winifred Banks out there, I’d like to march with you.

Ben Edsall

_______________________

[1] Of course, the contemporary obsession with absolute freedom to do whatever we want has its own problems and that is not what I am aiming at.

[2] I don’t think that a strongly patriarchal reading of the Bible as a whole is in fact the best one, but I don’t have nearly enough time argue the point. So, go read The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight and Finally Feminist by John Stackhouse. Sure, they’re not the final word, but they’re a good start.

[3] Gen 1.27

[4] Gal 3.26-28

[5] See Gal 2.16

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14 responses to “On Mary Poppins and Feminism

  1. It’s not just that Christianity has been slow to jump on the feminist bandwagon; it’s that Christianity long ago jumped off. The earliest Christians were extreme feminists compared to the surrounding Greco-Roman cultures.

    • Hi Dave,
      I’m not sure I would say that the first Christians were extreme feminists in comparison with their contemporaries. To me, at least, what we might consider extreme feminism could more acurrately be applied to the so-called “new Roman wives” who were causing the leading men no small amount of discomfort. So much, in fact, that Augustus legislated against them in his laws on family and inheritance. However, I do think that the New Testament evidences a strongly pro-woman stance (when read in context and when certain passages are not allowed to dominate others unnecessarily), but as a small and vulnerable religious group, they were also concerned not to rock the social boat, as it were. Every New Testament household codes (where Paul or Peter speaks to the relationships of father/children, master/slave, and husband/wife) is given with this social concern in mind. For pragmatic reasons (survival and missionary), the “feminism” of the New Testament authors was kept short of extreme, at least in my mind.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Ben, I read this article as I’m writing a feminist poem about Mary Poppins for my University class. I am so honored by your words. Thank you for understanding us as different, but equal. Many feminist arguments state that in order to be feminist you must achieve a likeness or similarity to men, and that is simply untrue. I am a conservative feminist, which, is a branch of feminism that many scholars do not recognize as a true “dedicated” feminist stand point. I think you completely grasp this concept, and it is refreshing to hear people supporting those of us who wish to be respected and treated with equal respect, yet recognize the power of femininity. Thank you for your post.

  3. I love how you’ve made this connection. Mary, like her namesake in the Christian tradition brings critique to all orders. Like Jesus, she is baseless, vagrant, itinerant and like the spirit blows in as she wills and out as she wants.

    I hope you are looking forward to the ‘understory’ coming out in November. It firmly establishes the political and salvific orientation of the author’s intention.

  4. I cannot completely agree here. Although I, a) understand the sentiment and realise b) am going against the comments and c) will probably be dismissed as naïve at best, or at worst be accused of being a closet misogynist with unresolved patriarchal lag.

    It appears to me that this defence of the misandry, which is on display in Mary Poppins basically gives, or so it appears, feminist ideology a blank cheque of approval. I have three daughters and cringe when I hear Mrs. W. Banks deride men as “rather stupid”, even if it has a comical element to it. Oddly enough I came to this awareness only after my wife (partner/spouse/significant other – insert whatever PC title you prefer) pointed out to me how much it irritated her that a song like this was even in the movie. Her concern was how our daughters would view their father (me) because of such an influence.

    The Church needs to be extremely careful, we must not surrender theology to any ideology but instead, as Karl Barth argued, hold theology as a critique of ideology. I think that some of the content here, unintentionally comes very close to doing the former. Men can show respect to women and treat them equally without having to subjugate themselves in order to please an ideology – as Jean Bethke Elshtain points out in “Public man, Private Woman, 1981/1991”: this reverses the problem of gender equality placing women above men and therefore negating the purpose of feminism. In my view, to focus on lowering men (to replace men with women) rather than raising up women (to make room for women) so that they are on equal footing goes against Scripture. This is because it fits a ‘revenge ethic’ more than say, responsible action.

    My wife and I are raising our daughters and our sons to respect each other equally. I would not tolerate my daughters calling my sons “stupid” and I would have as much intolerance for my sons calling my daughters by the same name.

  5. Not nearly as mainstream as Mary Poppins, but i like to point to Mary Connealy’s Montana Marriages trilogy as a good showcase of what male/female relations should & should not be. Yes, it’s comic and sometimes overstated, definitely more girl slanted, but overall i think the novels more/less have it covered. (and what as that about the spoonful of sugar?)
    Mald and female He created us. Seems to me it takes us both to have the image of God.

  6. I’m a newcomer to Wondering Fair, but so far, I love the fair, open-minded, gracious attitude with which most of the articles seem to have been written. As is the site’s goal, I feel like this is a place where I can come to hear other’s voices and have my own heard, in a pleasant, enjoyable cybersphere.

    I only have one objection to your article, Mr. Edsall, and to Rod’s comment above. You seem to defend your point of view of women as equal to men by making the statement that “every woman is someone’s daughter.” While this is, obviously, true and self-evident, this rhetoric, which one hears often in discussions of violence against women, is extremely patronizing. You say that this fact in itself should be reason enough for Christians to join the feminist struggle, and while you follow up with several important citations about human equality in the eyes of God, the fact that the childlike quality that women possess in the eyes of men is your primary justification is problematic. When you deduce this feature as the value of the female sex, you reduce the worth of females to their relationship to the male (and female, as it takes two to tango, but in your case, you are a father, and the only other sources you provide are other males). Furthermore, arguments like this strip females of their adult agency. Yes, women want to be provided the same protection that society provides all of its members, but not because we are helpless, weak, or incapable of making our own choices, only because we possess the same God-given freedoms that men do.

    I have only ever heard this line of reasoning used with the best of intentions, which is why I’m not seeking to cast blame on you. I would only try to make others more aware of the ways that sexist thinking is systemic in our culture, and the reason for which feminists work so hard against it.

    • Welcome to our community Grace! You are most welcome : ) Thank you for your kind words and interaction with this article too. You made excellent points. I’ll leave to Ben to answer you back; I just wanted to play the nice part and say that’s it’s great to have you around!

    • Hi Grace. Thank you very much for your contribution. It’s interesting for me to revisit this post, which I wrote about three years ago now, after reading your comments. I really only have two things to say and an afterthought.

      (1) I think you’re right about the problems involved in advocating feminism on the basis of the child analogy. I had not followed the line of reasoning all the way through (for the reason given in point 2 below), but I’m grateful to you for pointing out the implications. I’ll try to be more cautious in the future.
      (2) The reason I never quite followed the reasoning through was that I had intended the ‘daughter’ point to serve merely as an anecdotal jumping-off-point for the rest of the material. But I see now that it didn’t quite come across that way in the end.

      (Afterthought) When I wrote this post I only had a daughter but since then my wife and I have added a son into the mix and, incidentally, everything in the paragraph above about advocating for my daughter I would now apply equally to my son. I’m not sure what that means for the child analogy in the post.

      Anyway, Grace, thanks again for your input.

  7. Mary Poppins definitely isn’t a feminist film at all. I think Mrs Banks only supports the suffragette movement to be involved with something going on, but the main reason why it isn’t is because Mary Poppins manipulates Jane and Michael in it. When children are treated by adults using their authority to do something unacceptable, rather than just establishing how they are meant to behave, it does not support equality for children. Feminism needs to support equality for all, so Mary Poppins isn’t a feminist film and doesn’t do that.

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