'Identity Politics Idiocy': Journo Slammed for Branding Mary Poppins as 'Racist'

© AP Photo / Don BrinnIn this June 25, 1963, file photo, Dick Van Dyke, left, is airborne during a dance with Julie Andrews, right, during the filming of "Mary Poppins" in Los Angeles
In this June 25, 1963, file photo, Dick Van Dyke, left, is airborne during a dance with Julie Andrews, right, during the filming of Mary Poppins in Los Angeles - Sputnik International
The online debate started after a New York Times arts section contributor claimed that the beloved 1964 children's film had secret "racist" undertones in a classic scene where the main characters get covered in soot during a musical number featuring Dick Van Dyke as a chimney sweep.

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, an English and gender studies professor at Linfield College and New York Times contributor, kicked off the debate in a piece dubbed 'Mary Poppins,and a Nanny's Shameful Flirting With Blackface', in which he accused the Julie Andrews character of "blacking up" and cited passages from P.L. Travers' original Mary Poppins books which he said spewed racism.

Pollack-Pelzner singled out the line "Don't touch me, you black heathen", uttered by a housemaid in the original 1943 Mary Poppins story, and argued that the character Admiral Boom's line "We're being attacked by Hottentots!", which made it into the 1964 Disney adaptation, was similarly racist, as it referred to an obscure slur against black South Africans. "The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key," the columnist lamented.

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Digging into the novels, including the first Mary Poppins book, published in 1934, Pollack-Pelzner found more evidence of racism, including reference to a "scantily clad 'negro lady'," and use of racialised minstrel slang, which P.L. Travers revised in the 1980s to remove the potentially offensive dialogue. 

As for Disney and its musicals, the NYT contributor suggested that "blackface minstrelsy, in fact, could be said to be part of Disney's origin story." As evidence, he cited a 1933 Mickey Mouse short in which the cartoon mouse blacks his face with dynamite to play an unruly black child.

Online, the vast majority of readers didn't seem too impressed with the columnist's argument, with his piece attacked both for its politically-charged style and its "mediocrity", with some even questioning whether this was a satire piece. "This is peak identity politics idiocy," one user wrote.

Others challenged Pollack-Pelzner on practical grounds, suggesting there was no actual evidence in the Disney film to back up his claims, and encouraging him to realise that when a person is around coal products, they'll get sooty. Others gave him some historical context on London during the Industrial Revolution, which the film was trying to replicate.

Some users simply trolled the author, suggesting he should now investigate "hidden" themes of misogyny, racism, homophobia and animal rights in works including Winnie the Pooh, 2001, a Space Odyssey and The Jungle Book.

Pollack-Pelzner took the criticism in stride, panning his critics as being "alt-right". But his response was also flooded in criticism, with users from across the political spectrum saying it was his "ridiculous" argument, not their political affiliations, that upset them.

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