There are a few movies in our collection that we bought, partly so that our kids would inherit a broader musical legacy than their peers, Mary Poppins being one of them. We love how it celebrates imagination in children and highlights the need for parents, even wealthy parents with servants, to develop good relationships with their children.
However, when you remove the nostalgia, there are parts of the movie that don’t stand up to analysis very well, and much of it revolves around the character of Winifred Banks. I would offer a spoiler alert, but if you haven’t seen the movie by now, there isn’t much I can do for you. At the end of the movie, her husband, a bank executive, sets aside time from his career and she sets aside her suffragette cause to spend more time with their children. It’s more subtle with the mother, but it’s suggested that she has been spending too much energy advocating “Votes for Women” that her children have suffered neglect. I can’t imagine that her submissiveness as a wife and passivity as a mother would be received well by either traditionalists or progressives in today’s society.
There’s a background story involved here too. P.L. Travers, who wrote the book the movie was based on, stormed out of the theatre the first time she saw it because she there was so much of it she didn’t like. One of those things was the portrayal of Mrs. Banks, and the underhanded mockery of beliefs that Travers herself upheld. It is also said that Glynis Johns, who played the role, thought she was in line for the lead, so when she was offered this secondary part, as a way of saving face, she insisted she would only play it if she had a solo, so an extra song was written for her. The legacy of “Mary Poppins” is more music than ideology, but the lyrics of this song, “Sister Suffragette,” hint at a different legacy, the relationship between the turn of the century feminists and their female descendants. The lyrics of the song say, “Our daughter’s daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done!'” So, was Winifred Banks correct?
The film was set in 1910. Glynis Johns was 40 at the time of filming, and Karen Dotrice, who played the role of her daughter, was 8. So it’s reasonable to expect that granddaughters could have been born between 1927 and 1937, great-granddaughters around between 1952 and 1972, and great-great-granddaughters between 1977 and 2007. So, the majority of women on twitter could reasonably be the granddaughter of a granddaughter of Winifred Banks.
The strength of the recent #IDontNeedFeminism movement might suggest that they don’t adore their suffragette predecessors. Of course we could argue that each generation’s social cause is independent and that supporters of one won’t necessarily be supporters of the other, but I think it’s presents a different challenge. Whether or not she was wrong, would Winifred Banks have been less ambitious if she knew that her female descendants would indifferent toward he accomplishments and resentful toward the ideological legacy her group would leave?
I think that while many of us hope that our descendants and those who inherit our legacy will celebrate what we’ve done, it is by no means a certainty that they will. If we look back, our ancestor’s views on gender, race, sexuality, etc often look morally deficient. In a black and white world, if we judge them on those views, we are often left with the choice of either disregarding entirely those who have gone before us, or we need to embrace what the rest of the world sees as archaic views.
The middle ground, relativistic response cannot simply be to say that theirs was a different time. This allows us to judge them on the purity of their intentions, but it also assumes that the purity of our intentions will be obvious. We cannot predict what the causes will be of our daughters’ daughters generation will be. We cannot predict how we will look in their eyes. We do however, need to go about our lives, living out the convictions we hold, seeking the good of those around and those who will come after us, whether or not we will be perceived as having been in the right.