Liberal heroes in pop culture Part 3: Mary Poppins

This is the third of a series of pieces that we will publish over the summer. Please do nominate further entries in the comments! This one was suggested by Cathy Thompson! See here for a link to Parts 1 and 2.

This latest liberal icon is different in several ways from our prior picks. She isn’t a military captain or commander, but she’s arguably a greater source of authority than that. She’s an educator. And she’s practically perfect, in every way. She is the one and only Mary Poppins.

As portrayed by Julie Andrews in the classic film, Mary Poppins is a shamanistic governess who enters the staid world of 1910 London, and turns it upside down. The political scene of 1910 is worth several articles in itself. For one thing, the plot of Mary Poppins takes place during a Hung Parliament, and just after a legitimate constitutional crisis. Of course, none of this is mentioned. But we do get the Suffragettes. Maybe Disney thought kids weren’t that interested in Herbert Asquith. Shame on them…

P.L. Travers’ most famous creation takes up her position on Cherry Tree Lane as the Governess to Jane and Michael Banks, who we learn are being emotionally and intellectually neglected by, well, both their parents really, but particularly by the emotionally frigid and officious Mr Banks (more on him later.) It soon becomes clear that her role of Magical Pagan Life-Improvement Goddess stretches to introducing Jane and Michael to hysterical tea-parties (tea – the original fizzy lifting drink), rooftop dance numbers, and psychedelic journeys into pavement chalk drawings.

It’s hard to think of a life-lesson Mary Poppins doesn’t impart to her charges during the story. She teaches them how to enjoy necessary work, demonstrates to them that consorting with ‘the lower orders’ (she’s very popular with the chimney-sweeps of London) is right, proper and beneficial, and we’re not even going to talk too much about the social liberalism inherent in ‘Feed the Birds’ because I’ve suddenly got something in my eye. Her morality, as bottomless as her infinitely capacious bag, is the morality of freedom, liberation and self-realisation. And dancing penguins.

Mr Banks is the symbol of all that she confronts. Brusque, defensive and paranoid, he is ultimately shown to be a prisoner of the system he toils in (banking, appropriately) and his exposure to Mary Poppin’s life philosophy is what starts to free him. That, and temporarily getting the sack. The scene in which Michael accidentally causes a bank run after rebelling against the financial orthodoxies of his father’s wizened, stuffy colleagues is hilarious, and still very relevant. At the close of the film, we are confident that George Banks will in turn bring change and reform to the institutions over which he has influence. In that sense, he has become closer to his wife, who is already fighting that system to gain votes for women. And he is finally able to listen to those people he must fight to represent in the world, namely, Jane and Michael.

Mary Poppins, of course, cannot stay, as she has more work to do, presumably helping other families enjoy better living through sorcery. But her demonstration of the power of imagination, especially when it comes to the reform of institutions, and the individuals they devour, will remain behind her. With a spoonful of sugar, she has taught Jane and Michael real lessons in personal and political freedom, and taught their dad the pleasures of flying a kite. And that makes her Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in my book.


Photo on featured post icon is by Loren Javier

* David Faggiani is a young-ish Liberal living in London, ex-smoker and co-founder of 'Game of Seats' political discussion group on Facebook and Twitter.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 13th Aug '15 - 9:59pm

    ” But we do get the Suffragettes.” Do we? Or suffragistes? The difference is violence.
    Suffragettes were arsonists who were lucky that they never murdered anybody in the houses they burnt down.
    Suffragistes were non-violent. At the start of WWI Mrs Pankhurst called off the campaign and supported the war effort. While many men went to war and were killed, many women took on very dangerous work in munitions factories. There was a free vote in 1917, David Lloyd George was Prime Minister, and a general election in on a franchise widened for men and women in 1918. Anomalies were removed in 1928 for the general election of 1929.

  • Is there a case to be made for Hermione Granger – or, indeed, Mr. Potter himself? Great series, David; looking forward to the next one.

  • *Come to think of it, Dumbledore…

  • Christine Headley 13th Aug '15 - 11:36pm

    I seem to remember Mrs B in the colours of the WSPU, so suffragettes. I suspect the American film producers hadn’t heard of suffragists.

  • It’s good to read a bit of light entertainment to take our minds of the recent hammering Lib Dems took at the general election, and perhaps we can hope for some Mary Poppins magic at next years Scottish elections as its badly needed as polls indicate Lib Dems are facing total wipeout and will be no more in Scotland.

  • Because you’ve chosen to discuss Mary Poppins as a liberal character before Doctor Who many Lib Dems are going to find it hard to listen to anything you’ve got to say. 😉

    Top articles, as Will says, some light entertainment for dark days.

  • John Tilley 15th Aug '15 - 1:51pm

    I am not sure about all that dancing around the roof with a bunch of working dirty chimney sweeps.
    She had some very suspect views on Bankers, not supportive of them at all.
    Strikes me that this Poppins woman was a dangerous trade unionist or fellow traveller.
    She would probably be voting for Corbyn if she were alive today.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Aug '15 - 1:55pm

    John Tilley 15th Aug ’15 – 1:51pm or a woman, but which?

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