Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Mary Poppins Runs Afoul of the Language Police

The film Mary Poppins—the one starring Julie Andrews that was so much a part of my growing-up years—has just had its rating changed in Britain from U (for “universal”) to PG (“parental guidance“). At issue is what the British Board of Film Classification now considers “discriminatory language.” I was completely flummoxed, at first, by the switch. It goes without saying that the original Mary Poppins series of children’s novels, published by P.L. Travers beginning in 1934, contained racial stereotyping and language use that today make us squirm. (Travers herself later made some changes, though she resisted others, as a piece in yesterday’s The Telegraph makes clear.) But the 1964 Disney musical extravaganza would seem at first glance to be as innocent as any movie could be, unless you consider Dick Van Dyke’s excruciating attempt at a Cockney accent a crime against humanity.

 Van Dyke, though, is off the hook. At issue, it seems, are two references within the film to “the discriminatory term ‘hottentots.’”  Which gave me pause: what exactly is a hottentot? Apparently this is a word first used by the Dutch in South Africa to refer to an indigenous nomadic people, more correctly known as the Khoekhoe, who roamed the Cape region. For a time it had some validity among anthropologists to refer to a specific ethnic grouping. And its comic possibilities led to its showing up in tongue-twisters and in popular culture, including as part of a song lyric in The Wizard of Oz.  (The Cowardly Lion asks, “What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the 'ape' in apricot? What have they got that I ain't got?" The answer, of course, is “Courage.”)

 But the fact that word’s meaning has ballooned to imply ignorant savages from the heart of the Dark Continent has apparently made it uncomfortable to use. This is why the British, well aware of their own history of racial and ethnic condescension, have seen fit to use the ratings change to warn parents. It’s not by any means a severe punishment, but it does suggest that words are a serious business, and that it’s all too easy to overlook slurs from another era. Which reminds me of the controversy involving Disney’s 1941 animated feature, Dumbo. As I understand it, the film was vilified for years because of a musical number in which a flock of crows led by a so-called Jim Crow perform a song that can be seen as stylistically reflecting the blackface minstrel entertainments of the Old South. It was critic Richard Schickel, in 1968’s The Disney Version, who loudly accused the studio of resorting to racist stereotypes in the way the crows speak and move. (In recent years, a number of critics and movie performers, including Whoopi Goldberg, have stuck up for the role of the crows as parent-figures to the needy little elephant. They’re even the ones who teach him to fly!)  Today, Dumbo screens on Disney+ cable uncensored, but with a warning that the film “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” Disney’s 1946 Song of the South, though, continues to generate racial controversy.

 Personally I shrink from uncomfortably pejorative depictions of racial and ethnic minorities in both films and literature. There’s a lot to cringe about in Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, but I don’t believe that artistic works should be rewritten to suit our modern sensibilities. (See current debates surrounding Roald Dahl’s writings for children.) Britain’s mild actions regarding Mary Poppins do seem appropriate, and I’m grateful to the British Board of Film Classification for cluing me in to what a Hottentot actually is.



No comments:

Post a Comment