Mary Poppins racist? UK changes film classification

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Sixty years after its original release, the adaptation of the Mary Poppins novels by P.L Travers by Walt Disney Studios has just received a new classification. Last Friday, the British Board of Film Classification – meaning the British body in charge of film classification – made the decision to remove the “U” rating for “universal” from the great classic worn by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Mary Poppins is now considered a “PG” feature film for “parent-guided kids”. This classification is attributed to audiovisual works for which the presence of parents is strongly recommended in anticipation of scenes that may offend the sensitivity of young people. Far from being a potentially disturbing film, this Disney production has come into the BBFC’s crosshairs due to “discriminatory language”.

After hiding the vocabulary behind this decision in its initial statement, the BBFC ended up indicating the scenes in question following revelations from the Daily Mail. It is actually a question of a word spoken twice by Admiral Boom, a neighbor of the Banks family. In the original version as well as in the French version, the old character refers to the “Hottentots”. If this word doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s because it is very specific and to be put back in the time of the film. It was used by European settlers to refer pejoratively to the Khoikhoi, a pastoral and nomadic people of southern Africa.

This is spoken for the first time at 1 hour and 8 minutes when the Admiral asks young Michael if he is preparing to go and fight the Hottentots. The second use is certainly the one which motivated the BBFC’s decision, when the Admiral designates chimney sweeps with faces full of soot of this same term, at 1 hour and 52 minutes. Certain racist references linked to chimney sweeps had already been noted by the New York Times in 2019. The American newspaper then compared the use of soot to blackface, since it served as a comic twist in the original novel: “ Don’t touch me black savage!” shouts a servant towards one of the chimney sweeps, before adding “If this Hottentot comes in through the chimney, I will go out through the front door!”.

“Our research into racism and discrimination, as well as our recent research into classification guidelines, has helped us understand that one of the biggest concerns people have, and parents in particular, is the risk of exposing children to discriminatory language or behavior that they might find disturbing or repeat without realizing the potential offense. Certain language or behavior is therefore not permitted in categories U or PG under any circumstances, or depends entirely on the context.“

The use of the term “Hottentot” without any questioning of it by another character in the film therefore does not allow children to understand its discriminatory impact without the external intervention of an adult. Although in this specific case, adults today probably did not know the meaning of the said word before it was promoted by the BBFC. This change therefore has the merit of being educational, since it reveals cultural and temporal differences of which we would have had no knowledge otherwise.

This is also the most respectful way to approach the issue for the original work. Rather than re-dubbing the scene or even cutting it, it will remain included in the feature film to avoid distorting it and will also allow a dialogue to be started concerning the customs of the past. The big-eared firm is now accustomed to this practice since some of its classics available on Disney+ such as Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp now present a warning before broadcast declaring:

“This program includes dated depictions and/or negative treatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were inappropriate then and still are today. Rather than removing this content, we want to recognize its harmful influence so as not to repeat the same mistakes, engage in dialogue and build a more inclusive future, all together.”

It remains to be seen whether Mary Poppins will benefit from the same warning. The discriminatory reference in question being much less obvious than the Asian cats in Lady and the Tramp or the representation of Indian tribes in Peter Pan, nothing is less certain.

This article is originally published on journaldugeek.com

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