Glimpsing Utopia Through the Magic of Mary Poppins

Glimpsing Utopia Through the Magic of Mary Poppins

The presence of utopian moments among much of today’s popular culture is the reason that it is appealing to consumers. Richard Dyer’s “Entertainment and Utopia” explores the concept of the entertainment industry and the way that it provides a better option than “day-to-day existence” for the people that are in need of “something better”. His focus is the musical; a form of popular culture that combines the struggles of the time with song and dance.[1] One of the most well-known musicals of all time is Mary Poppins, directed by Robert Stevenson. The film is built around the theme of happiness, which allows for viewers to envision themselves in the imaginary world of Mary Poppins and wish that, even if only for a moment, they could leave their real lives and spend their day among the dancing penguins and the magical cleaning powers of Mary.

Mary Poppins is a musical film set in London in 1910, and it follows the changing dynamic of the Banks family thanks to the brief visit from a new nanny. The story begins with the resignation of Jane and Michael’s previous nanny, which increases their father’s stress. Given the task of finding a new caregiver for his children, George Banks attempts to find a strict nanny that will not allow for any funny business nor be phased by the kids’ behavior. Because of their disobedient nature, Jane and Michael have different plans, and they send a flyer out for a kinder, more understanding nanny. As the strict caregivers line up, Mary Poppins flies in on her magic umbrella and practically insists on being hired. Ultimately, she is selected. Despite her peaceable demeanor, Mary asserts her dominance by beginning her work straight away. After using her powers to help tidy the bedroom, the children immediately take a liking to her. Mary Poppins influences the children in a positive way, using her magic and music to show them a good time while also teaching them responsibility.

After a few adventures with Mary, the children become happier, which aggravates George. He takes his crabbiness out on Mary and threatens to fire her. She somehow manages to refuse his “offer” and instead convinces him to bring Jane and Michael to the bank to teach them about his work. There is trouble at the bank when Michael gets into a bit of a squabble, which causes George to lose his job. Although this may be viewed as a tragic event, the loss of his job causes George to transform into a family man. At this point, Mary has accomplished her goal of helping the family find happiness and unity, and she returns to her umbrella and magically floats back up to wherever she may have come from.

How does this fairly simple film provide any sort of utopia for viewers? First, one must understand what a utopia is. With the help of Rolando M. Gripaldo, the word can be defined using its Greek roots. It can be derived from the roots “ou for ‘no’ or ‘not’ and topos for ‘place’” (Gripaldo, 1). Alternatively, it can be derived from eu for “good” and topos. This provides us with the sense that utopia is an ideal place that is nowhere.[2] If a utopian place is nonexistent, how is it possible that so much of today’s entertainment can be modeled after the ideal place and time? The answer is quite simple. Everyone has moments in their lives in which they picture themselves in a different situation. There are times when things are not going according to plan and ducking out of real life seems to be the only solution. This is where the entertainment industry can be of assistance. Artists, producers, and writers often include things in their work that appeal to the everyday person that may want a break from reality. Consuming the culture allows for a moment of happiness and a temporary break from the perils of real life. Although no one has ever physically traveled to utopia, the creation of this “imaginary place of ideal perfection”[3] leads to joy among consumers.

Dyer chooses the musical to represent all forms of pop culture because its relationship with utopian moments is very different than most other forms of entertainment. Although many people dream about being in a musical, the setting is not necessarily a time or place that would be considered utopian. For example, The Sound of Music is set in Austria in the 1930s during the Nazis’ rise to power. This is certainly not an era that many would fantasize to be a part of, but Robert Wise’s depiction of the setting makes it seem attractive. Austria in the 1930s does not seem like an ideal fantasy world, but neither does England in 1910. In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, Chris Cuomo writes about the setting of Mary Poppins. He states that despite the “class struggles, Britain’s imperialist and racist assumptions, and its equation of British nationalism with morality, Mary Poppins is a magical nanny who tells us how to rise above those nasty social concerns and get back to what really matters in life: family and home” (Cuomo 212). Mr. Banks has a job at a bank, and his work often takes a toll on his mood. He is a bit of a tense man, and he often takes it out on his family. After being fired because of his son Michael’s interaction with the head of the bank, George comes home surprisingly upbeat and ready to spend time with his family. Because Mary Poppins brought the children to the bank, she gave George an out from the realities of the working world in England in the early 1900s. This break from work relieved him in a way that gave him the opportunity to regain his happiness.

The typical role of a woman in the early 20th century was to cook, clean, and manage a household. In this sense, it is interesting that Stevenson would make a movie about a nanny based in this time period that was full of feminist and suffrage movements. Is Stevenson implying that Mary Poppins is just the typical woman? Given that she has magical powers, the implication is definitely not that she is ordinary. She is a nanny and knows how to make order in a home, but she also hangs out with the chimney sweepers, which is not something a typical woman would do in England in 1910. For women watching this film that perhaps feel trapped by certain stereotypical responsibilities, utopia can be found in the image of Mary Poppins “creating local order by agitating but never truly upsetting prescribed gender roles” (Cuomo 214).[4]

The utopian aspect of this film (and most other musicals) comes from the typically joyous portrayal of events in the form of song and dance. The editor of the article by Dyer in the Cultural Theory Class Packet states that the utopian desires are fulfilled, “not by literally representing a perfect society but by picturing relations between people more simply and directly than they exist in actuality” (S.D. 271).[5] The song and dance numbers in most musicals are fun and light-hearted, and they typically do away with feuds between characters, for at least the duration of the song. Musicals in this sense are special because as the viewers are watching, hoping to travel places “over the rainbow”, the characters are singing to escape from the Wicked Witch of the West. In other words, the audiences have a tendency to be drawn to the idea of living in a musical because of the effortless interactions between characters, and the characters use the musical numbers to temporarily make the problems of the outside world fade away.

Just as a movie does not last forever, neither does Mary Poppins’ visit. After Mary Poppins leaves the Banks family, the only thing that has changed in the household is their demeanor. The happiness has been restored into their home. In this way, Mary Poppins acts as the component that allows for a glimpse at utopia. In the same way that today’s consumers may use a film to enter a better mood, the Banks family used Mary Poppins to change their outlooks. Even though George returns to work shortly after he is fired, he did away with the exhaustion accompanied by “work as a grind, alienated labor, and the pressures of urban life” and replaced it with energy found through considering “work and play synonymously” (Dyer 278). Although consuming pop culture cannot magically reveal a path to utopia, it can, through the magic of Mary Poppins, allow viewers to catch a glimpse of happier circumstances that have the ability to create a temporary escape from reality. Similarly, song and dance do not cure the social issues in England, but it offers George Banks a break from work and Mary Poppins a break from the feminist constraints of the time. Utopian moments are not permanent, but occasional glimpses at utopia are necessary.

[1] Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.”

[2] Gripaldo, Rolando M. “WHAT IS A UTOPIA?.”

[3] “Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

[4] Cuomo, Chris. “Spinsters in sensible shoes.” From mouse to mermaid: the politics of film, gender, and culture (1995): 212-223.

[5] Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.”