Mrs. Banks and the Problematic Tail
Mary Poppins. It's one of my favourite things ever put on film. But every time I watch it (which is a lot, our daughter loves it) the problem of Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) and the kite tail leaves me troubled. Let me explain.
Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) is a typical Edwardian patriarch. Aloof, fond of order, disdainful of frivolity. He's introduced with the song The Life I Lead.
It's a neat summation of his character, ("Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools") and an important statement of one of the film's key subtexts.
"It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910, King Edward's on the throne; It's the age of men", he sings. But this "age of men", this calcified world that makes Mr. Banks feel like "a king astride his noble steed", is under threat. From the suffragettism of Mrs. Banks and from the "Disorder! Catastrophe! Anarchy!" of Mary Poppins (the trickster who has arrived to create a new order out of chaos).
Ultimately, of course, Mr. Banks rejects this world of men and embraces the world of "frivolity" and imagination he previously despised. Telling the ancient Mr. Dawes Snr (Dick Van Dyke), "Do you know what there's no such thing as? It turns out, with due respect, when all is said and done, that there's no such thing as you!", before dashing home to fly a kite with his family. To "soften" what would have been too radical an ending for Disney, he gets readmitted as a partner at the end – albeit on slightly changed terms.
But let's return to the kite. As the family sets out to fly the kite Mrs. Banks says:
A proper kite needs a proper tail, don't you think?
She pops into a closet and pulls out…her "Votes for Women" sash. It's tied to the bottom of the kite and sent soaring "up where the air is clear". Now, how are we supposed to read this? Earlier in the film she tells the maid (Ellen) to hide her sash away, saying "You know how the cause infuriates Mr. Banks".
Now it has re-emerged and is on very public display. So…is this an expression of the new-found freedom she has to openly articulate her politics? A sign that her politics can be integrated into the new family order Poppins has helped create?
Or, is this, instead, her way of saying goodbye to such activities? Is she letting go of the sash? Is she surrendering it? Will she now be a parent first and everything else a distant second?
Over to you readers. Go!
November 6, 2012