How Mary Poppins Is A Capitalist Fairy Tale

A spoonful of sugar makes the mercantilism go down

Mary Poppins is a lovely film, almost revolutionary… and then not. The film shows the rampant inequality of the 1910s, but the working class nanny is just there to teach rich people a lesson. Then she flies off on her umbrella, hearts changed, leaving the heartless society the same. The chimney sweeps remain sweeping, poor old Bert remains poor, and only the hearts of rich people have changed.

Mary Poppins is a wonderful example of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism. The ability of capitalism to devour reality, including its rebellions. Mary Poppins is a flight of imagination which still cannot imagine any other reality.

Mary Poppins spends a whole movie disavowing capitalist values — even crashing a bank — but by the end everything is back in its proper place.

As Mark Fisher writes, capitalism rests on this structure of disavowal. Mary Poppins lets us romp through a working class world — disrupting fox hunts, dancing with chimney sweeps —believing in our hearts that the soulless values of capital and empire are bad.

However, in the end — like the children’s toys — everything is put back in its place. The father returns to the bank, the children return to the father, and Mary Poppins flies away. The working class people have only served for the self-actualization of the rich. The family can now disavow capitalist values, while participating in them wholeheartedly.

You can see this all happen through the main character in the film. George Banks.

Banks

I call the father the main character because he (and to a lesser extent his wife) are the only ones that change. Mary Poppins is practically perfect and remains the same. Bert the Magical Cockney remains poor. The children remain children. Only the parents have an arc.

When we start, Banks proudly says “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910.” He is of course, at this point, one of the worst people in the world. George Banks works at a proudly colonial bank at a time when Britain was worse than Nazi empire, just to colored people. He is rich at a time of the greatest western inequality since, well, today. He sits atop the rotten edifice of capitalism before it was violently, brutally shaken by multiple world wars and revolutions.

In this fantasy, however, none of that societal change needs to happen. Mr. Banks just needs to have a change of heart. And he does.

The Run On The Bank

Mary Poppins, being Poppins, inceptions Banks into taking his children to the bank. Into spending time with them. Capitalism of course assigns no value to this activity. Child-rearing is not counted as work and contributes nothing to GDP. Not a tuppence.

Let’s talk about the tuppence, and important little Rosebud in this film. Follow the coin, and see whose pocket it ends up in. Michael, the little shit, has a tuppence and wants to give it to a beggar lady for literal crumbs. She sings:

Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry
Their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you

Banks stops him saying, “Michael, don’t throw your money away! When we get to the bank I’ll show you what may be done with your tuppence. It’s extremely interesting.”

Instead, the Directors of the Bank propose to Michael that he be a part of railways across Africa, dams across the Nile, plantations of ripening tea — AKA rank colonialism, stripping colored people of their resources and labor.

Dude could be feeding the birds in his own country, instead he’s being told to ship bonded (AKA wage slave) labor from India to Sri Lanka, deforest vast tracts of land, and invest his tuppence in bloody tea.

Michael is rightly like “fuck this, I want to feed the birds”, but the decrepit Chairman of the bank steals the boys tuppence right out of his hand and Michael screams “Give me back my money!” People at the counter hear this, think the bank is insolvent, and this causes a run on the bank.

The children get their tuppence and run away. Then they take time out of a working-man’s working day — Bert — who stops everything to comfort them. And who does Bert’s heart go out to? Their father.

Spike Lee talked about the Magical Negro, existing for the white characters benefit. Bert is the Magical Cockney, dressed in soot blackface.

“How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?” Noting that “The Legend of Bagger Vance” takes place in Depression-era Georgia, a time when lynching of blacks in the South was commonplace, Lee stated, incredulously, “Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing!“I gotta sit down; I get mad just thinking about it,” continued Lee, standing before his audience wearing a black leather jacket. “They’re still doing the same old thing … recycling the noble savage and the happy slave.” (Spike Lee talking to some people)

Bert’s entire existence in the film is desperately poor — he’s busking, painting, and sweeping chimneys for loose change, but he’s always most concerned about the internal world of the rich people around him. At your service guvnor. Listen to him happily sing:

Now as the ladder of life has been strung
You may think a sweep’s on the bottommost rung

Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke
In this ‘ole wide world there’s no happier bloke

Bro is poor as fuck. He’s always hustling. You can see it in his face as he’s begging for coins. Then he’s called in to clean the kids chimney and console their father for free. As he’s dancing on the rooftops you get this amazing image of Britain leading the world into rampant climate change, as Mary Poppins leads the children up a pollution staircase into the corroded sky.

But I digress. Bert’s main role here as the Magical Cockney is comforting the main character, George Banks. So he sings the moral lesson — the cake if you will — of the film.

You’ve got to grind, grind, grind, at that grindstone
Though child’ood slips like sand through a sieve
And all too soon they’ve up grown, and then they’ve flown
And it’s too late for you to give
Just that spoonful of sugar
To ‘elp the medicine go down

This is the conflict and resolution of Mary Poppins. A father has to lose his job to understand that he has been losing his children. There has to be a run on the bank before there’s a run on Banks’ conscience.

At this point both the character AND society have changed. It is at this point a socialist fairy tale. For all we know the Banks children have crashed the whole financial sector and possibly the empire (“when fall the banks of England, England falls!”). This would have course been a blessing to the colonized world and Mr. Banks could have spent more time with his family.

The power of this as a capitalist fairy tale, however, is that it’s not over yet. Capitalism’s great power is that it bends rather than breaks. It devours its rebellions. It commodifies its own criticisms (you can buy Capitalist Realism on Amazon). And thus Mary Poppins the film gobbles up its own moral lesson. It has its cake… and eats it too.

Have you kept your eye on the tuppence?

At this point the children have given it to their depressed-ass father, about to get defenestrated from his job. As he’s getting fired, he finds it in his pocket… and gives it to the fatherfucking bank!

The bank, the empire, all is preserved! All from tuppence, prudently, fruitfully, frugally invested in the, to be specific, in the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank!

Banks tells the Chairman such a good joke that the old fart dies laughing, clearing up room for his son, who cheerfully gives Banks his old job back. And thus we’re back we’re we fucking started. Railroading Africa, working all day, smoking up the chimneys, all with just a bit more noblesse oblige like Banks was talking about in the first place.

It’s the great capitalist illusion that you can change things by just feeling different about them, without actually changing anything. It’s all a fucking joke. As the new Chairman of the bank says, “Capital bit of humour!”

And thus Mary Poppins ends. After a whirlwind tour of other values — fun, frivolity, family — it ends up back in the bosom of capital. Banks is back at the bank, Poppins is back in the polluted sky, and who gives a fuck about Bert. The only person that sees through this bullshit is Mary’s talking umbrella, and she tells him to shut up.

That’s capitalism for you. An entire rebellion against its values is made into a film within capitalism. By containing its own disavowal, capitalism contains the world. Mary Poppins says it herself:

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. In the job of raising children to empire, both Mary and Disney have it down to an art. A spoonful of sugar really does make the medicine go down.

Mary Poppins is a lovely film, the children loved it. I highly recommend torrenting it. This piece owes a lot to my wife, who has actually read the late Mark Fisher.

Indi Samarajiva is a writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sign up for my newsletter at www.indi.ca, and you can reach me at indi@indi.ca.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store