Deconstructing Mary Poppins

Recognizing the impossibility of being ‘practically perfect’

Taran March

Taran March

Photo by Tom Angel

Whenever the word “women’s” is followed by the word “issues,” I turn and flee.

I’ve been a female for nearly 50 years, but talking about feminism has always been, for me, as embarrassing as public prayer. No matter how the subject is presented, whether as serious discussion in a university or fatuous dialogue in a sitcom, it makes me squirm.

I’m not sure why. Perhaps because feminism straddles that uneasy divide, half sacrosanct, half repellent, that characterizes other unmentionables like underwear or menopause. Most of the time I find I really don’t care to talk about it, though it’s OK for other women to, if they want. It’s less OK for a man, especially if he believes it’s a non-issue. My take on feminism, for the record, is territorial and largely irrational.

That said, I think it’s also important to point out that any woman’s views on the subject are legitimate—that, among its less appealing qualities, feminism is also the glorious and chaotic sum of all the incisive, witty, caustic, passionate, unfounded, maudlin and/or off-the-wall pronouncements of every woman who ever graced the planet or ever will. It’s much more than a divisive combat zone between the sexes, a wrangle for equal opportunity and respect, a platform for endless harangue.

It’s also much less, in the sense that every war, even the arm’s-length, macro-managed global affairs, comes down to hand-to-hand combat in the end. Thus, insofar as feminism must also stoop to conquer such a hotly contested territory as housework, it’s small potatoes. The daily bread of dispute. The long littleness of swilling out a loo.

In one of those gods-are-laughing ironies, I found myself, at the time I agreed to write this essay, deeply embroiled in domestic drudgery. It had been going on for several weeks, instigated, in part, by fall’s infinitesimal encroachment upon summer, which prompted a corresponding awareness on my part of the great indoors. Slightly below conscious thought brooded the claustrophobic realization that, current temperatures notwithstanding, I’d soon I’d be spending more waking hours within my four cluttered walls.

Not that I considered my actions mere housework at the time. No indeed, I was involved in something much more creative: feng shui. That this ancient Chinese system of cosmically influential decorating also included what seemed like dusting, vacuuming, mending and lugging was beside the point. I was aligning energies by wrestling a rocking chair down two flights of stairs and improving family dynamics by painstakingly patching the cat-shredded arms of the couch. As for all that red tape around bathroom drainpipes, followed by a floor-to-ceiling scrub, it represented nothing less than a jump-start on the entire household’s prosperity.

Inevitably, task by task, the gap between mystical feng shui and plain old chores slowly narrowed until, like the murderer so obsessed with wiping his prints from the scene that he ultimately finds himself polishing coins in the attic and laughing maniacally as the cops arrive, I finally admitted that, once again, I’d trapped myself in an insane round of menial labor. I’d fallen for the Mary Poppins gambit, my blind spot, my Waterloo.

For those younger and/or better read than I, a word of explanation. Mary Poppins, the 1930s children’s book by Pamela Travers, inspired a 1964 Disney movie of the same name, which arrived more or less on the cultural heels of Betty Friedan’s women’s-lib manifesto, The Feminine Mystique.

Mary Poppins, the character, is an English nanny who arrives out of the blue to take care of the two Banks children and transform their disorganized, middle-class British household. She is, by her own admission, “practically perfect in every way.” Besides effortlessly managing nursery dramas and intimidating the dithery Mrs. Banks, Ms. Poppins maintains a magical off-hours relationship with a charming if shiftless Cockney named Bert.

For any impressionable young girl, and I was certainly no exception when I read it, the book offers a recipe for disaster. Naturally, I identified with the haughty Poppins over the housewifely Banks, fully confident that I, in spirit at least, would some day clean a room simply by snapping my fingers, then jump into a sidewalk painting with my sweetie and enjoy free tea and other, unspecified delights.

Did I stop to consider Mrs. Banks’ more mundane if decidedly unliberated magic, which freed her from doing a lick of work? Did I wonder why, whenever Mary Poppins met her penniless Bert, he was fiddling with some new scheme to earn money? Of course not. Compared to the excruciatingly predictable breadwinner Mr. Banks, Bert was a veritable genie.

In any case—and here’s the kicker—Mary Poppins could take care of everything. I never really grasped that the magic she employed to eliminate bothersome housework might be in short supply outside the book’s covers.

Foolish, would-be Poppinses! No finger-snapping for you. You’ll take care of everything, certainly, but it will require more than a spoonful of sugar to swallow the bitter news that time-consuming effort and elbow grease polish the road to perfection in reality. And as for the world’s Berts, let’s just say they’ll not meet the business end of a toilet brush in their lifetimes.

Despite such unpleasant lessons, the vain streak that humanizes Mary Poppins continues to assert itself in those who emulate her, in their need to succeed on all fronts, whether domestic, career, care-giving or personal. “Practically perfect,” taken literally, means excelling at endless, and endlessly dull, practical chores, overcoming impossibilities and making them all look easy. It means pandering to a questionable sort of wish fulfillment by attempting to manifest a vision of the world as it should be, but actually strengthening age-old gender roles while repressing those wishes in the process.

And, above all, because perfection implies a ghastly, fixed-smile smooth sailing, it means keeping your cool, even at the sight of burkha-shrouded Afghani women crouched like so many heaps of dirty laundry in the backs of cars so that their men can lounge comfortably and open-faced in the seats.

But back to the feng shui. I wish I could say that, having recognized my by-now-familiar misstep, I hastened to correct it by deep-sixing the vacuum and dashing off an opera. Well, maybe in my next life. However, I did re-read Kay Thompson’s Eloise to counteract those perfect pictures goose-stepping through my head. And in between laughing at that 6-year-old’s eccentric sangfroid, I noticed a certain mental buoyancy displacing the domestic taskmistress that had been in charge.

There were still things to do—there will always be—but I considered them much more playfully. Should I, for instance, buy my 83-year-old mother a Pez dispenser for her birthday? She has just about everything else, and at that age, I figured, surprise is worth more than substance.

My breezy attitude prevailed even as I went through the usual uncomfortable writing-avoidance maneuvers prior to tackling this assignment, wherein I will my subconscious, up to the brink of deadline, to produce the requisite paragraphs.

“I have to write an article for the News & Review’s women’s issue,” I told a friend, “but I don’t want to bog down in sisterhood stereotypes or male-bashing. There’s room for amusement, I think.”

“Sure, why not?” she snickered. “When feminists get together for potlucks, it’s not always a wienie roast.”

I rest my case. And, for now, my dust cloth as well.

Taran March is a free-lance writer and editor. She lives in Cherokee.