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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Liminality Plays Throughout in Mary Poppins

In Mary Poppins, we see this leveling process alluded to in the chimney sweep scene when all are covered in soot.  When George is dressed-down at the bank, it represents a dying to his old way of being, the destruction of his previous structure, which is akin to decrownings at Saturnalias.  Along with this in-between status, and somewhat related to the notion of communitas, was a "special kind of freedom,” which V. Turner (1982) refers to as:

the “sacred power” of the meek, weak, and humble, as they are outside of society, and are free from societal obligation, and as they are temporarily undefined, they are also without rights over others.  At such times, they are frequently compared with “on the one hand ghosts, gods, or ancestors, and on the other hand with animals or birds.”  (p. 27)

“Feed the Birds,” alludes to this in-betweenness: there are birds, both real and animate, which are sometimes ghostly and ephemeral looking; the song also speaks of ancestors in the form of “the saints and apostles.” 

As previously mentioned, Mary Poppins is a liminal mandala, and the entire movie can be seen as a rite of passage, with George as the primary initiate, although the entire household and community also participate to a degree.  Mary in her mysterious, magical, indirect way appropriately picks different liminal practices as enumerated by V. Turner (1982):

Some of the practices that occur during these times are instruction in a secret language, various non-verbal symbolic genres such as dancing, painting… with symbolic patterns and structures which amount to teaching about the structure of the cosmos and their culture as a part and product of it . . . liminality may involve a complex sequence of episodes in sacred space-time, and it may also include subversive and ludic (or playful) events. [emphasis added] (p. 27)

In Mary Poppins, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" can be seen as the “secret language,” and there is much dancing and singing.  Mary teaches through a series of outings and games, what could be more ludic than that? Mary is subversive as well, because she indirectly influences George as much as the children with her ludic lessons.  By introducing the Birdwoman and “Feed the Birds” into their consciousness, Mary is symbolically teaching about the marginalized but nonetheless important aspects of the cosmos.

V. Turner quotes Brian Sutton Smith, one of the foremost commentators on play, who, using Turner’s notion of antistructure notes: “the ‘antistructure’ represents the latent system of potential alternatives from which novelty will arise when contingencies in the normative system require it . . . . It is the precursor of innovative normative forms.  It is the source of new culture [pp. 18-19]" (V. Turner, 1982, p. 28).  V. Turner then quotes Sutton Smith’s discussion of games in terms of antistructure and he parenthetically comments on them:

We may be disorderly in games [and I would add, in the liminality of rituals, as well as in such “liminoid” phenomena as charivaris, fiestas, Halloween masking, and mumming, etc.] either because we have an overdose of order, and want to let off steam [this might be called the “conservative view” of ritual disorder, such as ritual reversals, Saturnalia, and the like], or because we have something to learn from being disorderly.” (p. 17).  What interests me most about Sutton Smith’s formulations is that he sees liminal and liminoid situations as the settings in which new models, symbols, paradigms, etc., arise—as the seedbeds of cultural creativity in fact.  These new symbols and constructions then feed back into the central economic and politico-legal domains and arenas, supplying them with goals, aspirations, incentives, structural models and raisons d’etre. [emphasis added] (V. Turner, 1982, p. 28)


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