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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Mary Poppins—Disney’s Most Spectacular Trickstar

As was just mentioned, most tricksters are male and thus Jurich (1998) proposes a female version of the trickster who she calls the trickstar.  Jurich uses Scheherezade as an example of a trickstar who uses tricks to bring order, protect the vulnerable from power and oppression, and “slyly conceals her motives from the individual she means to use or transform” (p. xvii).  Mary Poppins does just this.  Her magical ways transform the whole Banks household, through a series of seemingly innocent games and subtle inner and outer outings and adventures.  Jurich notes that “when women use the trick, the trick often restores” (p. 2), and that women have always been associated with tricks, and both have often been viewed with a mixture of awe and suspicion. 

Jurich (1998) says we need to understand both the nature of the trick and the nature of the trickster/trickstar.  Tricks are indirect, and associated with the left (sinister, devious) and underhanded, as opposed to the right (straight or direct), truthful, or on the level.  Tricks work because we do not anticipate them, since they are contrary to our expectations and are often covert or hidden.  There are good tricks and bad tricks.  Bad tricks are those that bring harm or distress to others through the cunning practices of the trickster and trickstar.  They are self-serving—motivated by selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and deceit, and are done at the expense of others.  Often victims of a bad trick have a desire for revenge.  (As we saw in Chicago (Marshall, 2002), Roxie’s stealing of Velma’s trial tricks led to Velma seeking revenge and testifying against Roxie.)  Good tricks on the other hand, Jurich tells us, “surprise us into worthwhile discoveries, transform us for the better, remove us from danger and oppression and in such a way that we suffer no reprisals.”  Such good tricks can even “change the whole social and political fabric and release individuals to newfound freedoms” (Jurich, p. 3). These are the kinds of tricks we find in Mary Poppins.

Jurich (1998) explains that power must be tricked out of power and the powerless only have tricks at their disposal, because those in power will not willingly give their power up, and cannot be defeated by direct confrontation. The status quo or established order seeks to remain the same and will not willingly change by listening to logic or goodwill.  In patriarchal systems, such as the time portrayed in Mary Poppins— Victorian England, around the turn of the Twentieth Century— women and children had very little power.  Although an independent woman, Mary Poppins is only a nanny, not a very powerful position by patriarchal standards.  Bert, too, is near the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum—although entrepreneurial, he is a bricoleur, an odd jobs man.

Mary Poppins and Bert thus use tricks to change the status quo, and in the next section, we will see this when we look at Bert as a trickster.  Similarly, the children, also powerless as compared to the adults, often resort to tricks, and quite effectively, too: they have succeeded in driving off several nannies in a matter of months.  In the song “A Perfect Nanny,” Jane and Michael admit to some of their past tricks, promising not to use them if the new nanny doesn’t “scold and dominate” them.  This is similar to pranks that the Von Trapp children play on their governesses in The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965), as they rebel against the established order and the absence and aloofness of their father. 

In both movies Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, there is a similar dynamic.  Tricks are used to drive away unwanted nannies or governesses and upset the overly orderly, gerontomorphic routines that George or Georg, as the case may be, has tried to keep in place.  The new nanny or governess arrives, in the person of magical Mary or musical Maria, both played by Julie Andrews.  Both Mary and Maria upset the established order through play, and once more, there is a doubling effect here.  As previously mentioned, (a doubling of sorts in itself) von Franz (1977) notes that contents seeking to come into consciousness often appear as double.  In both movies, the family becomes more whole.  While Mary flies off to other adventures, Maria gets to remain and become a part of the family. Both movies cme out in the mid-1960s and show transformation through play.

Some kinds of trickstars use tricks to rescue themselves and others (rescuer), others use tricks to pursue what they need or desire (pursuer), and still others to transform what they find unworkable or unworthy (empowered), “using tricks to gain advantages for their communities…. these trickstars can make life better for men as well as women” (Jurich, 1998, pp. vxii-xviii).

Entertainers sometimes use tricks “to delight and divert,” by taking us “away from normal and too commonplace routines”  (Jurich, 1998, p. 2), and Mary Poppins assures Mr. Banks that the children will find her games “very diverting.”  The trickstar “has a sense of humor, a sense of play” and uses laughter, surprise, and irony.  “She enjoys verbal games, games of strategy, and all kinds of inventive deviation” (p. 23).  The trickstar uses diversion as a tactic and seeks to amuse; she also finds amusement in otherwise dangerous or difficult situation and is able to turn situations around, twisting the circumstances to her favor.  Mary Poppins’s sleight of mouth turns the tables on George Banks, as when intending to “sack” her, he instead agrees to take the children to the bank. 

Jurich (1998), discussing “tales of trickery,” conceives of four categories based different kinds of tricks and different kinds of trickstars: “A) amusing or diverting, B) morally debatable, C) situational or strategic, D) beneficial or improving” (p. 199).  [Link to table.]  Mary Poppins although often amusing and diverting, and while using situational or strategic tricks, would be considered a beneficial or improving trickstar.

Sometimes a trickstar “deceives to reveal real and greater deceptions, deceives to undeceive,” and “is both revolutionary and savoir” (Jurich, 1998, p. 59), thus her actions are generally considered worthy, commendable, and in the public interest. Jurich notes of the empowered trickstar,  “while she cannot single-handedly overturn patriarchal systems, she refuses a subservient role, insists on recognition based on respect” (p. 159) and her tricks release others from restrictions imposed upon them by tradition and end up empowering everyone. Mary Poppins is an example of an empowered trickstar who is able to assert her rights as an individual, to question the power structure, and to willingly subvert it.  She stands up to George Banks from the very beginning and has the upper hand during her job interview, stating that she never gives references. Later on, Mary refuses George when he asks her to explain, as she remarks: “Let me make one thing quite clear, I never explain anything.” Mary Poppins overturns the overly rigid patriarchal structure of the Banks family, and indirectly the bank, too, gets a breath of fresh air, with the death of the elder Mr. Dawes.

Throughout the movie, Mary Poppins uses her tricks to influence and transform others.  Her tricks release the entire Banks family from the restrictions of previous patterns of thought, tradition, and behavior that no longer serve, freeing them to explore different alternatives and new possibilities.  Let us consider Bert’s trickster qualities next.  First we will catch a glimpse of Hermes and then see how Bert fits the bill.


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