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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Meeting Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Arrives

Meanwhile, the wind has picked up and the Nannies begin to blow away down the street, toward the park entrance.  As they are tossed about on the wind, their umbrellas are all turned inside out.  Mary Poppins arrives on the same wind that has blown the other nannies away.  Unlike the others, she gracefully sails down, with her umbrella. This different way of being in the wind might allude to the advantages of flexibility over rigidity.  The children watch Mary's arrival and Michael wonders aloud whether she is a witch. ∆RC[mp21] 

Symbolically, wind can indicate turbulence and instability, as well as unseen forces.  Wind is an elemental force associated with the Titans and can be blindly violent. Wind is also “synonymous with breath and consequently the Spirit, a heaven-sent spiritual influx.”  For Hindus, Vayu is the wind god, the cosmic breath and the World, who rules the subtle world between heaven and earth.  “Vayu imbues, shatters and cleanses, and is related to the points of the compass” (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1996, pp. 1110-1111). In the Bible, winds are seen as the breath of God, and “instruments of God’s power, bringing life, punishing and teaching.  They were signs and carried messages like the angels” (p. 1112).  In the Greek tradition, Eureus, the East Wind, was associated with morning and the Zephyr, the West Wind, was associated with evening.  Mary Poppins has come on the East Wind, possibly alluding to the dawning of consciousness. Like Mary Poppins, the wind is unpredictable, and is able to “produce dramatic effects despite its own invisibility” According to Zoroastrianism, “wind played the part of world foundation and keeper of cosmic and moral balance” (p. 1111), and  “in ancient Iran as in ancient Islam, the wind was thought of as a great organizing principle for the cosmos”  (Biedermann, 1994, p. 382).  This is precisely the function that Mary serves in this family.

Mary can thus be seen as a symbol of the Self, Jung’s term for the balancing, corrective structure in people, in this case in the guise of the archetype of spirit—Mercurius.  Shulman (1997) notes that the Self, like Mercurius (and I would add Mary) is duplex, both are linked to transformation and healing.  Mary and Mercurius are both associated with the wind and the term “the winds of change” aptly embodies this transformational thought.  Mercurius is also associated with the unconscious and the nonrational, and Mary has much affinity with these as well.  According to Paulsen (1966), Mercurius is a symbol of the “wholeness which can be achieved only through a development of consciousness that results in transformation,” and Paulsen sees Mercurius’s role in transformation as his most essential function:

As the archetype of spirit, Mercurius moves to restore the balance of wholeness whenever it is threatened.  He aims at reconciliation between consciousness and the unconscious, operating as a compensatory factor, now in one sphere and now in the other, depending upon where his help is needed and what stage of conscious development has been reached . . . . I believe that Dr. Jung thought of Mercurius as the god of revelation, the archetype of psychic evolution, of growing consciousness itself.  (p. 109)

Shulman (1997) says that the Self "can balance in either direction . . . and therefore it has a healing capacity” (p. 157). In the movie, we will see Mary having a structuring effect on the children and a destabilizing effect on George, which begins the minute she sets foot in the house.  George is a tough nut and it will take most of the movie for him to crack, which is what is needed.  George is dead set against change, and that’s what transformation is all about.

At precisely 8:00, George agrees to begin the interviews, after the time gun has gone off.  Everyone else deals with the effects of the gun, to which George seems oblivious.  Ellen, answering the door, is shocked to find Mary Poppins is now the only nanny there.  From this moment on, Mary will continue to shock, stun and surprise, as well as daze and amaze, confuse and amuse, and astound and confound, the entire Banks household.

Mary Poppins enters and directly takes charge of the situation, inverting the usual interview custom of the interviewer beginning and asking questions.  Mary begins by asking if George is the father of Jane and Michael Banks, and when George then attempts to take charge, by asking for her references Mary declines telling him “It’s very old fashioned idea to my mind.”  Mary then takes the lead again and begins to read the list of qualifications to him, and the paper from which she reads is the children’s ad that has been pieced together.  George Banks, already off balance from Mary’s inverting the interview, and by her upsetting of his expectations regarding the references, is now thrown even further off center by Mary's possession of the children's list. 

When George hears the qualifications and sees the reassembled paper, he becomes totally confused and disoriented, and goes to the chimney and peers inside.   Mary joins him there, looking at the empty fireplace.  George then hits his head on the chimney as Mary startles him, asking him if he has lost something or if he is ill, because of his strange behavior.  George has lost his equilibrium and is utterly perplexed. This seemingly insignificant piece of paper has caused a cascade of chaos in George, unsettling his settled predictable world.  We will see more chaos later, when a similar cascade of chaos upsets the order at the bank when we visit “The Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.”

George is stuck on this piece of paper, and repeatedly goes to the fireplace, even pantomiming the act of tearing it into pieces.  He cannot understand what is going on.  It does not make sense to his rational worldview, and he is in a state of confusion.  This trickstar has upset the established “order,” big time.  Eventually Mary decides to take the job, but only on a trial basis and puts herself to work, telling George “I’ll see the children now.”  George Banks got what he asked for: Mary Poppins has a commanding presence, and as we will see later, she can also give indirect, Ericksonian, embedded commands which appropriately enough, occur most often when children are themselves in bed.

Winifred Banks enters and George, attempting what Jung would call a “retrogressive restoration of the persona,” or a normative restoration, or an attempt to return to the status quo, relates the story to her.  Instead of admitting that he is not sure what happened, George switches the story around, implying that he did the interviewing, and that he was in charge telling Winifred “I put her to work straight away.” Although George does admit “it all happened so fast,” when Winifred asks him about Mary’s qualifications, “Will she be firm, will she give commands…” he laughs excitedly in a sort of semi-crazed way while grabbing both of her hands, most uncharacteristically: “Yes, I think she will.” This is the first sign that something has changed. 

Palusen (1966) notes that wholeness begins with an act of consciousness and that the ego must be a willing participant in the process “ready for complete and unconditional surrender” (p. ***).  It will take lots of Mary’s magic to get George to this place, but the process has begun, introducing a bit of chaos into George’s very valued order.   Yet, as we will see, when Mary interacts with the children, she brings more order and structure to their lives.  Indeed, the first game that Mary plays with the children involves tidying up the nursery.

Shulman (1997) notes that in Greek mythology, healers combine both gerontomorphic qualities symbolized by the wise old man/woman archetype, with pedomorphic qualities symbolized by the child archetype, and she gives Aesclepius and his daughter Hygiea as an example of this phenomenon.  While Mary herself contains both of these qualities, Mary and Bert together serve as a superb representation of the Self, since Mary is seemingly more structured and disciplined while Bert has more of a divine child quality to him. Bert is what Ovid referred to as puer aeternis, "the child god of the Eleusinian mysteries, who was a redeemer and was associated with Dionysus and Eros." (Von Franz, 2000, p. 7). 

Mary then meets the children on the second floor, the floor in between the main floor and the third floor nursery.  She has slid up the banister and Michael is simply taken aback, mouth agape.  Once again, Mary is not the usual nanny, she is constantly doing unexpected things, a very Uranian quality.  In the nursery, Mary begins unpacking and pulls several large items—a hatrack, a mirror, a floorlamp and a potted plant out of her carpet bag.  Michael, who had just previously looked into the carpet bag and found that it was empty, exclaims: “We’ll have to keep an eye on this one, she’s tricky.”  Mary turns this little trick into a teaching: “Don’t judge things by their appearance, even carpet bags.”  Watching this scene, one is reminded of our abracdabra, Big Bang, “something out of nothing” kind of cosmology.

“A Spoonful of Sugar”

“Well begun is half done,” aka “let's tidy up the nursery” is the first game that Mary Poppins plays with the children, showing another side of her trickster nature. In this song and game, she teaches the children the importance of reframing—of seeing things differently.  By shifting the meaning of something, we can have a different attitude.  And appropriately play is the context of this teaching, Mary uses play as a reframe, and the play frame itself does exactly this.  It turns things that might not otherwise be play into play, as Bateson (1990) showed.  ∆RC[mp22]

“It is a game isn’t it Mary Poppins,” Jane asks, and Mary replies, “well that depends upon your point of view.  In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun, you find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game.”  Mary then breaks into song, “and every task you undertake, becomes a piece of cake… its very clear to see, that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” The rest of the song, "A Spoonful of Sugar" follows as Mary and the children magically tidy up the nursery.

At the world premiere of Mary Poppins in August of 1964, the announcer remarks: “ ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ sums up who Mary Poppins is.  She tries to bring happiness to everyone” (Stevenson, 2004, DVD). I believe that what this song shows even more is that Mary Poppins is a trickster who is also an excellent reframer.  Mary uses the opportunity turning the task of cleaning up the nursery into a game, through finding the fun in it.  Not only is she reframing the situation, changing what it means, she does this around the idea of play.  Play, as Bateson noted (1990), is signaled as being such in different species through different behavioral or verbal or linguistic cues.  Once inside this “play frame,” activities that might not otherwise be play, come to be considered as play, as we saw in the "Cosmic Game" chapter.

Bakhtin (1963/1968) reminds us that games draw us out of the bounds of normal life, where established conventions are replaced by those agreed upon by the players to be the rules of the game, in this way “games . . . liberated them [the players] from usual laws and replaced established conventions by lighter convivialities.”  Games are also “closely related to time and the future” and their basic accessories, such as cards and dice are often used in divination practices (p. 235).  

Before we go further, some historical background is in order.  Mary's original theme song, was called “Through the Eyes of Love.”  Julie Andrews did not like the flavor of the song, and so while the Sherman brothers were trying to come up with a new theme song for Mary, Bob Sherman tells the story of inquiring about his child’s day. His son had received the polio vaccine and when Bob asked if hurt, assuming that the vaccine was a shot, Sherman's son replied “No, they put it on a sugar cube,” and synchronistically, that is how the song, “A Spoonful of Sugar” was born.

This song is also responsible for the form of my dissertation.  From a young age, I was very affected by this movie, and this song in particular, is one of my life’s organizing principles.  This song is the reason why I decided to make my dissertation a web site, because I wanted to make it fun, and this song, as we have seen, also demonstrates the play frame.  This is a quintessentially American attitude towards play as I was to later learn (D. L. Miller, personal communication December 4, 2003).  Although Americans associate play with games and fun, play is much more than just fun and games.  Sometimes, play is not very fun at all.  Sometimes it has nothing to do with fun, as I have come to learn, sometimes painfully. The phrase, "now you tell me," sums it up pretty well. In my desire to have a "one-line" dissertation, I got tricked into perhaps the longest dissertation ever!

Play has taught me many lessons, and has been very transformative.  In true trickster fashion, play has upset my expectations at every turn and has continually surprised me.  I have become much more aware of play’s transformative power, as my ego’s desires have been consistently thwarted.  Although my dissertation has been fun at times, it has more often been filled with the chaos and creativity associated with liminality.

While Mary sings, she looks in the mirror and magically her reflection has a life of its own.  Mary’s mirror image is a bit of a showoff, which Mary admonishes as being “cheeky.” Mary is enigmatic, and has been described as “the world’s most charming and delightfully eccentric heroine” (Stevenson, 2004, DVD). During the course of the movie, Mary performs her magic in a nonchalant way, sometimes she seems reluctant and at other times she denies knowledge of it altogether (Maltin, 1973). Finch (1983) argues that the key to Julie Andrews’s performance of Mary is

her ability to seem prim and proper yet perpetually on the verge of some kind of marvelous insanity.  Primness is Mary Poppins’s solitary link with everyday reality—a fragile self-discipline that manages, just barely, to impose a modicum of form on the tides of fantasy that flow just beneath the surface. (p. 379)

Mary’s reflection, appropriately enough reflects this more flamboyant wild side, which she keeps well-hidden.

Near the end of tidying up the nursery, a bit of chaos ensues when Michael who has not got the hang of snapping, finally "gets it" and ends up getting stuck in the closet as the unruly nursery furniture goes a bit berserk.  Mary Poppins quickly gets the situation in hand, becuase the play has become too freewheeling, and begun to spin out of control.  Indeed for much of the movie, Mary provides the structure around which others can play.   After they are done, Michael wants to tidy up the nursery again, but Mary Poppins wastes no time in preparing them for an outing to the park.


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