Feminism and Sexism in a Changing World

During the early 1960s, American society began to undergo substantial changes in public opinions and that would eventually lead to the artistic culture we enjoy today. Within this time period, Hollywood released some of their first family films; Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Due to world events occurring in the 60s like the Vietnam War, Hollywood wanted to create movies that illustrated the unification of families. These movies were intended for both children and parents to enjoy together. Hollywood aspired to produce a musical film that illustrated a happy ending, despite the social and political challenges the world was experiencing in the 60s. However, during this time period, social construct on sexuality and gender was very prevalent. This thesis attempts to identify and analyze the social and political events illustrated within Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music; while also providing further analysis on how both films introduced an idea of reconstructing the gender roles within society through their own themes.

MARY POPPINS: FEMINISM AND PATRIARCHY

Mary Poppins was released in 1964. During this time, the socially controversial Vietnam War was also taking place. Due to World War II, a lot of women had to take on both male and female roles in society and domestic life. Most men were recruited to fight in the U.S. army, so women had to take the men’s place in the labor force, so the U.S. could continue to meet its own industrial demands. During this transition, women’s gender roles in society began to shift. To encourage the women who struggled to adapt to their new role in society, many campaigns like ‘Ruby the Riveter’, were published in support of women in the workforce. Mary Poppins was one of the first film musicals released that promoted feminism. In order to understand how Mary Poppins was instrumental to advancing the feminist movement, one must be knowledgeable on the status of women during this era. In Europe and the U.S., women were often employed by affluent men to perform household servant duties like cooking, cleaning, and child care. These women were perceived as ‘second-class citizens’ and were often treated quite poorly in this era. The feminist movement that occurred during the era empowered women to emerge above the social norms of a woman’s position within society. Mary Poppins character was indicative of this empowerment; as she was a confident, strong-willed, and authoritative woman. This all despite the fact that she was also a member of the oppressed working class. In addition, Poppins still possessed many feminine qualities that made her a suitable caretaker to the children. Her character does not entirely redefine women’s social role, but instead portrays femininity to be just as competent and opposite to the stereotypical masculinity.

In Mary Poppins, feminism is portrayed using an unexpected method compared to other film musicals in that era. The film is set in London, during the 1960s, when the Suffragist women movements were taking place. Winfred Banks, mother and wife in Mary Poppins, enters her house after attending a feminist rally. During this scene Mrs. Banks begins singing the, ‘Sister Suffragette’ song; Mrs. Banks sings, “Though we adore men individually we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid! Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!” (Mary Poppins, 1964). The words sung by Mrs. Banks within the ‘Sister Suffragette’ song, represent the behavior of a traditional feminist supporter. This introduction of a traditional British feminist character helped distinguish between ‘suffrage feminism’ during this time period and Mary Poppins’ new form of feminism.

The character of George Banks, father and husband, is introduced through a scene where he sings, ‘Life I Lead’, which contradicts basic feminist ideas and adheres to the social expectations of a man’s role in that time. “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward’s on the throne; It’s the age of men I’m the lord of my castle. The sov’reign, the liege! I treat my subjects; servants, children, wife with a firm but gentle hand. Noblesse oblige…Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools. Without them- disorder! Catastrophe! Anarchy! In short, we have a ghastly mess!” (Mary Poppins, 1964). Mr. Banks sings about the patriarchy he has established within his house. This song symbolizes Mr. Banks’ character as the traditional, conservative man; who contradicts Mrs. Banks’ feminist character in every way. He also callously disapproves of the ‘Votes for Women’ movement that his wife enthusiastically advocates for, as it does nothing but infuriate him. This scene advocates for why a free-spirited and unconventional woman, like Mary Poppins’ character, is the perfect remedy for the Banks family’s conflict. Poppins’ balanced character dynamic is essential to finding a mutual understanding between Mr. Banks, a highly conservative patriarch, and the active feminist in Mrs. Banks.

Mary Poppins’ role as a mediating character quickly becomes pivotal once the prior nanny becomes fed up with the poor behavior of the two children, Jane and Michael, and quits. One can infer that the children’s behavior is due to Mr. and Mrs. Banks incompatible and dysfunctional parenting styles. This event illustrates the importance of a new method to feminism, and reforms to the traditional views and ways of patriarchy. As the unraveling of Mary Poppins’ character continues throughout the movie, it is evident that she is very different from the stereotypical nannies, and women of the 60’s. Poppins entertains the children by taking the children into a world drawn in chalk by her closest friend Bert. (Reddick, 1964) Despite the fact that these events are merely fantasies and used to create entertainment for kids, the moral of the story is still achieved. The purpose of the fantasy adventures was to open the minds and idealistic perspectives of the children; similar to how minds and perspectives were being opened to new societal ideas and values during that time in history. Jane and Michael were raised in a household where only the conservative and feminist mindset were taught to them, there was no in between, there was no “fun”. As the film continues, the imaginative world provides the children with new ways of thinking. This new world teaches Jane and Michael new methods to challenging social constructs within society and in their home, all because of Mary Poppins.

During this time period, Mary Poppins’ character continuously challenged the traditional perceptions of women and feminism. Poppins wholeheartedly embraced her femininity which illustrates to the audience that femininity is not something to be ashamed of, but the opposite; women should be proud of it, just as much as a man feels proud of their masculinity. This is evident through Mary’s status, characteristics, and actions within the film. She was a nanny, which was conventionally a female occupation and not a man’s role. Yet, while her job may have correlated with the stereotypical roles of a woman; Poppin’s actions, behavior, and conduct were vastly unconventional from those of traditional women, feminists, and nannies. Mary taught the children that women deserve respect just as much as men do. In addition, she politely demanded respect from Mr. Banks, in a civilized and non- aggressive manner, which was uncommon for nannies in her position to do during this time.

One of the most significant scenes in Mary Poppins demonstrates the change of perspective that occurs within a man, Mr. Banks. Certain events occur beforehand that cause George Banks to be fired from his job. On his way out, Mary and Bert converse with Mr. Banks and tell him that even though money is needed to survive, his main priority should be his family (Reddick, 1964). Within this exchange, Mary’s words end up being the cause for Mr. Banks’ change of perspective. By politely, yet assertively, demanding Mr. Banks’ respect and telling him that his children and family should be his main priority. The ideas that surround the new approach of feminism that is introduced in the film and portrayed by Mary are now instilled in Mr. Banks during this scene. This was an influential moment within the film because Mr. Banks, the traditional conservative, changes his perspective and reforms the structure of a household where patriarchal ideas were deeply rooted. Instead of holding his regular authoritative father figure, Mr. Banks now demonstrates characteristics of a modern father; acting in a more loving and respectful manner towards his wife and children. This created a more wholesome and happy family bond throughout the Banks household. Mary Poppins repairs the Banks family by; disrupting the instilled power structure, altering each family members’ customs, and finding a balance between each custom, to end all prior conflict.

In the 1960s, women possessing equal rights or being equal to men seemed nearly impossible in that day and age. Even to this day, the inequality between men and women still exists in our society and day-to-day life. This film, Mary Poppins, was an icon in the 1960s. It not only impacted and shaped society in that time but influenced cultural views for decades. Addressing social issues that were extremely pertinent, both Mary Poppins and Mrs. Banks’ characters were examples of change. Mrs. Banks continuously advocates for political change and equal rights for women, which conflicted with almost every political and social standard in that time. Mary Poppins played the role of an entertaining, happy, influential and motivational nanny. She demonstrated a way to raise children that was conflicting to social norms and she challenged and influenced a traditionalist to change his values. These two roles were unexpected for women to play merely because of their gender. Yet, as this film became one of the most renowned films of the 60s, their roles changed the standard for women to this day.

SOUND OF MUSIC: SEXISIM

The Sound of Music is another film musical that challenges the social expectations of gender roles in society. Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music both consist of themes relating to masculinity and femininity, and how those roles affect the lifestyles and relationships of one’s family. In this following section, I will not only examine the presence of these themes, but also elaborate on how the message of the themes are portrayed slightly different between the two film’s musical numbers. For instance, the underlying message from The Sound of Music emphasizes more on sexism than feminism.

Both films begin with families that deviate from an orderly, functioning norm and shows the conflicts that arise due to the power struggles between the relationships within the family. The main female role in The Sound of Music, Maria, continuously challenges the conventional domestic and societal rules. Maria’s character possesses a charming, free-willed spirit. Her character represents a woman’s desire for freedom and independence. Maria was in a sense, rebellious; in regard to the social expectations of how women should behave and present themselves in 1965. She dressed in tomboyish clothing, and behaved with a more adventurous, outspoken, and active spirit. This is evident through the words Maria sings in the song “I Have Confidence.” She sings, “I’ve always longed for adventure, to do things I’ve never dared…I must dream of the things I am seeking. I am seeking the courage I lack” (Sound of Music, 1965). It is apparent that Maria possesses a daring and courageous personality which was uncommon among women during this point in history.

As the film continues, Maria becomes the governess in the Von Trapp household, the family of Australian navy veteran Captain George Von Trapp, and his seven children. The Von Trapp children are newly adjusting to life under their father’s authority after their mother’s passing. Captain Von Trapp’s character is perceived as intimidating, authoritative, and rigid. In the scene where Maria first enters the Von Trapp household and meets Captain Von Trapp and the children, it is apparent that she almost immediately creates a power change within the pre-existing family dynamic. Patriarchy is evidently present within the family, based on the Captains and children’s behavior in the scene where Captain Von Trapp blows a whistle and the children immediately come running into the room and line up in order from oldest to youngest. This scene illustrates just how authoritative the father is. The Captain then instructs Maria to listen attentively, so she knows what the children’s signals are. Maria appeared shocked by the situation occurring before her eyes and refused the whistle Captain Von Trapp attempted to give to her. Maria assertively demonstrates to the Captain that she will not be submissive to his demands like other women employees likely would be.

Music and dance were crucial influential aspects within the film, relationships, and changes that occurred throughout the film. Not only did Maria experience patriarchy in the Von Trapp family, but sexism as well within her church. In the song “Maria” the nuns of the church sang the lyrics, “Many a thing you know you’d like to tell her, Many a thing she ought to understand, But how do you make her stay and listen to all you say, How do you keep a wave upon the sand” (Sound of Music, 1965). This scene illustrates social construct in terms of sexism; Maria possessed a strong demeanor, which the nuns interpreted as her rebelling against the word of God. One can claim that the lyrics within the song were demeaning towards women who believe in their individual freedom. This scene illustrates that sexism and society’s gender norms were not only instilled in the minds of men, but women’s as well. The nun’s desire to control Maria and suppress the adventurous side of her, portray the prejudice aspect that exist within society during this period.

The family dynamic of the Von Trapp’s is eliminated with the passing of their mother. As a result, Captain Von Trapp took on a more authoritarian position with the children; rather than being more loving and gentle towards consoling them in the loss of their mother. Maria brought a sense of warmth and lightness to the house by using music and dance with the children. This was clearly displeasing to the Captain, which can be depicted in both musical scenes; “Doe a Deer”, and “My Favorite Things” (Sound of Music, 1965). Captain Von Trapp has made it clear to the employees and children that singing is not permitted in the house. However, as the film proceeds, the presence of Maria’s strong-willed personality and her consistent use of music and dance with the children begins to work away at the rigidness of the Captain’s authoritative style. He overcomes the personal struggles within himself and reforms an emotional connection with the children.

Maria’s persistent and demanding attitude towards the father figure’s authority went against all the social norms of a female caregiver. Her refusal to be treated as inferior or subservient in her occupational role as a nanny allowed her to have a voice. Maria asserts her authority, defending her power as a woman, and establishes a foundation for an equal dynamic of power between her and the Captain. Maria’s role creates a change in the power balance between men and women, while emphasizing the value of equality; a fundamental meaning behind her character.

Both Mary Poppins and Maria were perceived as icons of feminism and the diminishing of sexism, during a time when change was much needed; polarizing message women were longing for in the 1960s. These films symbolize change in social expectations for female roles in society that were unconventional. In a time where society culture was changing entirely, these films promoted change for women’s rights to a remarkable degree.

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