Just a Spoonful of Sugar… Dialectics of Work and Play in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins

by Bradley Tuck –

 Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
When other folks have gone to bed
We slave until we’re almost dead
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts

The Roustabout Song in Dumbo

Just whistle while you work

Whistle While you Work in Snow White

We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in a mine the whole day through
To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we like to do

Heigh Ho in Snow White

In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game

A Spoonful of Sugar in Mary Poppins

Now, as the ladder of life ‘as been strung
You might think a sweep’s on the bottommost rung
Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke
In this ‘ole wide world there’s no ‘appier bloke

Chim chiminey
Chim chiminey
Chim chim cher-ee
A sweep is as lucky As lucky can be

Chim chim cher-ee! in Mary Poppins

In Disney’s anti-Nazi propaganda cartoon, Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), Donald Duck wakes up in Nazi Germany where he is forced to continually salute the fuehrer, even while he works 48 hours a day on an assembly line. There is no let up for poor Donald. Work dominates and alienates him. Overworked Donald is driven crazy. His world becomes a surreal cacophony of Nazi iconography. Donald wakes up to discover that he is in America. He runs over and embraces the miniature statue of liberty on his windowsill. Nazi Germany pushes the protestant work ethic to its extreme. There is no room to whistle while you work here; work is nothing but a tiring, alienating experience. The lines “Arbeit macht frei” or “work will set you free” are entirely perverse in Nazi Germany. Whatever truth resides in the formula, the Nazi reality is quite the contrary.

How about over the other side of the Atlantic? What sort of alternative would Donald face under the dominance of his rich Uncle Scrooge? Throughout the early Disney films, the theme of work is continually addressed. Disney films constantly explore the possibility of transforming work into play. Work must be transformed, as if by magic, into a game. Pleasure in work can be found in a host of Disney characters (as exemplified in the quotes above). Here, work is largely a positive thing; provided you know how to do it well; it can be spiffing good fun-diddily-fun fun!

It would be wrong, however, to assume that all Disney films have a single message: they don’t! If Snow White and Mary Poppins seem to promote finding pleasure in work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia (1940) and The Sword in the Stone (1963) are exceptions to this rule. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey Mouse attempts to seize the production process itself, transforming his miserable alienating servitude into a magical enchanting spectacle, but he fails and must face the wrath of the sorcerer when he returns. Maybe Mickey had failed to learn the transformative power of the whistle; instead he had attempted to harness the power of magic (as if it were technology) in order to overcome work itself[i]. In a parallel  yet contrary vein, Merlin in The Sword in the Stone uses magic to overcome work. When Walt is expected to wash a huge amount of dishes, Merlin sets his magic to work and the plates leap into the air. “But I am supposed to do it…” exclaims Walt. “No one will know the difference son; who cares as long as the work gets done,” says Merlin paving the way for work free ethics of beatnik bears (The Jungle Book, 1967) and carefree cats (The Aristocats, 1970). Work is not so much transformed into play, but eliminated altogether. If there is not necessarily one clear message that runs throughout these films, there is however a theme: the relationship between work and play. It is with this revelation that we should pay a visit to number 17, Cherry Tree Lane…

Tension and Unrest in the Banks Household.

 Tension and unrest is bubbling away under the surface of the Banks family, although they are far too uptight to notice it. For this bourgeois family is run in accordance with the principles of “Tradition, discipline and rule.” They have no time to express to each other how they really feel. At least that is how Mr. Banks would like it. Mr. Banks, a banker by trade, believes in banking so much that he wishes to run his home in the exact same way (with precision, consistency and as little emotion as possible.) Mrs. Banks is a defender of woman’s rights and has a somewhat more relaxed attitude.

Yet in both characters there is a kind of bourgeois solipsism, or in Mary Poppins’ words, an inability to “see past the end of their nose.” George Banks is the prime example of this. His consciousness is conditioned almost completely by the ideology of banking and he appears unable to comprehend any perspective outside his own. His family is therefore treated in a formal and emotionless manner. When the admiral comments on the weather saying, “Bit chancy, I’d say. The wind’s coming up and the glass is falling,” Banks simply replies, “Good, good, good”. Banks only has ears for banking and is unable to register any threat of impending crises outside of finance. His consciousness is merely directed to the forward march of capital. Slavoj Žižek seems to encapsulate this capitalist consciousness.

“All one has to do here is to compare the reaction to the financial meltdown of September 2008 with the Copenhagen conference of 2009: save the planet from global warming (alternatively: save the AIDS patients, save those dying for lack of funds for expensive treatments and operations, save the starving children, and so on) –all this can wait a little bit, but the call “Save the banks!” is an unconditional imperative which demands and receives immediate action.”[ii]

In Mr. Banks’ outlook, everything else can wait (even, maybe, when the threat is the entire destruction of life on earth); all that matters is the practical, level-headedness of capital!

Mrs. Banks, however, fares only a little better. A defender of women’s rights she may be, but her feminism is also shortsighted. Keeping ‘The cause’ out of the sight of Mr. Banks (knowing how much it infuriates him) she relies upon female nannies and servants to look after the children. She is so dedicated to the cause that she is unable to perceive her own complicity in the subjugation of the women who work for her, not to mention the children who invariably go unnoticed by both parents. The limitations of the approach of Mr and Mrs Banks is reflected in their criteria for nannies. After the most recent nanny has lost the children and quit, Mrs. Banks says to Mr. Banks, “I’m sorry, dear, but when I chose Katie Nanna I thought she would be firm with the children. She looked so solemn and cross.” George banks replies “Winifred, never confuse efficiency with a liver complaint.” What both parents have failed to notice is that rather than it being the case that the nannies have not been strict enough, instead they have been too strict, never really getting the children on their side or thinking on the children’s level. What is needed it a kind nanny with a cheery disposition. Enter Mary Poppins.[iii]

mary poppins 2

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins (or How to Tidy the Nursery)

Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, descends from the heavens to preach the message of work as play. She become a nanny for the Banks family and is introduced to Jane and Michael Banks (the children). She sets to work getting the children to tidy the nursery. This is not a mere task, but a lesson. Here, Mary Poppins teaches the children how to transform work into a game. It is a strikingly different work ethic to the stern formalities of their prudent father. For Mary Poppins “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” One should learn to enjoy work, to transform it into fun via the power of imagination.

Of course, it is hard here not to think of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark in which Selma, a Czech immigrant in America, is rapidly going blind and working as many hours a day as she can to pay for an operation for her son as the blindness is hereditary and he is likely to suffer the same fate. Yet the factory work itself is incredibly alienating and in order to get through it, she makes a Disneyan move; she imagines she is in a musical. Here the work ethic of Mary Poppins is put into practice: Don’t just accept the drudgery of your working condition, instead turn it into a game! Thus the clatter, crash and clack of heavy machinery become the soundtrack for a work-time fantasy.

A Trip to the Bank

In Balzac, an artist tries to marry into a bourgeois family; he carelessly remarks that money is there to be spent—since it is round, it must roll. The father of the family, reacting with the deepest mistrust, replies: “If it is round for prodigals, it is flat for economical people who pile it up.” The opposite approaches of the bohemian and the rentier (by the end of the tale they have comfortably fused) converge in images of the concrete pleasures of money. Both are thinking of the ways in which hands unconsciously encircle coins, a physical sensation. One man high-spiritedly lets them roll loose, the other deliberately stacks them on top of each other, with greedy precision. The spendthrift and the miser both feel the coins between their fingers.

Joachim Kalka – Money as we Knew It?[iv]

The children are not the only people that Mary Poppins wants to educate. Mary Poppins manipulates Mr. Banks into taking the children to the bank. He, believing it to be his own idea, declares it to be a “capital idea, a perfect medicine for all this slipshod, sugary female thinking they get around here all day long.” The children, excited that their father is going to show them attention, do not interpret the trip in quite the same way as him. For them it is an opportunity to see the city and all the sights. The city bifurcates: for the Banker, the city is the site of business and commerce, for the children the city is a space for “seeing sights,” for seeing things with no obvious practical purpose that excite and enthrall them; sites of aesthetic curiosities and fun. Throughout the film these two perspectives are forced into dialectical conflict.

Mary Poppins, no doubt, fuels this conflict when she points out to the children one of Mr. Bank’s many blindspots: the little old bird woman selling bags of crumbs to feed the birds. To their father, the miser, this is a waste of money, and simply passes him by. Their father has no time for charity and abhors the waste of money, thus the old lady selling her ware means nothing to him. For the children, she is the focal point: the very centre of the city. For the father the bank is the centre of the city, for the children it is the little old bird lady. This doubling of the city draws their coins in different directions. For the father, money is for investing and therefore money should be deposited in the bank, whilst for the children it is the capacity to buy a particular pleasurable experience: ‘feeding the birds’. When Michael asks to use this tuppence to feed the birds, his father replies “Michael, I will not permit you to throw your money away. When we get to the bank I will show you what can be done with your tuppence and I think you’ll find it extremely interesting.”

On arrival at the bank, a further doubling of perspectives takes place. Mr. Banks introduces his children to the chairman of the bank, the elder Mr. Dawes, as “a giant in the world of finance”. Michael is puzzled by the father’s description and asks himself aloud “A giant?” The father perceiving the world in terms of capital and status sees in the elder Mr. Dawes a giant. Michael, by contrast, does not perceive this class differentiation. He sees only a hunched and wizened old man. If the father sees the banker dressed up in all his class paraphernalia, Michael sees that the emperor is naked; he is simply a human being like you and I. In this sense, Michael is unable to perceive the unconditional imperative that motivates his father: capital. Rather, Michael is driven by a childlike communism where all social customs and hierarchies are reduced to equivalence.

These two perspectives come to a head. The children are not persuaded by the opportunities of investment and want to feed the birds; the bankers want to invest. Here, the fathers’ solipsistic consciousness is put to the test. Being unable to see beyond the end of his nose he cannot empathise with his own children and has no way of reassuring and communicating with them. As a consequence, this split of perspective turns into a conflict. A scuffle breaks out which frightens the customers into withdrawing all their savings from the bank. A run on the bank ensues.

A mere father-son conflict over a tuppence turns into a crisis of capitalism itself. Mr. Banks, unable to manage his own domestic conflicts, manages to muddle his home life with his work and in the process loses his own children, who, frightened and confused, run out of the bank. His whole frame of reference is capital and economic calculability and thus he is unable to perceive the very needs of his own children. Things go full circle and now the father is placed in the same place as the nannies he earlier scorned. Meanwhile the children are thrust into the dark underside of London’s financial capitalism: the slums. Here, the reality that remains hidden in the two perspectives of London (the sight seer and the miser) is revealed: the brutal, miserable life of the excluded.


Mary Poppins (1964)

The Lucky Chimney Sweep.

The children are lost in London and with this disorientation, the secure idyllic magical London disappears and, maybe for the first time in the film, there is a genuine sense of danger. From a dog’s bark to an old lady who appears ready to sell the children into slavery, the film takes an unsettling turn. We are faced with a London without the security of money or the safe distance of the sightseer. However, this is a Walt Disney picture and brutal confrontations with reality are not their inclination. We do not remain in this brutal reality for long. It is as if an alternative vision of poverty is needed, one which is less dark and haunting. The figure of Burt, the chimney sweep, easily fits the bill; he is more a middle class fantasy of what the working classes are like than a real pauper.  In this pinnacle scene Bert makes a speech that reveals the film’s overall work ethic.

“You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up. […] They make cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped some of ‘em, carpets and all.”

It is not the Chimney sweeps and the poor that are the real exploited, but the bankers and wealthy, those weighed down by money. The chimney sweeps, free from the chains of money, can leap across the skyline singing and dancing: they are the truly liberated! They know that just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and they can do the most horrible jobs, because they know that just a little song will help turn the job into a game. Thus, in the world of Mary Poppins the worker and the poor are the truly liberated. In contrast, the banker doesn’t have such privilege and is weighed down by money and respectability. In light of this, it is worth bearing in mind Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s account of Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey. When sailing home, Odysseus must pass the Sirens whose lure “remains overpowering. No one who hears their song can escape.”

“[Odysseus] knows only two possibilities of escape. One he prescribes to his comrades when faced with the beautiful. He plugs their ears with wax and orders them to row with all their might. Anyone who wishes to survive must not listen to the temptation of the irrecoverable, and is unable to listen only if he is unable to hear. Society has always made sure that this was the case. Workers must look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side. The urge toward distraction must be grimly sublimated in redoubled exertions. Thus the workers are made practical. The other possibility Odysseus chooses for himself, the landowner, who has others to work for him. He listens, but does so while bound helplessly to the mast, and the stronger the allurement grows the more tightly he has himself bound, just as later the bourgeois denied themselves happiness the closer it drew to them with the increase in their own power. What he hears has no consequences for him; he can signal to his men to untie him only by movements of his head, but it is too late. His comrades, who themselves cannot hear, know only of the danger of the song, not of its beauty, and leave him tied to the mast to save both him and themselves. They reproduce the life of the oppressor as a part of their own, while he cannot step outside his social role. The bonds by which he has irrevocably fettered himself to praxis at the same time keep the Sirens at a distance from praxis: their lure is neutralised as a mere object of contemplation, as art. The fettered man listens to a concert, as immobilized as audiences later, and his enthusiastic call for liberation goes unheard as applause.”[v]

In the above account, the worker and the bourgeois are both trapped. The bourgeois are consigned to their social role. They have become masters of their own bondage, which only the worker could liberate them from. Yet the worker is oppressed and unable to perceive the beauty that lies beyond their situation. They must simply keep their heads looking forward and row. However, in the Poppinsian universe, we are only given half of this equation. The bourgeois are bound by their social roles and they must deny themselves happiness, yet the worker does not have his ears plugged at all.

Quite the contrary, the chimney sweeps are the liberated; they have the music already playing in their ears. In the Poppinsian universe utopia has come early; the workers do not need liberating from capitalism, and as such, no actual social reform is needed. However horrible the conditions of a chimney sweep’s life is, the “sweep is as lucky as lucky can be.”

Bankers who Fly Kites

In Mary Poppins, the truly “oppressed” is the capitalist and the middle class family. They are the ones who have to learn to lighten up, have fun and go fly a kite. Thus Mary Poppins does change the social condition of work and co-ordinates of the bourgeois family, but in a way that leaves the lives of the workers the same. Work is supplemented with leisure (flying a kite); parents come to understand the needs of children and everyone comes to understand the need for a bit of fun. Even the banker comes to understand the Poppinsian alchemy (the transformation of the job into a game). Mr. Banks’ new found sense of humour not only earns him his job back, but a promotion. The age of remorse is over and the capitalists learn their lesson.

What lesson have they learnt? Instead of learning the problems of ‘the speculation of hedge funds, derivative markets and an economic system based on consumption and debt,”[vi] they learnt to have a bit of humour. Capitalism is not overthrown, a run on the bank cannot stop the forward march of capital; instead it acquires a human face. The turn to the tolerant fun-loving family is accompanied by a return to the market and anti-authoritarian fun becomes the order of the day. Here we see a perfect example of Žižek’s account of postmodern tolerance.

He contrasts two fathers, the first being the “good old fashioned totalitarian father,” the second the “tolerant postmodern father.” It is Sunday afternoon and you have to visit your grandmother. Žižek points out that the “good old fashioned totalitarian father will tell you ‘Listen, I don’t care how you feel! You have to go to your grandmother and behave appropriately.’” Here the child is able to kick and scream and resistance remains possible. However, the “so-called tolerant postmodern father,” uses a different tactic.

What he will tell you is the following – ‘You know how much your grandmother loves you. But nonetheless, you should only visit her if you really want to.’ Now every child who is not an idiot, and they are not idiots, knows that this apparent free choice secretly contains a much stronger order. Not only do you have to visit your grandmother, but you have to like it. That is one example of how tolerance, choice and so on, can conceal a much stronger order. [vii]

bankers who fly kites

Mary Poppins (1964)

Not only has the fate of the workers not improved, but it is also dressed up in garb that quells any resistance and struggle. Mr. Banks becomes the happy-hearted banker issuing fines and re-mortgaging houses, just as David Cameron becomes the new Tory implementing drastic welfare cuts and austerity with the language of participation, democracy and the big society. Justice and equality are abandoned in the name of freedom, fun and participation. Throughout Europe, the failure to challenge capitalism has required placing the burden on the workers (and the public generally). The irresponsibility of the banker and the structural problems of capitalism are increasingly re-interpreted as “too much public spending,” thus acquitting the banker and placing blame and burden on the people.

As a result, the public, not the banks and the commerce, are being made to shoulder the costs. Rather than seeking alternative solutions, our one-dimensional discourse does nothing to challenge the hermeneutic of neo-liberalism, which serves only one interest: capital. Yet such measures are unpopular and must therefore dress themselves in rhetorical niceties. From the workplace to parliament, misery and toil appears as play, participation and choice.

The strange irony may be that the more that play is introduced into work, the more the worker becomes trapped under work’s spell. As Sven Lütticken notes:

“Play demands active involvement, not passive submission”[viii].

Those elements appearing to offer more participation and more playtime at work, may in fact disguise its opposite: the transformation of the worker into an all-singing, all-dancing chimney sweep. The more we are given the illusion of our own choice, the less we feel that we can complain and in turn the more we become compliant in the system that enslaves us. Because

“emphasis on creativity and playfulness is perfect for legitimising ever-increasing inequality in a stationary or shrinking economy”[ix]

The idea of work as play increasingly becomes its opposite and a genuine liberation within work remains unachieved. What differentiates the overworked Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer’s Face and the Chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins is that the Chimney sweeps have learnt to accept their servitude. Mary Poppins conducts the perverse chimera of treating the workers as free, when they obviously aren’t. True freedom cannot be found by simply whistling while you work. In this respect the happy hearted roustabouts in Dumbo who “slave until they are almost dead” are the possible flip side to the chimney sweeps who step in time. Work itself remains a tortuous grind, but must be layered with a sweet sugary coating, something to keep the workers happy and distracted as their conditions worsen.

Mary Poppins II: The Chimney Sweeps’ Revolution

the lucky chimney sweep

Mary Poppins (1964)

Disney often has a tendency to give unsatisfactory endings. Cinderella must escape servitude by marrying into wealth; Dumbo must escape discrimination by becoming a star. Society itself never changes; some people just get lucky. Mary Poppins is no exception. Yet it is hard not to notice the lost potential in Mary Poppins. Not only is there a substantial critique of bourgeois society, but also the energy of the chimney sweeps seems to present us with a misplaced revolutionary fire; this energy builds throughout the chimney sweep section of the film and, in the process, distinction and hierarchies erode. After leaping across the rooftops, the chimney sweeps descend down into the Banks’ household, still leaping and dancing. In moving from their assigned zone on the chimney tops to the family house, the chimney sweeps transgress a boundary that keeps the workers at a ‘safe distance’ from the bourgeois private sphere. Yet the workers appear not to acknowledge this boundary and leap and dance all around the floor. Just as Michael is unable to comprehend how a wizened old man could be a giant, so too do the chimney sweeps seem unable to comprehend the public/private distinction that keeps them at a safe distance.

In the process, further social categories disintegrate. First the maid is incorporated into the jig. Her first reaction is shock. “Ow!” she exclaims, but the “Ow!” is simply incorporated into the song, as the chimney sweeps sing “Ow, step in time.” She is incorporated into the dance and soon her cries of “Ow!” transform into some form of enjoyment. Nor does Mrs. Banks’ return put a stop to this transgression; she too is quickly incorporated into the dance when the chimney sweeps call, “Votes for women, step in time.” Her first reaction is, “Oh, no, really, not at the moment.” but this soon transforms into a determined passionate call, “Votes for women!”, as she joins the chimney sweep’s dance. It is as if the chimney sweeps dance is a revolutionary fever which rips through the house acquiring momentum and broadening its base as it goes.

Here, a more radical conception of work becomes possible. Instead of seeing the chimney sweeps as glorifying work as it exists, we could imagine this revolutionary fever fuelling a kind of work that would overcome the conditions of work as they exist: the work of the revolutionary. If the work/play dichotomy is to be truly overcome, it will require more than learning how to whistle. For Adorno, the positive side of work “lies in the teleology that work potentially makes work superfluous.” In the same document, Horkheimer adds:

“A shaft of light from the telos falls onto labour. Basically, people are too short-sighted. They misinterpret the light that falls on labour from ultimate goals. Instead, they take labour qua labour as the telos and hence see their personal work success as that purpose. […] A shaft of light from the telos falls on the means to achieve it. It is just as if instead of worshipping their lover they worship the house in which she dwells. […] The shaft of light must be reflected back by an act of resistance.”[x]

Work contains the means for the overcoming of work and the path to human flourishing; this is the genuine purpose of work. But work is fetishised and drained of its true meaning. To combat this, the telos must be reflected back, not by supplementing work with play but via resistance and struggle for work as a drive towards a genuine purpose.

banks household

Mary Poppins (1964)

What if this was the missed possibility of Mary Poppins? It is in this respect that we should imagine an alternative Mary Poppins; a sequel maybe, where Mary Poppins is blown into the future, returning to empower the chimney sweeps, who, clasping their little red (Mary Poppins) books, join her in the social struggle and long march toward liberation, thus setting into motion a genuine synthesis of work and play.

Originally Published in One+One: Filmmakers Journal. Issue 6. Special Issue “Revolution in Progress”. April 2011


[i] In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engles makes a remark that hints at an alternative reading of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “Modern bourgeois society,” they write “with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” In light of this we may propose an alternative reading of the scene. The sorcerer, his apprentice and the brooms can be read as referring to three separate sections of society: the feudal landowner, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie seek to liberate themselves from the feudal system and conjure up the magical spell which is modern industrial capitalism. The bourgeoisie are liberated from the daily grind by the proletariat, who work to ensure the bourgeoisie’s freedom. Yet in conjuring up modern industrial capitalism, they lose control of capital itself, a process of valorisation and devalorisation takes hold and capital takes on a character of its own. The bourgeoisie become unable to take control of the world they brought into being. In this situation the industrial worker that the bourgeoisie brought about, becomes a revolutionary worker and rises up against them.

[ii] Slovoj Žižek, Living in the End Times. Verso: London. p. 334

[iii] It should be noted that Mary Poppins is a rather different Nanny in the P.L. Travers books. Rather than having a cheery disposition, Mary Poppins is generally stern; always cross, as well as being vain and easily offended. These character traits almost seem to disappear in the film. Whilst the book tends to be a collection of separate short adventures, Disney attempted to weave them into a unifying story. It is here that the ‘work as play’ theme comes to prominence. The trip to the bank and Mrs. Banks’ joining the suffragettes are also an invention of the film. Overall the film tended to politicize aspects of the book, not the other way around.

[iv] Joachim Kalka, Money as we Knew It? New Left Review 2/60. November-December 2009. p. 65

[v] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment.

See (sourced on January 2011)

[vi] Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek ‘Introduction: The Idea of communism’ in Douzinas and Žižek ed. The Idea of Communism, Verso: London. p.viivii

[vii] See the Astra Taylor film, Zizek! ICA Films. 26:52

[viii] Sven Lütticken, Playtimes, New Left Review, 2/66. November-December 2010. p.136

[ix] Sven Lütticken, Playtimes, New Left Review, 2/66. November-December 2010. p.138

[x] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer -Towards a New Manifesto? (New Left Review. 2/65. Sept/Oct 2010) p.35

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