In Defense of “Spoiled” Brats

prince&princessOne of the remaining acceptable targets of derision – in fiction as well as reality –  is the so-called “spoiled” person. The phrase is often used in one of three ways: 1. on its own (i.e. The child has been spoiled by her grandmother.); 2. spoiled brat (i.e. She is being a spoiled brat – let her calm down a bit.); and finally rather nastily as “spoiled rotten” (i.e. She was spoiled rotten growing up – blame her grandmother.)

No matter how one feels about the people so described, the word itself is quite alarming. The term “spoiled” is a synonym for “ruined”, “wrecked”, “damaged beyond repair”, “rotten”, etc. To put it bluntly, to label anything as spoiled means there is no hope for it to be restored. Spoiled food gets thrown out. Other uses of spoiled – for surprises, plotlines, performances, etc. – refer to something being ruined to the point of being nullified.

Added together, “spoiled rotten” is an oxymoron really only serving as a double condemnation. Someone who is “spoiled rotten” is considered beyond redemption in adulthood and doomed to a severe comeuppance in childhood. We are expected to cheer when a spoiled rotten character gets their comeuppance or meets their demise.

Writing off those who are supposedly spoiled rotten is a horrible thing to do, but it is understandable. Presumably, said person is highly frustrating, annoying, and selfish. They may even be intentionally mean to others. However, by considering them rotten, others cannot help them to change, and they really have little hope of being accepted if they do attempt to change if they perceive that everyone has written them off already. Nor does their horrible behaviour warrant the treatment that they often receive: lack of help when needed, truly horrifying experiences, and being laughed at and mocked for “finally getting what they deserve”.

Because they don’t deserve it.

Initially, “spoiled” refers to children, sometimes even endearingly. Despite the term’s implications, it is understood that a spoiled child can be redeemed. They will grow out of their selfishness. They will learn the value of money someday. “Spoiling” a child is even seen as a positive thing when done by grandparents or other relatives – giving treats and gifts that their parents may not be able to afford and leaving discipline to their parents.

What is missing is that for the most part, adults who are supposedly spoiled have been treated as such since they were children. Perhaps they are an only child. Perhaps they were ill for a long time during childhood, missing critical stages. Perhaps their parents gave them presents instead of love, leaving a void in their child’s heart. Perhaps they are truly brought up to believe that they are special and more deserving than others. Many of the characters that we are so happy to see get their comeuppance truly have a myopic view of the world that they live in. The visceral joy that the audience feels when they get their comeuppance has mostly to do with what elements the audience lacks.

In other words, it comes down to envy. The classic spoiled rotten character displays many characteristics that are envied by the average person:

  1. They are often only children. Growing up not having to share with siblings and having a lot of adult attention, only children can appear to have more material goods, parental attention, and opportunities to excel than those with siblings. While all children have to live on the schedule of others, only children have their needs met faster, rarely having to “wait their turn”. This can be seen as cheating, even if it is not the fault of the child (or even their parents). If they are not only children, they are often the youngest instead.
  2. They are often wealthy, or at least well-off. Paradoxically, children born into privilege are seen as cheating the system, even though they have no more control over the circumstances of their birth than anyone else, while those who make their fortune later in life are seen as rightfully earning it, even if they cheat others to do so.
  3. They are usually in positions of power, born into such by virtue of wealth, class, ethnicity, and personality traits. Examples include members of the nobility, slave-owners, children of powerful business moguls, and more. The system is (or seems to be) on their side, not that of the plucky hero.

What is problematic is that none of these traits are through the fault of the person in question. No one has any control over their parents, genes, place of birth, or spot in the social order. Furthermore, merely being an only child, youngest child, well-off, or offspring of powerful parents does not mean one is spoiled by default. It certainly does not mean that such a character is devoid of sympathy or beyond redemption. It is not enough to simply sigh, shake ones head, and cluck away about how it was their parents’ fault, either. It does no good to say “Well, she was beyond hope. Her parents spoiled her rotten. She was never going to survive in the real world.” That is treating a human being like an escaped pet.

Even those characters who are kind, polite, considerate, and well-behaved are accused of being spoiled, simply because of their privileged background, naivete, or perceived luck on the part of the audience. In this case, it is also a matter of how smart the audience feels: they are educated enough to know how privileged they are.

In sum, the term “spoiled” is part of our vocabulary and likely quite useful for describing children, but it has become so commonplace that it has lost much of its meaning and gravity. Really being “spoiled rotten” is a tragedy and must be deserving of compassion and education.

Even as much as it is cathartic to see the nasty little rich girl get her pretty dress ruined…or worse…

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Shakespeare’s “Othello” – Beware the Evil One

Othello-William-ShakespeareWhatever William Shakespeare intended to be the point of Othello, to modern audiences, it is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a trainwreck. On the one hand, one can watch both the situation and the title character tragically spiral out of control, but on the other hand, one can focus on the villain and his evil machinations. For in that regard, Othello is as much a horror story as it is anything else.

The main difference between this play and modern horror is that the villain, Iago, is portrayed as a legitimate character rather than a mere demonic presence. In fact, there initially seems nothing evil about him. He even convinces the audience that he has perfectly legitimate (if not necessarily founded) grievances against Othello: he was passed over for promotion; he suspects him of having an affair with his wife; and Othello himself is a foreigner. What is troubling is that all and none of these motives are what drives Iago. In the end, he does not seem to care what his motivation is once he sees how easily his scheming and sweet-talking get the plot rolling.

Basically, the plot of Othello is that General Othello – an all-around good military man but a Moor in the service of Venice – marries the younger and whiter Desdemona in what is for the time a love match. His heroism and tragic backstory attract her to him, while her beauty and naivete attract him to her. Had the events of the play not unfolded, I shudder to think of how their marriage might have continued. Even by Shakespeare’s standards, Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is odd. While completely innocent, Desdemona is a naive little doormat. It would not have been long before she would have been taken advantage of by others.

So naturally, Iago (with the unwitting help of his wife, Emilia) manipulates events to make it appear to Othello that Desdemona has been/is being unfaithful with Othello’s chief lieutenant, Cassio – who, incidentally, is the one who earned the promotion that Iago did not. Iago exploits Othello’s jealousy and plants seeds of doubt, letting Othello’s imagination do the rest. (This leads to the obvious conclusion that their marriage was eventually doomed, since Othello was naturally surrounded by younger, whiter, and fitter men who would be better matches for Desdemona than himself.) Othello kills Desdemona and then himself, destroying his soul and certainly all that he accomplished to integrate into Venetian society. Iago also kills Emilia and another of his pawns, Roderigo, and Cassio is put through the wringer by being first disgraced and fired and then subsequently nearly killed, leaving him maimed and possibly permanently unfit for battle, although he does get Othello’s command posting. Putting it thusly, if Othello were a horror movie, Cassio would be the gender-switched “final girl” character.

All of this is hinged on Iago sweet-talking and convincing every character that they should do what he suggests. He gives them conflicting reasons and keeps everyone suspicious of everyone else except him, who is always referred to as “honest Iago”.

That is the true cautionary tale of this play. It does not matter what ethnicity the title character is (or the background characters, for that matter). It does not matter how strong or weak Desdemona and Emilia are, or how faithful they are to their husbands. It is not even about envy. At its core, Othello is about the nature of evil within human society. Iago is consumed by evil – he is only serving himself and acknowledges that he does not care at all about anyone as long as they serve his plot. (Even Emilia is disposable when she exposes his plot – and this is at a time when a woman’s testimony in court was worth virtually nothing and a woman was considered to be an extension of her husband and so thus could not testify against him.)

Everyone trusts Iago – his wife, his commander, his commander’s wife, his comrades…No one questions him because he plays his cards very well. They have little reason to suspect him and he portrays himself as trustworthy and acting in their best interest. Emilia is the most suspicious, but even she is convinced that her husband cares for her and wants what is best for the both of them. But Iago, consumed with evil, divides them apart. That is what the Evil One does – divides. Iago divides himself from Emilia, divides Cassio from the army, and divides Othello from Desdemona. He gains the confidence of Roderigo, Cassio, Emilia, Desdemona, and Othello individually, turning them on each other. In fact, the only relationship he overlooks is that of Emilia and Desdemona, likely because he considers women’s relationships to be less important. To be sure, he uses Emilia’s position has Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting to his full advantage, but he does not interfere with their actual friendship and trust in each other. Because of this, when Emilia does realise what her husband has been up to, she wants to bring him to justice at her own expense, since she would likely be utterly ruined.

Of course, trust is key. Iago, as does anyone acting with evil intent, wants to be trusted. The solution is not distrust, or the old adage that “trust needs to be earned”. The solution is awareness. Beware of those acting with evil intentions. Are they attempting to divide something – friendship, family, couple, business relationship, person from their money, etc.? Do they make a big deal about how it does not benefit them? Do they force or attempt to force you to do something that you do not want to do? Do they make you keep it a secret? Do they place themselves as the person most worthy of trust? Do they have any underlying motives, even ones from the past that you thought were long done with? Do they have a history of lying or cheating?

Evil is highly manipulative. Iago, undoubtedly, saw himself as the hero of the play, even as it is named after the tragic Othello. But ultimately, evil did not prevail: Iago is defeated, Cassio is vindicated, and Desdemona’s cousin ends up with her and Othello’s wealth. The world goes on, and it is left open as to what Iago’s ultimate fate will be. He refuses to speak, depriving him of his main power, but will he be executed? One does not know. Like all good horror villains, there is just enough wiggle-room for a sequel.

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Thoughts on Pluto

ap_pluto_150714_16x9_992 Once considered the furthest planet from the Sun, Pluto went from being the runt of the litter to being the first among the dwarf planets, the King of the Kuiper Belt. For some – particularly American nationalists who seem to take it personally that the only planet discovered by an American has since been demoted – this is seen as a horrible tragedy. However, going from being that weird little kid that no one really got along with to being the largest of many others weird little kids that everyone is fascinated with hardly seems like a demotion. Instead of trying to fit Pluto into a category that it really did not match well with, the International Astronomical Union created a new category for Pluto, Charon, newly-discovered dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt, and vindicated little Ceres, who is the Princess of the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. [Incidentally, if anyone should complain about a loss of status, it would be Ceres, who was considered a planet between 1801 and 1854. Demoted to “asteroid”, Ceres got to reclaim some dignity as a “dwarf planet”.]

On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons space probe conducted a flyby of Pluto, its companion moon Charon, and its four smaller moons. It sent back beautiful, detailed photographs of the dwarf planet – such that my first reaction was that God has an amazing marble collection.

What was once considered to be a dark, desolate ball of ice is now a vibrant, dynamic, colourful ice-world, with its own geological features and quirks. Instead of mere blobs in space, Pluto and Charon are distinct entities, just teeming with more secrets to explore.

pluto_beforeandafter.jpg.CROP.original-originalNot long ago, Pluto was considered the back of beyond as far as the Solar System was concerned. Within only a couple of decades, we have discovered more smaller planetary bodies that orbit the Sun beyond Pluto, among them Eris, and an even stranger contender for dwarf planet status – Sedna, whose orbit is erratic and so distant from the Sun that it would hardly fit on a twentieth-century map. Plus, we have further observed the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn – moons that would be planets in their own right (or at least dwarf planets) if they orbited the Sun itself.

Nonetheless, we are discovering just how little we understand and know about even our own sun’s system, let alone the rest of the universe. We have barely explored our own planetary neighbours – the New Horizons mission is rather like climbing a mountain to visit those stranger neighbours that we often see but have never met, only to find that there are more people living further up the mountain.

There are many arguments for and against space exploration. Chief among the negative arguments is cost – equipment is expensive, fragile, non-reusable, and slow. Our own planet needs a lot of care and attention. Sending humans to colonize other planets, dwarf planets, or moons is a long way off. Even as we admire the beautiful photos of Pluto, we are nowhere closer to having a home anywhere other than Earth.

But that is not the only reason we explore space. We are slowly learning more about the universe that we inhabit. We are discovering exoplanets light-years away – what are they to us? Only windows into our own past and future. By studying how various planets orbit their stars (or orbited them at the time that the light reaching us left them, which in some cases was hundreds of years ago), we can make better educated guesses as to how our planet and solar system formed and what will happen to them as our sun continues its lifecycle. Learning about the planets in our own solar system is as much about ourselves and our own planet as it is about Pluto, Ceres, Titan, or Europa.

However, there is a hint of sadness in how we are taking more ownership in our solar system. For millions of years, Pluto was minding its own business, orbiting the Sun with Charon and their baby moons in a little family at the edge of the Kuiper Belt. Now, we have met them, and their isolation may be coming to an end as we send out more probes to the outer solar system. As for the inner solar system, we are looking to find resources on asteroids and satellites. We are looking to find life on Europa, Enceladus, Ganymede, and Titan, among others. We are looking to colonize Mars. Even if these are dreams still centuries out of reach, it is scary to think as to what could happen. Oceans may exist under the ice of Europa, but seeing as 95% of the North American people, fauna, and flora disappeared when a few explorers simply crossed an ocean on our own planet, what could happen to the Europan oceans without our even knowing?

And yet, the dark world of the Kuiper Belt has become a bit more inviting, a bit more familiar, because after decades of seeing our neighbours further up the mountain, we finally got to meet them.

And they were surprisingly friendly!

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Harriet the Spy – A Simpler But Stranger Time

Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_cover

While much can be (and has been) said about the novel Harriet the Spy, what stands out most to me upon rereading it as an adult is how much childhood has changed since the novel was written in the 1960s.

A modern Harriet would truly be a greater anomaly than the character is intended to be. Harriet M. Welsch, as she calls herself in her writing, is clearly written as a tomboyish, non-conformist young girl. But we have met this type of girl before in many novels: she prefers hanging out with her male best friend to other girls; she prefers jeans to dresses; she does not like the pettiness and superficiality associated with preteen girls; she is book-smart and enjoys writing; she is a keen observer of others; and she spends a lot of time on her own, exploring her neighbourhood and eavesdropping on her neighbours.

It is that last part that is particularly strange in 2015. To start with, a child – even at eleven years old – going out on her own would be cause for concern. Rather than assume she was simply playing, exploring, or looking for a quiet place to read, an observer would think she was in trouble. Her parents would be contacted and pilloried for not supervising her.

The second thing that is strange about Harriet is how her spying connects to her wanting to be a writer. She hides, watches, listens, and then writes down her notes, turning them into compositions and exposés for her school newspaper. Unfortunately, this is where technology has turned the story into historical fiction. A modern Harriet would be recording whole conversations, capturing video, and taking pictures with her smartphone, not simply taking notes. Unless we argue that Harriet’s family could not afford to give her a smartphone, we have to assume that Harriet would also upload said videos and photos online rather than write compositions. Not to mention how much more obsessed with security we have become over the past few decades. Harriet sneaks into apartments!

There is much to be gained by children (and parents) being more safety-conscious than they were fifty years ago. However, Harriet reminds us that children can look after themselves if taught properly to do so and that being independent used to be part of growing up. As a fellow only child, I can sympathize with Harriet spending a lot of time on her own. Going outside, making up stories, exploring new places – this used to be part of childhood and early adolescence. Children are rarely let outside with the order to “keep out of trouble and be back before dark!” anymore. Indeed, being let outside is a rarity – all the moreso when one is by oneself. Counterintuitively, an individual child is more likely to learn from their mistakes and take more responsibility for themselves and their actions than children in a group. Harriet, for example, learns to apologise and to control her spying. She also has learned how to look after herself and be aware of her surroundings.

Much of what Harriet observes is mundane, daily life, viewed and often misinterpreted through the eyes of an eleven-year-old. Nowadays, that information that fascinates her is easily and readily found online. Harriet would not have to go out into the world to do her spying. That is too bad, because the thrill of exploring is not easily replicated by a computer.

Fitzhugh, Louise. (1964). Harriet the Spy. New York : Yearling Books. 300 pgs.

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Just What the Doctor Ordered – Spy (2015)

spy2015Spy (2015)

What seemed like a silly slapstick comedy from the trailers turned out to be a hilarious and constructive film about confidence and stereotyping.

Spy stars Melissa McCarthy as Susan, a desk-agent with the CIA who is the real power behind the star field agent (and James Bond expy) played by Jude Law. When he is killed in action and the rest of the field agents are compromised, Susan volunteers to go on a mission to recapture a nuclear weapon from terrorists.

While the film is a parody of classic spy films, it is also a good adventure in its own right. Never does the plot waver – Susan is the plucky hero who embarks on a dangerous mission and continues to embed herself deeper into the plot in order to fulfill said mission, defeating the expectations of everyone but herself.

What makes this story especially powerful is the fact that Susan defeats the audience’s expectation of what a heavier, older woman can do. (Susan is not old at 40, except in Hollywood.) Even her CIA aliases are stereotypical: she is given the role of frumpy divorcee with a desk job and then subsequently that of a dumpy cat lady going on a holiday with lottery winnings. Her outfits are outlandish and she sticks out like a sore thumb. Her weapons arsenal is disguised as humiliating items like hemorrhoid wipes and stool softener (as opposed to even just hand-wipes and aspirin).  Even looking like a clownish granny, Susan manages to track down the criminals and foil potential attacks. She proves to be a strong and capable fighter with keen intuition and skills of observation.

Hence when she has the chance, she ditches the cat lady disguise and buys herself a gorgeous dress, styles her hair, and gets makeup done. Her security agent disguise works much better and her confidence soars. She becomes even more capable. For the audience, she is an identifiable heroine.

Quite simply, this is a film about believing in oneself and not being quick to judge others, but it is not preachy. It is a funny adventure that at once is charming and revolutionary. Susan starts off as a fish out of water, but she learns to swim. She does not do it to win a man or even to prove herself, but only to fulfill her mission. She does not let others’ ideas and expectations of her rule her. This is a story about breaking free of those constraints, and all members of the audience can identify with that.

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Orphan Black – Season 3 (2015)

orphan-black-season-3-bannerFor a series whose seasons are only 10 episodes long, Orphan Black packs as much storytelling into those ten hours as some shows do with twice that amount of time. In the third season, the writers introduce us to a line of male clones, give us several awesome death scenes (with closure) for main characters, include half a dozen sideplots, send the characters on international wild goose chases, and introduce in the final minutes a new conspiracy from an old enemy – or is it?

It is amazing to watch the actors bring to life multiple characters. As has been the case for the past two years, star Tatiana Maslany manages to portray at least seven characters so flawlessly that one forgets that she is indeed playing them all, especially when they interact onscreen. They all have distinct looks and personalities: Sarah is the hardboiled action hero, Alison is the suburban mom, Cosima is the free-spirited scientist, Helena is crazy and pure-hearted, Rachel is stubborn and broken, Beth is tragic and eerie, and newcomer Krystal is the bubbly fun one.

Meanwhile, we get to meet some of the male-line clones, who we learn partway through the season are the female clones’ biological brothers. Unlike their sisters (called ‘Project Leda’ or the Leda clones), the male clones (called ‘Project Castor’ or the Castor clones) are much more alike because they were raised together as brothers and under military discipline. Thus they have similar mannerisms to each other and their actor, Ari Millen, does not have as much need to widely differentiate between them. However, he does have to subtly indicate which brother he is portraying, and it is interesting upon rewatching the episodes to see the slight variations in each of the Castors.  Slight changes of voice, different posture, and more serve to augment the visual clues from the costuming and makeup department. All in all, well done to both actors!

o-ORPHAN-BLACK-SEASON-3-facebookStory-wise, the third season takes us on a wild goose chase to find keys to the research behind the cloning and the original DNA that might help save both the Leda and Castor clones from dying. Furthermore, Sarah attempts to rescue Helena; Alison tries to take over a suburban drug ring to finance her school trustee campaign; Cosima breaks up with Delphine and tries to find the meaning behind her near-death experience at the end of the second season; Helena finds a way to fit into her new family of sisters; and Rachel and Krystal find themselves pawns in a very dark conspiracy that only gets more complex each episode.

Amid all of these plotlines, the main characters undergo significant growth. The relationships between all of the Leda sisters solidifies as Sarah and Helena grow to trust one another and as Alison meaningfully connects with the others. Donnie and Alison’s marriage is healing and it is fun to see them interact as a team rather than as enemies. Felix comes into his own as a hero, albeit not to the extent that Paul does, and Art gets some closure with regards to what happened to Beth.  All of the supporting cast are well-suited for their roles; seeing as this is the third season and the writers have to worry less about introducing characters and world-building than they did previously, the supporting characters get more chances to shine and new characters get more time in the spotlight.

Finally, the ever-rocky relationship between Sarah and her foster mother, Mrs. S, is finally beginning to heal as the finale comes to a close. We learn a lot about Mrs. S’s past and how she came to have Sarah in her care. She is an intriguing character because she is loving and maternal, but she is not sweetness and light. Even when she and Sarah have forgiven each other, there is still tension. She is still someone who would kill or die to protect her family. Sarah clearly learned that behaviour and now applies it as well.

Overall, this season is about family. Who is our family? Does being related by blood automatically make us family? How far are we willing to go for family? To what extent do we owe our brothers and sisters? Can horrible acts be forgiven and rifts mended? To what extent?

By the end of the season, the Leda family (such as it is) has been temporarily mended, but not likely for long.

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Mary Poppins – The Musical

Mary Poppins2When I initially learned that Mary Poppins had been adapted from the screen to the stage, I was somewhat sceptical that the musical could be as good as the film. A lot of the magic of the film relied specifically on special effects that could not be reproduced on stage. Jumping into chalk drawings, flying, tea parties on the ceiling, snapping your fingers to clean up, and a whole host of other whimsical adventures would be next to impossible to perform in live theatre. Not to mention that the performances by the cast of the 1964 film were highly memorable and would be hard to live up to!

Doing some research before seeing the musical, I learned that they added many more songs, changed some from the Disney film, and deleted some others. This worked surprisingly well, making the play feel fresh and different from the film and also further developing the characters. Also, the staging is such that they keep the important and wondrous supernatural tricks without making them the centre of the story. In fact, having seen the musical, I realise now just how much the film really focuses on the magical effects as compared to the core elements of the story and characters.

Right away at the start, we learn that the focus of this story is not, as the title would suggest, a magical nanny, but a dysfunctional family struggling to make life work out and display their love for each other. It is that family, the Banks family, that remains the focus of the story. All of the whimsical adventures, crowd-pleasing songs, bright colours, dancing, and funny (but useful!) words are only a means to an end – namely to reunify and solidify the family.

While the story is set in the Edwardian era, the themes are universal. Dysfunctional families come in all kinds. The Banks family is an upper middleclass family, but what they have in possessions, they lack in love. The children are nasty brats who have lots of toys, but they take out their frustrations on the toys and break them. George, the father, is a disillusioned banker obsessed with money because he terrified of poverty. His wife, Winnifred, is a former actress who does not fit well into the role that her husband thinks she should play, namely that of a well-off middleclass housewife. She is trying to run the household but is terrified of making a mistake and is thus meek and mousy. George offers no affection to her or their children.

George is obsessed with control and how things are supposed to be. This was not his original disposition – he used to be inquisitive and fun-loving, but that was slowly beaten out of him by his childhood nanny. Winnifred is obsessed with pleasing George and keeping him happy, but constantly falling short. They are both narrowly surviving life and keeping up appearances. Neighbours and associates see through their charade, however – no one wants to attend Winnifred’s tea party.

The proof the family’s dysfunction is the fact that the children, Jane and Michael, are wild and mean-tempered. They go through nannies quicker than clothes. They destroy their toys. They run away from home. All they need is for a nanny who listens to them and yet who refuses to be intimidated – which they get in Mary Poppins.

It is obvious from the start that Mary Poppins is not a normal nanny. Elements of the supernatural accompany her arrival. Her confidence also startles everyone. She never gives references. She is “practically perfect in every way.” She is not intimidated by George, Winnifred, or the children. She makes them all feel naked and ridiculous, and then she builds their confidence up again. When she travels, she disappears into the sky like an angel.

What Mary Poppins does bring the Banks family – and everyone else that she comes into contact with, for that matter – is hope and faith. She teaches them to have faith that things will turn out. She teaches them respect, but she gives them a reason to respect themselves and then her. She brings chaos into the world to set it right again. Most importantly, she breaks the illusion that George (and then his family) has that life is perfectly controllable.

Mary Poppins is likely intended to be an angelic figure. She has a mysterious past that involves a jack-of-all-trades, Bert, and she has the ability to talk to animals. She flies. She has foreknowledge of events. Her story has all of the elements of being about a messenger of God, bringing faith and love to the people. She helps families love each other, share that love, and bring it to others. She encourages people to explore the world and ask questions, and to never lose their sense of wonder and whimsy.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious indeed!

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