Nominated by Owen Earl
You may not think of Mary Poppins, the classic Disney film, as a cowboy story. After all, on first glance Mary Poppins shares almost nothing in common with the classic cowboy archetype. We think of cowboys as men, she’s a woman. We think of cowboys as American, she’s British. We think of cowboys as rough and tumble, and she’s proper.
However, if we look a little closer, we see that Mary Poppins is about as close to a classic cowboy as can be, just dressed up a little different.
The cowboy narrative goes as follows: a lone ranger rides into town, he has a mysterious background. He announces that he’s going to fix the place up, some people are resistant towards him. Others like the changes he’s making to the town. He does a lot of cowboy things, like riding horses, and he not afraid to get his hands a little dirty. Once he’s completed his mission of fixing up the town, he rides off into the sunset. He leaves before anyone has a chance to say goodbye. He wasn’t in it for the glory. He’s off, presumably, to fix up another town.
The story of Mary Poppins follows this framework to a T(ea), and we can learn a lot about being a cowboy by looking at her work.
First off, she’s a lone ranger. She rides into town (for the sake of this story the Banks household is the town) and announces that she’s going to fix the place up. Mr. Banks is totally off put by this and not exactly keen on the kinds of changes she’s looking to make. I love this intro scene.
Then she rides around doing all sorts of cowboy activities. She literally wins a horse race! What is more cowboy than that? She runs around on the rooftops getting soot all over herself and her clothes. She also keeps saying this very mysterious and classic cowboy thing, “I’m going to leave when the winds change”. Finally, when her cowboy work is done she leaves, rides off into the sunset. A lone ranger off to fix up another town. She doesn’t give anyone a chance to say thanks. Also she’s always wearing these big goofy hats. Classic cowboy move!
The most important lesson we can learn from Mary Poppins is how she fixes up the town. The movie seems like it focuses on the kids. They are, after all, the ones present to all her cowboy antics. However, the real meat of this cowboy classic has to do with Mr. Banks.
Mr. Banks is the town’s sheriff, he’s the man of the household, and he takes his sheriff duties seriously. To him being a sheriff is all about keeping things orderly. There’s this great scene at the beginning where he plays a note on the piano and it’s out of tune. He announces that he wants someone to get a piano tuner. “But you don’t play piano, George” is the response he gets. That’s not the point! The point is that in order for the town to be happy everything has to be neat and orderly. And it’s the town sheriff’s role to ensure this.
However, the town is not happy. People are constantly fighting with each other. George’s wife is all excited about letting women vote, something George doesn’t understand. The kids are unhappy. And most importantly, George is miserable!
No one really respects his authority! He knows how bad the town has it, but he doesn’t have the tools to fix it because when he tries to enact change no one really listens. He is pent-up and stressed about everything. He cares so much about money and order and when people don’t understand how important these things are to him it just makes everything worse.
George is trying to make the town better, he wants to be a good sheriff, but he doesn’t actually know what the town needs.
Mary Poppins rides into town and what does she do? She leads by example. She doesn’t say, “George, you’re being a bad sheriff. You’re pent-up and too concerned about money.” She just embodies a good sheriff. She leads the town with love and kindness and puts people first, not order. She teaches George the role of a sheriff by leading.
At first he’s angry and doesn’t like her. He tries to cast her out. But eventually he starts to see her ways. He starts to learn how to be a good sheriff. Most importantly, he’s liberated. George doesn’t like worrying so much about money and order and being on time. It’s crippling him, but he’s doing it because he wants to be a good sheriff and that’s what being a sheriff means to him.
At the end of the film, he realizes that he can loosen up a bit. It’s okay if he spends some time flying a kite, or feeding birds, or doing other frivolous activities, because these things are actually the things a good sheriff should do.
Once he’s liberated Mary leaves. He was the thing that was broken about the town, and in saving him she finished her job.
There are so many good things Mary Poppins teaches us about being a cowboy. We learn that we can never be too proper to dance around on rooftops. We learn how to make cleaning up more fun through song and dance. We learn to be grateful to the folks around us. Most importantly, we learn how to really fix up a town. Leading by example, leading with love, and recognizing when the people around us need a little liberation, even when they’re the ones keeping the town broken.