‘Mary Poppins’ gets a new age rating in the UK

February 28, 2024 3:30 pm

[Source: CNN Entertainment]

A British film industry group has raised the age rating for the beloved children’s classic “Mary Poppins” over discriminatory language.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which regulates films and video content in the country, changed the rating of the 1964 Disney musical last week from U (Universal) to PG (Parental Guidance) because it features a racial slur once used by White Europeans to refer to the native peoples of southern Africa.

“Mary Poppins (1964) includes two uses of the discriminatory term ‘hottentots,’” a BBFC spokesperson said in a statement to CNN. “While Mary Poppins has a historical context, the use of discriminatory language is not condemned, and ultimately exceeds our guidelines for acceptable language at U.”

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The iconic film returns to UK theaters this year in celebration of its 60th anniversary, which prompted the BBFC to reexamine its original rating.

“Mary Poppins,” starring Julie Andrews in the titular role as well as Dick Van Dyke, follows the magical adventures of a nanny who comes to the rescue of the dysfunctional Banks family. It was a commercial and critical success in its time, with a lifetime gross of more than $103 million and five Academy Awards. In 2013, the US Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry, which recognizes American cinema of cultural, historic or aesthetic significance. And in 2018, it got a long-awaited sequel.

Even as “Mary Poppins” remains a treasured part of the cultural canon, the film has been criticized for trafficking in blackface. It’s partly in this context that the discriminatory language referenced by BBFC appears in the film.

In one scene, the eccentric Admiral Boom asks one of the Banks children if he is going on an adventure to “defeat hottentots.” Later in the film, as Admiral Boom sees chimney sweeps with soot-blackened faces dancing in the distance, he shouts, “We’re being attacked by hottentots!” and orders a cannon to be fired in their direction.

“Hottentot” is a derogatory term used by European settlers to refer to Khoikhoi peoples of South Africa and Namibia, according to the Oxford reference.

Per the new film rating, children of any age can still watch without an adult present, but parents should consider whether the content might upset younger or more sensitive children, a BBFC spokesperson said.

A 2021 BBFC report on racism in media found that people generally understand films and TV shows with objectionable material to be “products of their time,” but that they would prefer to be warned about such content so that they can decide whether it’s appropriate for themselves and their families.

“We understand from our racism and discrimination research, and recent classification guidelines research, that a key concern for people, parents in particular, is the potential to expose children to discriminatory language or behaviour which they may find distressing or repeat without realising the potential offence,” a BBFC spokesperson said.

In recent years, the movie industry has grappled with how to handle racist or offensive content in classic films.

In some cases, objectionable films have been phased out. Disney’s 1946 “Song of the South,” now widely regarded as racist for its portrayals of African Americans, doesn’t appear on the company’s streaming service nor was it a part of Disney’s recent boxset of classic films.

Last year, Disney also closed the long-running theme park attraction Splash Mountain over its many references to “Song of the South,” with plans to reimagine the ride.

In other instances, Disney has kept films with offensive material available with added context. In 2019, Disney+ began including disclaimers on films such as “Dumbo,” indicating that they featured “outdated cultural depictions.” The company updated the language in its advisories in 2020 to more strongly condemn racist content, with warnings appearing “Lady and the Tramp,” “Peter Pan” and other films.

“This programme includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” the updated advisories read. “These stereotypes were then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”