Mcleer - Practical Perfection The Nanny Negotiates Gender...

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©2002 NWSA J OURNAL , V OL . 14 N O . 2 (S UMMER ) Practical Perfection? The Nanny Negotiates Gender, Class, and Family Contradictions in 1960s Popular Culture ANNE MCLEER This essay examines the popular 1960s fi lms Mary Poppins (Stevenson 1964) and The Sound of Music (Wise 1965) which, despite their foreign settings and stars and their historical timeframes, are seen in the light of their relevance to social and political concerns of the United States in the 1960s. The fi lms set about addressing anxieties surrounding mas- culinity, motherhood, domestic gender roles, and the constitution of the family that were current at the time. The fi lms are seen as a response to the burgeoning women’s movement of the mid-1960s and rising levels of recognition of women’s changing place in society, as well as what was considered men’s loosening grip on patriarchal power in the family. In both fi lms, the character of the nanny, a threshold fi gure and family interloper, is the person responsible for reinstalling the father, whose domestic role as head of the intact, patriotic family was thought to be in jeopardy, by ensuring that his familial relations are modernized. Keywords: children / class / fatherhood / fi lm musicals / masculinity / motherhood / nationalism / popular / postwar / psychology In the mid-1960s, two family fi lms starring British actress Julie Andrews garnered much popular and critical acclaim in the United States. Although Mary Poppins (Stevenson 1964) and The Sound of Music (Wise 1965) are both set in overseas locales, and feature many well-known Eng- lish actors, they can nevertheless be seen as belonging to the canon of American popular culture. Both fi lms were produced by American com- panies; Walt Disney in the case of Mary Poppins and 20 th Century Fox in the case of The Sound of Music , and were popular among audiences in the United States. Mary Poppins was nominated for best picture in the 1965 Academy Awards, and Julie Andrews won the Oscar Award for Best Actress for her performance in the fi lm. The following year, The Sound of Music won Oscars in the categories of best picture and best director for Robert Wise, among other awards. Julie Andrews was nominated but did not win. In this essay, I argue that despite (or indeed because of) their foreign settings and non-American stars, these fi lms speak to the “Hollywood imaginary,” addressing in their oblique, allegorical manner, concerns and anxieties that surrounded the notion of the family and changing gender roles in the United States of the 1960s. Such concerns were prob-
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P RACTICAL P ERFECTION ? 81 ably pertinent throughout middle-class families across Western Europe, and these fi lms, no doubt, also had much social resonance in Britain and Canada. Much like science fi ction or speculative texts, fi lms set in a different era or geographical location to their time and place of production often have as much, if not more, to say about that place and time than about their imaginary historical locales. Bruce McConachie contends that the popular, 1950s, Oriental
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