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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Microaggressions in the New Mary Poppins

Bow outside this morning
I signed a new lease for Orchard House on the 18th , and the new tenants will take possession early in October. We celebrated by attending a local production of the new Mary Poppins. It was very well done, with a full orchestra and a cast of thousands on a shoestring budget. But it was not Walt Disney's Mary Poppins, or the Sherman Brother's Mary Poppins or P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins. It was the new Broadway play. which took out several of the old Sherman brothers songs and replaced them with other songs that were not as good. And the plot of the play was not as tight as the movie, which had  climaxes coming in all the right places. I wondered what the revisions were there for. And slowly it dawned on me that the ideology has been modified.

The "Sister Suffragette" song was not there. "The Life I Lead" was replaced by something quite inferior. The run on the bank triggered by the children listening to "Feed the Birds" and refusing to deposit their tuppence in an account was entirely missing. My all time favorite song in the musical, "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" was gone.

All that, I could have suffered in silence, except for this: I experienced microagressions from this play on the matter of caged birds and cod liver oil.

One of two cockatiels I own

Yeah, I know, that sounds ridiculous. But I felt this funny twinge a couple of times, and as I tried to identify why, I suddenly realized that it was as if I were being personally attacked. And since I have been paying attention to the progressive neologisms, it occurred to me that this is what a microaggression feels like.

The two cockatiels look onto my kitchen
In this new revised play, the practically perfect nanny is being contrasted with an evil nanny, who uses cod liver oil as a punishment, as opposed to Mary Poppins' spoon full of sugar bribe, and who happens to own a caged bird which she loves. In short order, Mary Poppins neutralizes the bad nanny by 1) freeing the caged bird and 2) making the nanny swallow a whole bottle of cod liver oil,

The birds in their large cage in a central location in the house

Sitting there in my seat, I was possibly the only member of the audience who identified with Miss Andrews, the bad nanny.  I started to feel really bad. I am offended, I thought to myself. But at first, I was not absolutely sure what I found most offensive. "Am I maybe taking this as a metaphor about Bow?" I asked myself. Then I remembered: I don't need this to be a metaphor. I actually have some caged birds at home.

Now, I did not purchase these birds. They were given to me be someone else who had paid for them, but could not afford to keep them. Because bird seed costs money. Lots of money every month.

And cages have to be cleaned. It's a lot of work. Lots of people start out thinking it will be fun, but they give it up because they realize they have gone in over their heads. So what should they do then? Should they just open the cage door and let the birds fly free? Would that be the humane thing to do? Of course not, unless you live in the Amazon region, and even then, a bird that has been caged all its life might not survive if just set free. We have harsh winters here. We have snow. There is no way that you can just let a bird like this go and expect it to prosper. So the previous owner gave the birds to me, and I let them have a  bigger cage than they came in, and all the food they need, and they feel safe in the cage. If the door is open, they still don't fly out.

Is this an ideal situation for a bird? Probably not. But if the entire rainforest is destroyed, those birds that are in captivity and kept by breeders will survive as a species. That should be important to anyone interested in conservation.

But what message do theater-goers get when they see the new Mary Poppins? That if they happen to come across a caged bird belonging to someone else, it's okay to open the door and encourage the bird to fly off. Is this a responsible message to be giving to the public and especially to the children in the audience? And yes, some of them are going to transfer that message to other caged animals, such as lions and tigers and bears and primates. Not a month goes by that some idiot on Youtube does not try to tell me in the comments that Bow should not be in a cage and that I should just set him free. What if an AR activist tried that and got injured? Would I be held responsible for that?

On top of which, all bird owners are vilified in the new revised Mary Poppins by having that particular bird owned by a "bad woman" who abuses children. Don't even get me started on cod liver oil.  .

We live in an age when many American children are obese. To prefer a spoon full of sugar over cod liver oil in terms of nutrition is like choosing a high carb diet over a high fat diet. It leads to obesity. You may protest that this is not what is meant by the song, and that this is not about nutrition but rather about discipline. Yes, I get that. But by eschewing all forms of "negative" consequences for bad behavior and substituting bribes instead, today's parents and educators are treating children like trained seals who will perform tricks in return for candy. It's a bad policy both nutritionally and psychologically.

Even putting sugar and enticing flavors in actual medicine backfires in the long run. In the United States, medicine children are given when they are sick is sickeningly sweet, enough to make you gag. Sometimes children get to hate a flavor, such as cherry, just because they associate it with cough medicine. In Taiwan, where we got the medicine straight from the doctor, it came in a powder that we could mix at home with anything we wanted. I think that is the better policy.

But back to the theory of microagression. I felt bad -- really bad -- for a couple of minutes in the scene where the bad nanny got her comeuppance. Not that I would ever force someone to drink cod liver oil -- what a waste of nutritious fat! -- but cod liver oil in this case stands for any form of discipline that involves an unpleasant consequence. I don't believe we can always rely on bribes and manipulations to avoid coming head to head with the fact that sometimes a child will want something that he cannot have and should not have. Sometimes we have to say no. When the child does not accept no, there have to be consequences. It can't be a bribe, or it will encourage the bad behavior. It cannot be a distraction, because this shows contempt for the child's intelligence. Really respecting a child means being honest, not sneaky. That policy pays in the long run, though it may be painful momentarily.

I realized sitting there that this is precisely why it is hard to get a theater to perform my own musical, even when they themselves do not understand the lyrics.

Microaggressions in a work of art, like a play, a novel or even a song, are those things that sting, because they belittle a member of the audience who does not share the underlying values of your work. It is that way in which as an author, we sometimes offend a reader not by directly stating something that counters his subconsciously held beliefs, but by indirectly targeting his values. It feels like a slap in the face.

I am guilty of this, too. I thought, when I was younger, that I had better not spell out too directly what I believe, but I should entice my readers by sneaking my morality in between the lines. So many people when they hear "I Love Everyone" do not immediately recognize it as a satire. Some even say they applaud the sentiment expressed by the song. But something still grates on their nerves, and they feel bad, and they don't end  up liking the song.

I was hoping to change the world, by convincing people to change their minds. But you have to change their minds first, before they will even allow you to say what you want to say in a public venue. It is no coincidence that I was a very small minority of the audience who thought freeing that bird was wrong. If everybody agreed with me, The Debt Collector would be the play showing in that theater last night. Instead the evening was capped by an extra song about how love is everything.


  1. I did not know you had birds, Aya. I think my step-grandmother had one of those birds. She was funny because she said oh you eat a lot of salad, that is what I feed my bird.

    1. Hi, Julia. I am not really a bird person, just as I am not a cat person. But we do have birds at our house, for a variety of reasons, and of course, since we have them, we do our best to take good care of them.

  2. Have you considered having a school do a play of your musical. There might be a school open to this.

    1. I have thought about that, but there are things about the play that community theater people have found offensive, and I am afraid a high school drama teacher would have the same objections. Mind you, there is no foul language, no nudity, no sexually suggestive situations. There is, however, some innuendo in the lyrics, and of course the theme is libertarian. For progressives, that is not good, because they will not like the take home message. But Bible belt conservatives have a problem with it, too. It is much milder than Miss Hannigan in Annie or the prostitutes in Les Miserables, but I have been told that what goes on Broadway is still not acceptable on Main Street.

      In fact, this play is much more like what George Bernard Shaw used to write than anything on Broadway -- except My Fair Lady, of course.

    2. Maybe a private school would be interested in your play.

    3. Maybe. I will see what I can find. It really just means finding the right person -- someone who will believe in the potential of the play.