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British censors change Mary Poppins rating

The beloved children’s film is now rated PG due to featuring a Dutch word used to describe an African tribe

Classic children’s film Mary Poppins has had its rating changed from the all-inclusive U to PG (Parental Guidance) due to “discriminatory language,” the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) told UK media on Sunday. 

Parents were warned that “some scenes may be unsuitable for young children,” specifically the Admiral Boom character’s use of the term ‘Hottentot’ – an old Dutch word for the Khoekhoe tribe of nomadic herders in what is now South Africa, later used in a derogatory sense to denote Africans or people of African descent.

Boom first asks the titular nanny and her two young charges – covered in soot from climbing through their chimney – if they are “going to fight the Hottentots.” Later, as the trio and a horde of similarly blacked-up chimney sweeps cavort in a dance number across the rooftops of London, the admiral shouts, “We are being attacked by Hottentots!” and shoots fireworks at the merry-makers. 

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While the BBFC insisted it took historical context into account when selecting its new rating, it also claimed that since use of the term ‘Hottentot’ was not condemned within the film, it set a bad example for children who might watch and model the behaviors they see. That particular term – and racist references in general – were much more common at the time of the film’s 1964 release.

“We understand from our racism and discrimination research… that a key concern for… parents is the potential to expose children to discriminatory language or behavior which they may find distressing or repeat without realizing the potential offense,” the organization said in a statement to the Daily Mail, suggesting an immediate condemnation of the word’s use might have spared Mary Poppins the ratings upgrade. 

The ratings board did not mention whether the chimney soot makeup itself – often highlighted as an invocation of blackface and minstrel tropes – influenced its decision.

Film scholar Leshu Torchin defended the ratings change to the New York Times on Monday, insisting that the possibility a film was going to be “watched by new audiences” was sufficient to justify placing the warning label on the decades-old movie. Cable network HBO Max temporarily removed the classic film Gone with the Wind from its streaming library in 2020 amid the George Floyd riots in the US, with the company claiming an “explanation and a denouncement” of its supposedly whitewashed depiction of the antebellum South was needed. 

The Mary Poppins ratings change was issued ahead of a planned 60th anniversary re-release of the Disney production in the UK and does not affect the US release, which remains rated G for General Audiences.

February 28, 2024 at 01:33AM

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