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Saving Mr. Disney: A Lesbian Perspective By Carolyn Gage

To stay focused when I'm writing intensively, I go to the movies in the afternoons. It's a kind of meditation that includes the walk down the hill to the cinema and back up again afterwards. And a few weeks ago, I saw three women-directed movies in three days: Rama Burshtein's Fill The Void, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah and Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said. Maybe things have changed, I thought to myself, ever optimistic. But I also noticed that men wrote and directed Catching Fire, from a novel by a woman, about a young woman and produced by a woman. And then I read Vocativ's analysis of 2013's 50 top-grossing US releases. This shows that almost half were Bechdel Test-passing films and that they did better at the US box office than those that weren't. BUT except for Frozen, which Jennifer Lee co-directed (and wrote) men directed all 50. And then at the weekend, all three of the new releases reviewed in our local paper (with enthusiasm) told stories that centred on women– August: Osage County; Philomena; Gloria. And men wrote and directed all of those too. And today Monica Bartyzel published a fine piece about films to be released in the United States in 2014. Of 149 films, there are only six that women directed (I'm thrilled that one of them is a new Niki Caro: McFarland). It's great that at last investors recognise the power of women as audiences and are backing films about women. But yet again, it looks like women writers and directors are missing out.

And there are other ongoing issues too, as Carolyn Gage shows here. I hesitated to to ask Carolyn if I could cross-post this because women wrote
Saving Mr Banks (directed by a man). But I love her analysis and as a woman writer I'm interested in what we do when we work in an environment dominated by men, where women and our stories are often misrepresented, if represented at all. Many thanks to you, Carolyn!

Bear with me... I'm going to take a few paragraphs to work up to my central theme...

As a marginalized writer of lesbian-feminist plays, I used to wonder what it would be like if one of my plays achieved first-class production (which is the industry lingo for “Broadway-level”). My question was answered when a Brazilian film and television star ran across a collection of my plays in a bookstore near Union Square, read my play about Joan of Arc, and decided to produce and star in it. In Brazil, of course. First-class production!

A word about the play: It was a one-woman show dealing with Joan of Arc as a teenaged, lesbian, butch runaway who was returning from the grave with a searing radical feminist critique of her experiences and those responsible for them. She is returning with a mission to warn contemporary women that they are facing the same enemies and that they need to understand this and to fight.

In other words, an unlikely candidate for first-class production.

But, you know what? The show was the top-selling commercial production of the season in both São Paulo and Rio. And then it went on to tour all the other major cities in Brazil. It was a smash hit.

Is Brazil a nation of lesbian feminists? What could possibly explain this?

Well… For starts, this one-woman show featured four really beefy, macho men. They rode motorcycles onto the stage, making a lot of noise, but no “lines” per se. This enabled the producer to designate them “scenic elements,” not added characters… which would have been a violation of my contract.

Joan of Arc with 'scenic element'

These four Hell’s Angels would circle Joan, maul her, cradle her, drive her on the back of their motorcycles… In other words, come constantly between her and her audience. And the butch thing was gone, completely. Joan wore enough eye makeup to put Theda Bara to shame, and she was dressed in tights.

And then there was the rape.

Joan was raped in her prison cell in a situation that was clearly engineered to make her prefer death to life. And it worked. She recanted her recantation and was burned at the stake.

Now, lots of playwrights have written about Joan.. Bernard Shaw, Jean Jean Anouilh, Eva Le Gallienne... and they end at the stake. I didn’t want to do that. In my play she is returning from the dead. The stake is in the past. We are looking to the future. I wanted to respect and protect the survivors in my audience who did not need to have their trauma memories restimulated. I did not want to write a play where, once again, the boys win.

In the Brazilian production, there was no such sensitivity. I understand that the four “scenic elements” stripped down to nudity and performed the assault on the stage. They raped my character. They raped my play. The play I had crafted to empower and inspire survivors became one more traumatic encounter reinforcing the helplessness of women, always outnumbered by the machine of patriarchy.

And they screwed me financially. Of course. It took more than three years to recover my royalty, and the amount certainly did not appear commensurate with the success of the work.

PL Travers

Why am I telling you this in an article about Saving Mr. Banks?

Because I am a lesbian writer whose beloved lesbian protagonist was hideously mangled by the machinery of patriarchal theatre, and I was angry about that. Really, really angry. Still am, because the pain of that experience never goes away. And I believe that PL Travers was a lesbian writer whose beloved lesbian protagonist was hideously mangled by the machinery of patriarchal Hollywood, and that she was angry about that. Really, really angry. And now the world is invited to come and mock this thoroughly unpleasant woman.

I come to celebrate her.

Was PL Travers a lesbian? Duh.

Some insist that she was bisexual, but the evidence for that is very sketchy. Aggressively pursuing publication, Travers went to Dublin to meet the editor Æ (aka George Russell), who had sent her an encouraging letter about her poems. He was married and twice her age, with a penchant for encouraging young writers. Travers’ biographer, Valerie Lawson, characterizes their friendship as “filial, intellectual, and marked by romantic gestures.” In other words, he flirted. But more to the point, he insisted that she get together with Madge Burnand. She did indeed get together with Madge, moved in with her, wrote the first Mary Poppins book in a cottage with her, and continued to live with her for ten years in a relationship that her biographer characterizes as “intense.” Duh.

Jessie Orage: One of PL Travers' Lovers

Æ would also introduce Travers to the teachings of Gurdjieff, a charismatic and influential spiritual teacher. Travers’ involvement with the community of Gurdjieff’s followers in the 1930’s should be of special interest to lesbian scholars. In spite of Gurdjieff’s professed advocacy of rigid gender roles, he created a women-only group in the 1920’s known as The Rope. The members of this group were all strong, successful women—mostly lesbian—who did not subscribe to traditional gender roles. One of these women, Jessie Orage, became lovers with Travers. Orage had scandalized the Gurdjieff community a decade earlier by wearing men’s trousers and smoking cigarettes. She documents the affair with Travers in the pages of her diary.

Jane Heap, Member of "The Rope"

So what about this Mary Poppins? Was she a lesbian? Well, I will argue—as did Travers—that heterosexual romance was not for her. Travers had first introduced the character in 1926, when she wrote a series of stories about children and their dreams. This collection became the basis for the first Mary Poppins book. On November 13, 1926, the Christchurch Sun published “Mary Poppins and the Match Man,” a short story about Mary Poppins’ day off with her boyfriend Bert.

Eight years later, Travers published the first Mary Poppins book, and the most significant change between the 1926 version of the famous nanny and the 1934 one, had to do with Mary Poppins’ relationships with men. Bert is no longer a boyfriend, but a buddy… or, more accurately, a groupie. Mary Poppins has become what one writer calls “untouchable and distant,” but I would use the word “exalted.” She is morphing into archetypal forms. Æ suggested the goddess of destruction and empowerment, Kali—and Travers did not disagree. By 1934, the proper nanny of her earlier stories had begun to supercede the ineffectual mother Mrs. Banks. No one except Mr. Banks, according to Travers, could understand her.

I believe what we are dealing with here is a lesbian butch. A guardian/ warrior archetype who combines military discipline with a Gurdjieffian mysticism that enables her to ascend to the stars and commune with the animals. A lesbian butch who cannot identify with a haplessly subordinate mother-figure and who identifies more solidly with the bread-winning father who must brave the rigors of a collapsing financial world.

Disney, by the way, turned Mrs. Banks into a "Suffragette," because he apparently felt this was synonymous with absentee mothering. PL Travers, no doubt aware of the heavy lesbian butch presence among the ranks of women militating for equal rights, was baffled and unhappy with his choice. Truly, her flighty and uber-feminine Mrs. Banks would have been terrified by the Suffragists.

But back to Mary Poppins. I know this archetype. I have been working with lesbian archetypes in my writing for thirty years. I find them in the writings of other lesbians, in their biographies, in our spiritual traditions and rituals, and in the lives of the women I love. And they are completely invisible—censored—in mainstream culture. Where they do surface, they are wildly misinterpreted, ridiculed, or demonized. As is the character of PL Travers in Saving Mr. Banks. Which is more like "Saving Mr. Disney."

Memo from Walt Disney's FBI files

Disney comes off like “Father Knows Best” in the film, but, in fact, he appears to have been a heavy-handed union-buster who, according to documents that surfaced under the Freedom of Information Act, served from 1940 until his death in 1966 as a secret informer (read “spy”) for the FBI.

He appears to have been a misogynist as well, a fact reflected in his hiring practices... as well as his need to ridicule the movement for women's suffrage. The letter below spells out the Disney Studio's policy: "Women do not do any of the creative work..."

He had pursued Travers for the rights to the Mary Poppins books for fifteen years, and he finally seduced her with a very unusual contract which contained two conditions upon which Travers refused to compromise: It could not be an animated film, and she was allowed rights of approval over the story treatment. These rights of approval were unprecedented at the Disney Studios… but note that it was approval over treatment only and not final shooting script.

PL Travers did not like the original script and traveled to Hollywood to consult. Walt met with her once and then took off for his ranch, leaving the creative team, with two days’ advance notice, to deal with her perfectly legitimate objections to the appropriation of her lifework.

By the time Travers arrived at the Studios, Mary Poppins, the inscrutable and intimidating disciplinarian, had been turned into the gracious, cheerful, idealized playmate for the children. And Bert had reverted to a love interest... something to which Travers took strenuous exception. The heroine of a 1930's Depression-Era bank crisis, wearing masculine suits with huge shoulder pads had morphed into a femmy 1910 Gibson Girl with a frilly parasol. Gone the butch. Gone the butch buddy. Gone the power. Gone the shadow side of mysticism.

Oversized double-breasted men's jacket w/epaulets and shoulder pads and military-style armbands on sleeves, with sensible shoes.

And then there was the animation. When Travers signed her agreement, she never dreamed that Disney would be sneaking animation into a film with live actors. Technically, it was not an animated film. He was sticking to the letter of the agreement, but not the spirit. The animated dance sequence took up a remarkable fifteen minutes of screen time. Was he just rubbing it in?

Not surprisingly Travers raised hell.

No, Disney did not invite her to the opening. This was a professional insult. Resourceful dyke that she was, she shamed another Disney executive into sending her an invitation. Yes, she wept at the premiere, but they were tears of frustration and disappointment. The animation! At the after-party she confronted Disney. According to Richard Sherman, who co-wrote the music, she declared in a loud voice, “Well. The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” Disney looked at her coolly and replied, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” (She had asked him to call her Mrs. Travers.)

Pink ruffled parasol, see-through sleeves, lace gloves.  

Most of the world would now equate Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews’ characterization. Travers' radical revisioning of parenting outside the box of traditional gender roles had been domesticated. And even the Suffragists had been trashed. Mr. Banks was saved. Mrs. Banks was saved. Bert and Mary were saved. And the lesbians were safely back in the closet, banished to a shadow world apart from the nuclear family and disallowed contact with the children.

I feel for Travers. I feel for her pain in fighting so hard for the real Mary Poppins, but lacking a language and a literature of archetypes to which she could point and say, “No, this is not that! Here is the frame of reference!” But that literature was as censored as her identity. She insisted on being called Mrs. Travers, but there was no husband. There never had been. "Travers" was her father’s first name. How could “Mrs. Travers” possibly, in 1960, advocate for all of the attributes, affinities, mythological referents that belong to our culture?

PL Travers, warrior woman

Short answer: She couldn’t. But she did not pretend to be happy. She did not go gently into the heterotopia of Disneyland. She raised as much hell as she could, but she was outflanked, outmaneuvered, and outnumbered by the strike-breaking, Red-baiting, rabid McCarthy-ite spy who was dictating the so-called family values that would enshrine the patriarch and ensure the compliance of women.

Italian feminst Carla Lonzi has said, "Men use myth; women don’t have sufficient personal resources to create it. Women who have tried to do so by themselves have endured such stress that their lives have been shortened by it." But Travers beat the odds, living to be nearly a hundred. I submit that her fighting spirit, the very spirit so vilified in the movie, had a great deal to do with her longevity. Well-behaved women rarely make centenarians.

Saving Mr. Banks is a witch-burning. Make no mistake about that. Give me a film company and I will show you a film about a powerful, visionary, immanently reasonable lesbian fighting off an evil army of propagandists who are hell-bent on breaking the spirit of one of the greatest lesbian archetypes ever set on paper… a liberator of children, a goddess to the natural world, a harbinger of a new order in the wake of the collapse of capitalism. I invite you to imagine and inhabit that scenario, because, sisters, I promise you that it is the real story.

copyright Carolyn Gage 2013.

Carolyn Gage is a playwright, performer, director, and activist. The author of nine books on lesbian theatre and sixty-five plays, musicals, and one-woman shows, she specializes in non-traditional roles for women, especially those reclaiming famous lesbians whose stories have been distorted or erased from history. Her collection of plays, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays won the Lambda Literary Award, and her catalog is online here. She has just crowdfunded a staged reading of her Stigmata: A Tragedy in Three Acts, in record time!

Carolyn would like women filmmakers to know of her and know of her work. She writes screenplays. She has some amazing plays that would make amazing films… 

We can sign up for Carolyn's newsletter here.

More about Saving Mr Banks

Sapphic Moments in Saving Mr Banks, by Maricie Bianco (tx, CampbellX!)
Spotlight on Screenwriting, includes short piece by Saving Mr Banks writer Kelly Marcel (scroll down)
Saving Mr Banks cast and crew discuss the film (video)
Meryl Streep on Disney (& with a lovely poem for Emma Thompson)


  1. As you like to say, Marian...this is ace. Cheers to Carolyn Gage! (Who, incidentally, is from Maine. #feelinglucky :)

  2. Thank you. Will use some of your lesbian info on my blog


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