I know exactly why men fancy Mary Poppins

Nichi Hodgson

Nichi Hodgson explains why the practically perfect nanny’s return to the big screen isn’t just exciting for children

12 December 2018 17:35

In times of distress – whether economic, professional or emotional – there’s only one source of comfort more reliable than a trusted parent, teacher or politician, and that’s a nanny. Ask Jacob Rees-Mogg.

As we approach what may be our last decent Christmas before the chaos of a cliff’s edge Brexit, Emily Blunt’s reprisal in Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall, 2018 [released on December 21]) of the role made iconic by Julie Andrews in the 1964 Disney original couldn’t have come at a more soothing time.  But – let’s be honest – it’s more than panic about Brexit that she promises to assuage. Men of all ages are looking forward to this film in a way that cannot be ascribed simply to a seasonal love of Disney movies.

For decades, nannies have held a potent sexual allure, associated as they are with an unwavering combination of potential physical ‘correction’ and emotional dependability. And Emily Blunt, already tipped for an Oscar, seems set to invoke that self-same two-edged spirit – dominant and nurturing – without so much as flashing an elegant, tightly laced ankle.

The nanny, make no mistake, is not the au pair. While the latter in popular imagination is servile, coquettish, a possible conquest, the nanny occupies a quite different position of impenetrable, elevated respect. Within the louche celebrity family unit, au pairs have long attracted the sexual attentions of indolent man-child-fathers – whether Chris de Burgh, Jude Law, or one of the numerous other case studies of men denying middle age by seducing an in-house ingenue. In such instances, the au pair is reduced to an arm-draping ornament whom the man-child-father perceives as the unwitting collaborator in his fitful and futile attempt to maintain a bogus youthful brand.

The nanny, on the other hand, achieves quite the opposite. She is not recruited to beguile anyone, and – crucially – if she becomes an object of proximate desire, her admirer is, in fact, embracing his stunted child, seeking release from the exhaustions of adult responsibility and manoeuvring. Her cool, civilising verve and her status as Loving Female Authority are complemented by a set of standard accoutrements that can only serve to increase her fetishisation.

Central to this is the fact that a mother could never fulfil the erotic function of the nanny. The Mary Poppins figure circumvents the incest taboo, but she maintains an attentiveness that is both dispassionate and enveloping. She pays a very practical attendance to bodily functions – urination, defecation, all manner of washing, feeding and grooming – that add to her erotic allure. Add this to the fact that she teaches the very manners that would traditionally allow a child to assure his place amongst the great and good of society and you have a most potent combination: securing status and moulding future sexual tastes alike.

The Mary Poppins figure circumvents the incest taboo, but she maintains an attentiveness that is both dispassionate and enveloping.

What’s more, it is her very scarcity today that makes her such a luxury. The nanny as we now understand her – essentially, what P.L. Travers memorialised in the original Mary Poppins books  – became a familiar figure in the social landscape around 1850. She was hired by the upper middle classes and landed gentry to care for their children; at the time, of course, Britain was the richest country in the world.

While we imagine a delicate-featured, porcelain-skinned Blunt, (or her winsome predecessor, Andrews) nannies tending to children in the Empire could either be shipped over from Britain or employed locally – adding a taste of the exotic that could again prove erotic for their wards or those that found themselves in their orbit. Traditionally, a nanny did no cooking, cleaning, or laundry, occupying a household status only one rung below the butler. As such, nannies – just as likely to be young as old, once demand grew – attracted admiration from many quarters, often outside the nursery.

Today, nannies are a mark of social exclusivity, confined to the one per cent. The Norland Nannies, favoured by the Royals, made the news recently when it was announced that men had finally been allowed to join their ranks, attracted by comparatively high salaries and training in James Bond-style emergency driving techniques. But it is the haughtily-beautiful Blunt, her beautifully-proportioned face flashing with just a hint of cruelty, that we think of when we imagine the practically perfect nanny of our daydreams.

In recent years, the archetype of the nanny has fallen out of common erotic discourse, even if she patently remains an all-too common fantasy for many men. Glide through the adverts of sexual services websites like ITC.com (spanking services, specifically) or AdultWork and you’ll see the demand for strict women has never been greater. But while ‘Mistress’, ‘Teacher’, and ‘Boss’ proliferate, the word ‘nanny’ has all but disappeared from the discussion boards.

Instead, the HR Lady has to some extent subsumed the nanny archetype. When I began working as a professional dominatrix some ten years ago, by far the most commonly-requested fantasy was a role play that involved me donning pin-heeled stilettos, a sheath of a pencil skirt and deliberately-unbuttoned white blouse – and then hauling the notional miscreant into the office of Human Resources on charges of professional misconduct.

It is the haughtily-beautiful Blunt, her beautifully-proportioned face flashing with just a hint of cruelty, that we think of when we imagine the practically perfect nanny of our daydreams.

These fantasy allegations normally involved perving over the female members of staff in the office, watching porn on a work computer, or masturbating in the toilets. Pretty bog-standard stuff – there’s hardly a man in the land that isn’t guilty of one or more of these offences. What makes the experience thrilling is the pressing, otherwise-secret desire to be chastised for such behaviour – in many cases up to the point of getting the sack, the woman chastising the man already fully-aware of what he will be confessing.

It’s at once a peculiarly-male burden and a privilege to fantasise about the horrific excitement of being sacked. But the fantasy of a woman who will pull you for offences others do not know you are guilty of – a woman who can read the contents of your filthy mind better than you can –  is, for many, deeply compelling. It alleviates the tedium of sexual self-policing. And – to revert from the HR manager to the nanny – who would better know the deepest recesses of your mind than the woman that raised you?

Boys brought up without demonstrative parental affection crave, as men, a cosseting and coddling kind of female interaction that is frequently repetitive or ritualistic – something the nanny delivers so well. Take ‘Eric’, a mahogany-skinned lothario with a flourish of white hair, who visited me for the same roleplay week in week out: a beating with a hair brush administered by ‘Auntie’. This was a fantasy allegedly based on a real memory from his childhood – only the ‘Auntie’ in question was really a cool and cruel friend of his mother, who had regularly taken a wooden-backed brush to his bottom throughout his early years. He told me he was convinced that she had been driven by a deliberately sadistic – and erotic – drive, even when he was only seven years old, and that the climax for him (so to speak) came when he buried his head into her unflinching lap after she had delivered the ritual strokes.

What made the role-play so extraordinary was the way Eric would gaze up into my face in between swipes, sometimes as tears slid hesitantly over his cheekbones.  He was captivated by the very unusual and specific circumstances of the experience: the imperviousness of the person meant to care for him and yet so eager and able to hurt him, combined by the surging endorphins from the strokes (a wooden hairbrush hurts more than most implements, for the record. I dare you to try it.) And while he would email afterwards to say I had not quite captured ‘Auntie’, he never failed to come back – until I hung up my professional hairbrush once and for all.

But back to Emily. Though the new Mary Poppins has, I am sure, no deliberate sexual undertone, Blunt still seems to understand explicitly not just the nanny’s general allure, but her specific psychosexual function. Interviewed in Vogue recently, she described her character as ‘a superhero […], some kind of angel, […]. She recognises what people need, and she gives it to them, yet they discover something about themselves in the process.’ If that isn’t a perfect description of the ultimate dominant woman, I don’t know what is.