Second to the right, and then straight on till morning

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I just watched a movie version of Peter Pan last night, and it was so interesting I had to start reading the book. The psychological implications – of a boy who refuses to grow up even after being changed by love – are almost impossible to ignore. But I got something else out of it I never had before, and it’s all to do with Wendy.

Wendy, having no desire to grow up, follows Peter to Neverland where she won’t have to. Eventually, she realizes she does want to grow up, and leaves. But as much as she’s come to mean to Peter, he refuses to leave behind the freedom and adventure of childhood to come with her.

But why does Wendy decide to grow up? Maybe because nearly the first thing that happens upon her arrival in Neverland is the Lost Boys – other perpetual children Peter has collected – ask her to become their mother. The boys make her into “Mother” and Peter into “Father”. As soon as she gets to the world of perpetual childhood, she’s asked to take on the adult role. Her choice then becomes: go home and really grow up, or stay in Neverland, but be cast as an adult against her wishes, by males who refuse to see her any other way.

The fact is, there are both male and female Peter Pans. People who refuse to accept some or all of the responsiblities defined as “adulthood”. But as we all know, society tends to see it as more acceptable for males than females.

If you’re female, can you remember a period of adolescence in which you refused the same responsiblities as your brothers or your male friends? For a time, the boys were right there with you, backing you up. Then suddenly, they were all backing each other up, but not you. Suddenly, they realized you really did have a responsibility to do dishes – they may even have told you this with a straight face. Meanwhile, they all ran off in a stolen car together to Neverland.

People ask men to grow up and take responsibility. When it comes to women, they just hand her the dishrag and assume she’ll take care of it.

The real reason Peter doesn’t want to grow up is fear of failure. Wendy can’t fear failure because there’s nothing for her to fail at as a grown-up. If you’re not allowed to do anything significant, you really can’t mess it up. This is why we’re supposed to be impressed if a man grows up into a decent, responsible creature but it’s the minimum expectation for women.

Comments

  1. says

    Holy crap, this is awesome. I’d never even thought about it that way. Had you thought about doing a follow-up feminist look at any other classic kid’s/fairy tales? I found an excellent article about misogyny in The Little Mermaid (the original and the saccharine Disney version). I didn’t save it, would have to Google to find it again. But I love when these things are examined. Culture is both an indicator and a shaper of who we are.
    IOW, great post! More plz?

  2. Eileen says

    I like how in the recent Disney version Wendy is tempted to become a pirate because they’ll let her choose her own identity. It turns out she wants to be a storyteller, and they’re happy to let her do it.

    I’d turn pirate too.

  3. Brandon says

    Doesn’t seem right that they just treat her as an Other and not as a fellow adventurer. Not all kids latch onto gender as an all-defining trait.

    The idea of Wendy telling stories to a crowd of wide eyed, adoring killers because the Lost Boys took her for granted makes me smile.

  4. Monica says

    Just came across this and found it very interesting, especially since in the stage version, Peter Pan is typically played by a girl.

  5. Cloudtigress says

    Interesting analysis of the story. Fast question about the only other (that I can recall off the top of my head; it’s been a good while since I’ve read the story) female presence in the story, Tiger Lily. Is she 1. portrayed as racist as I’ve heard elsewhere, and 2. leaving the (alleged) racism aside, how is she and her tribe (of girls?) otherwise treated by Pan and the Lost Boys? I’ve heard Peter treats her as an equal, but does he really? I’ve misplaced my copy of the story, so I can’t check that at this time. :(

  6. Romanticide says

    I dislike the original tale of Peter Pan (the disney film is not as fresh in my memory to decide) exactly because of that. Neverland doesn’t seem to be fun for Wendy, hell it even seems to be harder for her than London O.o

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