Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Peter Pan Is a Cancer on Society

If there's one story in Western culture that we've seen more adaptations of than The Three Musketeers, it's Peter Pan. Okay, to be fair, that's an exaggeration. There are lots of stories that we keep recycling over and over, and Peter Pan is just one of them. But it's an important one, because somewhere in there, this little story by J.M. Barrie, written in the late 1800s, became enshrined alongside the fairy tales our culture has been lugging along for half a millennium now.

What I mean is that it's funny to think about the relative newness of Peter Pan in relation to its cultural saturation. Sure, there are fourteen kajillion versions of Cinderella kicking around (and I should know, since my mother's hobby was to collect and watch/read all of them), but Cinderella has been in our culture for a very long time. Peter Pan? Not so much. So it's interesting that this is a story so incredibly pervasive in our collective unconscious.

I say it's interesting. What I actually mean is that it's creepy as hell, and probably deeply unhealthy.

Peter Pan seems to be one of those stories that everyone loves but no one really gets. Or rather, no one really bothers to think about. Because if you really think about it, Peter Pan is not a nice fairy story about a boy who wouldn't grow up, it's about the monstrous ways that a perpetual childhood can destroy the psyche. I mean, it's told in a loving and sweet way, but it's still a cautionary tale. And I think most of us kind of miss that part.

Not like that's a new literary tradition, the missing of the point. People to this day insist that Machiavelli was being totally straight when he wrote The Prince and that he was a sick son of a bitch. Not so, in fact, because even a cursory examination of his life history would reveal that he effing hated the prince he wrote that for, and he intentionally filled the book with bad advice on governance in the hope that the guy would become so hated the people would kill him. I did not make that up.

Or how about Thomas More's Utopia? Yes, it's the book most cited by Danielle in the lovely Ever After, and it's what we attribute her feminist leanings and general egalitarian attitude towards, but the book itself was meant to be a joke. Erasmus even commented on how funny it was, and More himself was a little baffled when people started to take it seriously. They didn't get the joke. And so too, have we completely missed the point of Peter Pan.

Look, when we come down to the brass tacks of the Peter Pan story, what do we know? What does every version stick with?

Peter Pan is a child who ran away from his life when he heard his parents talking about what he would be when he grew up. He decided that growing up sounded terrible and resolved to never do it. Therefore, he went off to Never Never Land, a magical island full of fun stuff where he doesn't have to get older.

Eventually he collects a herd of young boys to follow him around and think he's god, and they fight against pirates and racist Native American stereotypes, and everything is fine until one day Peter gets separated from his shadow and meets Wendy Darling and her brothers and then he takes them to Neverland and all hell breaks loose. Sort of.

That's the gist, though, right? Peter Pan is the boy who wouldn't grow up, and he lives an enchanted life among fairies and living in the woods and he has no responsibilities, but he gets to fight pirates all the time and never has to pay bills or go to school or think about his impact on other people at all. Sounds amazing.

Except for the part where that actually sounds like a hellish dystopia, and where Peter Pan is a sociopath in boy's clothing and a probable murderer to boot.

I'm seriously not making this up, you can check the book: Peter Pan actually kills the Lost Boys when they get too old. Really. As it makes clear in the book, being in Neverland doesn't actually stop you from aging, it just slows the process down a lot. So when the Lost Boys get too old, Peter "thins them out." Quote from the book, included right after it talks about how many people he's killed. So...yeah. 

Also, I should point out, Peter Pan does himself age, he just ages much more slowly than everyone else. And notably, he only ages physically. Mentally and emotionally he doesn't grow up. But physically?

Think about it. In most portrayals of Peter Pan, the kid looks to be about ten or twelve, right? Well, by Peter's own account, he ran away from his parents when he was a day old. Now, this is a makebelieve story, so we can let that slide, but even if we assume that he ran away at an age where that was physically possible, like three, that still means that he has been aging this whole time. Not quickly, but definitely aging.

Which paints a much more complex and kind of frightening picture of our hero, doesn't it? Effectively what we can learn here is that Peter isn't a hero, he's a narcissistic sociopath building a cult around himself and murdering his followers. So, the most accurate version of Peter Pan put to screen is probably the one from Once Upon a Time where he's a villain. 

More than that, though, the book seems to be trying to explain why Peter's life, cut off from civilization and from all notion of responsibility, is actually horrifically unhealthy. Peter has no emotional attachments to his Lost Boys. He can barely remember who they are. He can barely remember who anyone is unless they're in front of him all the time. Heck, he keeps on forgetting Wendy, and she's one of the only three women he knows in the entire world.

He can't tell reality from fiction, even going so far as to play pretend with the Lost Boys without knowing that he's playing pretend. He really can't tell. He'll make them pretend to eat dinner, and then punch them if they try to complain about wanting real food. Because, for him, this is real. Why wouldn't it be real? Eat your invisible steak!

There's other stuff too. Like, what actual motivation did Peter have to cut off Hook's hand? None is ever given. From what we can tell, Hook is hunting Peter because of the hand thing, but it's never explained why Peter did that in the first place. Based on his general character, I would have to say that he did it for no reason at all. Because Peter is a deeply damaged child with no sense of the outside world or of consequences in general.

Which brings me to the larger point. Peter Pan is a cautionary tale. He's not supposed to be our patron saint of lost childhoods, he's actually supposed to be grim picture of what it's like when we try to put off adult responsibilities and hold onto our youth. Peter is a picture of the horrific thing we would turn into if we disregarded all that painful boring ugly stuff called growing up. He has no empathy, he has no responsibility, he's basically evil. Peter Pan is a two year old id in a nearly grown body, and he is a monster.

So how did we get this so wrong?

If you look at the general movie interpretations of Peter Pan, they seem to be saying the same thing. Peter is a hero, and the grownups who insist that the Darling children come home and become adults are the bad guys. Yes, eventually Wendy and company do come home, but Peter never changes, and we should be glad of that! Yay for Peter Pan and his perpetual youth. May he never change.

The animated Disney version is a sweet, watered down vision of unfettered childhood, while Hook gives us a world in which growing up was the worst possible thing Peter could do. Heck, the IMDB summary for next year's live-action Pan says it's,
The story of an orphan who is spirited away to the magical Neverland. There, he finds both fun and dangers, and ultimately discovers his destiny -- to become the hero who will be forever known as Peter Pan. [x]
Lest we forget, Finding Neverland might have purported to be a biopic of J.M. Barrie, but it missed the boat most of all, concocting this fanciful man who loved being a kid and wished he could have never grown up, instead of the actual man who was trying to make a political statement.

Even my favorite version, the 2003 live-action Peter Pan, completely misses the point. Sure, it's closer than all the rest, portraying Peter as a screwed up snot of a kid who has no idea what he's doing and talks out of his butt most of the time, but he's still the good guy. I like this version best because Wendy is the main character and it's really a coming of age tale, but even so, they didn't get it. The tragedy is that Peter Pan will never grow up. That's not a constant or a comforting thought, it's stinking awful.

Why am I insisting on ruining your childhood right now? Well, first off because it's fun. But second, and much more importantly, because I feel like in missing the point of Peter Pan, we are in grave danger as a culture of becoming like him. It's fine if you like the story or want to dress up in a cute Peter Pan costume for Halloween. Whatever floats your boat. But I am not okay with the idea that Peter Pan, the boy who became a monster because he never grew up, is our cultural hero. And he is.

If you look at most sitcoms on TV right now, who are the main characters? Immature man-children who refuse to grow up and accept responsibility. That's our thing. Our cultural self-perception is of a guy in his late twenties wearing a hoodie and some Converse, complaining about how his girlfriend dumped him for not having a "real job". Whatever, man! He's not some sellout like the rest of them. Yeah, he lives with his parents and he spends all of his time working on his one-man show about My Little Ponies, but that doesn't make him a loser. That makes him deep. 

Or you can look at the dozens of independent romantic comedies that litter Netflix. The sensitive man-child, who is quirky and sweet and refuses to accept the meaningful impact of his actions. Sure, he'll learn a little lesson about being nice to the pretty girl before the movie is over, but his overall actions, where he never actually goes out and gets a real job or attempts to do something with his life, will be lauded. They make him more authentic. More real. More admirable, because he won't grow up.

His refusal to grow up is supposed to be charming. Because there's nothing our culture hates more than an adult who knows they are an adult and that they have stinking responsibilities to deal with tomorrow. It's like we're all whining children screaming because we have to go to school, and even though we understand that if we stayed home we would be bored, we still don't want to go to school. Because it's haaaaaaaaard.

I honestly think that all this "never grow up" crap is part of why I so steadfastly insist on being a killjoy about everything. I've always loved rebelling, but in our culture, rebelling is kind of hard to do. I can't rebel by being an "artist". I can't rebel by ditching my job and following a band around for a year. Our parents did that. It's passe. So I rebel by working two jobs and doing this blog on the side. I rebel by working really hard and paying bills.

That's not really to make me sound good, either. It's to point out how messed the hell up our culture is. My character type is lambasted in the media for being boring and stodgy. I am the butt of a thousand sitcom jokes. The ideal woman is a girl-child who can't pay her bills or drive or remember her last name, but gosh is she pretty! Peter Pan has infested our culture, and we have got to root him out or he is going to devour us whole.

I'm not blaming Peter Pan for all of our problems, mind you. I'm a Millennial, and I firmly believe that we got the short end of a lot of sticks when it comes to the economic situation we were spat out into and the horrible lack of jobs and prevalence of debt. I think that sucks, and I think that it's hard. That's not the issue here. The problem is that our culture seems intent on claiming that there is no problem. That we're all just Peter Pans who won't grow up and don't want to and that's fine.

It's not true and it's not fine. I want to grow up, but the culture has created a lie that says that I don't, and then chosen to believe that lie over my screaming mouth. I want to grow up, but all I ever see are images on television and in the movies telling me that I shouldn't. It's like they're trying to cover up their complicity in my extended childhood by making me want to be a kid forever.

The ending of the story is always the part people ignore, but it's the part that matters the most in the telling of it. After Wendy and John and Michael have had their adventures in Neverland, after they have defeated Hook and saved Tiger Lily, after everything is set right again, they go home. Neverland is nice, but you can't live there. Childhood is nice, but it's only nice because it ends. If it didn't, it would become a hellscape of self-obsessed monsters and immature understandings of the world.

It's not fun growing up. It's never fun. But not growing up is much worse. And while I really did enjoy being a child, I'm not a child anymore. It was fun not to have responsibilities, but I do now. I know who I am in the world, and I know that a part of the world depends on me. I know that my actions affect other people, and that I want to affect them positively.

I know that even though it's hard, growing up is good. It's natural. And it's what we have to do if we want to survive.

Grow up, kids. It's the only way to save yourselves.


  1. I know you get this all the time, but you are absolutely brilliant. I made this exact observation (though less eloquent) to my sister when OUaT debuted Pan as its villain. I read the book maybe three years ago for the first time and it A) horrified me that PP was not a saintly child and B) gave me new appreciation for the the movie Hook. This makes me want to go back and dissect the Good Form principle in the novel. I remember it being an amalgam of Hook's education and etiquette, which kept him above Pan, until he sunk to Pan's level during their final battle. What does this say about adults and children?? Argh! Symbolism!!

    1. The Good Form thing in the novel is really interesting, as are all of the allusions to who Hook is a representation of, because Barrie implies heavily that he's actually some real person who's been written into the book. I just don't know enough about the history of that time to get most of the references. I want to!

  2. I lurved it when Pan was a total demon on OUaT but I only connected it to Hook, which is the only version of the Pan story I've ever paid attention to (and that mostly thanks to the young hottie who played Rufio). I remembered the sociopathic tendencies of Hook's Pan, once they were revealed, but the idea that being a child living in Neverland never really struck me as an ideal. I guess I missed the Disney version, ya know?
    Anyway--Thank you for connecting it to our culture's bizarre love affair with man-children/manic-pixie dream girls. That makes a lot of (unfortunate) sense, and I hope it eventually veers in a different direction.

    1. Actually, Hook was probably the Peter Pan story I saw most as a kid too, but I also saw a lot of the animated one, and we definitely watched the mildly painful live-action one from the 1960s or so too. I never particularly wanted to run off to Neverland, but I knew so many others who did. I was more concerned with making sure I wouldn't miss any school, because nerd.

      My goal in life: change the culture, one ruined childhood classic at a time. :D

  3. No ruined childhood here - I remember finding the Disney Peter Pan way too sinister as a small child. One of the first things that happen in Neverland is that mermaids try to drown Wendy for a laugh (if I remember that rightly - it's been a long time). Meanwhile, childhood just isn't that good; I think lots of kids know that life gets better as you grow up.

    I think we may have a less sentimental view of Peter Pan here in the UK, where although I'm such many more people have seen the movies than the play, the play is put on fairly regularly in schools and at theatres. And although Peter Pan remains a magical character, I'm not sure that I've ever received the message that this is someone we might want to be. (This is not the last word on infantilisation in British culture; there are a lot of people invested in the economics of a world populated by children with credit cards).

    1. I'm getting the impression that this misinterpretation of the source material is largely an American thing. Which is interesting in and of itself...

  4. I think that's more loathing than I've seen you display for anything.

    The points you make remind me of your takedown of Turbo.

    1. Oh yeah! I really hated that movie. I still hate that movie.

      Ugh. Turbo.

  5. You might enjoy the book Alias Hook which, at least for the first half or so (all I've gotten to), is about this kind of reading of Pan.

    1. And I am totally adding that to my reading list. Thank you!

  6. My problem when reading Peter Pan was that when Wendy was staying in Never Never Land she didn't get to just be a little girl. She was taking care of Peter and all the little boys. And then when she was back home she would continue to visit every year to take care of Peter the man child. And when she grew up her daughter took over taking care of him and then her granddaughter and it just continued like a rite of passage or the fate of womankind. Taking care of the Peter Pans in our life.

  7. This article actually make me feel more comfortable about growing up, as well as made me want to read the book. Thanks!

  8. Just found your blog and I love it, but I think you might have made a mistake in terms of your reference to Machiavelli? Machiavelli wrote the Prince because he wanted to gain the attention of Lorenzo de'Medici. Hed lost a job that he really loved and wanted to gain a position as an official to Medici and this book was a way of showing off his abilities. That's what I've always read/ heard?

  9. Although all of your points are valid, we don't need to ban this story from our homes because of this. I know most kids/people wont ever read the book so in there perspective Peter Pan is the hero. If they never know what he did badly they are not watching/believing a bad story. Years ago my son was Peter Pan for Halloween. He showed up to class Oct. 31 and his teacher told him to change. He didn't understand it and started to cry. This whole time my older son was Captain Hook and had the most popular costume, all because everyone staff, students and parents all thought Peter was the bad guy for cutting off Hooks hand. What I am trying to say is let the kids enjoy the innocence of the story without turning something good into something dark.