I love Twitter, probably too much. I’ve been feeling very indecisive about what to blog, but Twitter polls helped significantly. So, today, I am going to write another feminist rant about a popular fairytale. I want to go further than that, though, because feminism isn’t feminism if it isn’t intersectional. Being a feminist means caring that everyone receives the treatment they need and deserve. So, I will have a lot to say about the story Twitter chose: Peter Pan.
Before I really get into this, let me make something clear. I have loved Peter Pan since I was a little girl. I used to make sure to wash my face, brush my hair, and put on my prettiest nightgown every night, just in case a magical boy would show up and take me away to Neverland. Peter Pan has so much going for it. There are pirates, fairies, mermaids, Tiger Lily, and a crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly, all acting out plots of vengeance and triumph on an island past the stars where no one ever gets older. Anyone can fly with a little pixie dust and belief. You can bring people back to life if you clap. It also brought one of my favorite names into this world: Wendy. This story is a fan favorite for a reason.
Peter Pan is Problematic
Quick disclaimer: All of my viewpoints here are based on the Disney movie, which is my strongest recollection of the story. So, any of my arguments may be a grievance I have with the film and not the original telling.
Peter Pan was written by Sir James Matthew Barrie, a Scottish white man raised by a conservative Calvinist family in the mid-1800s. So, his stories are written through that lens. By all accounts, he was a good guy, but also…that meant something different back then. Most consider our founding fathers to be paragons of reason and virtue, but slave owners and sexists were among their ranks. While we can appreciate that they made great strides in democracy and fought against monarchial hierarchies, we also have to acknowledge that they weren’t perfect, so we can make reparations for the bad things they did.
I care about the stories we tell. I don’t want to ignore what’s wrong with Peter Pan. I want us to do better. Stories shape our world.
Stalker Behavior is Normalized
What would you say if your child told you someone comes into her room every night and watches her while she sleeps? Would you instantly dismiss it as a fantasy, or would you at least make sure the kid’s bedroom window remained locked at night? Fortunately, Peter Pan isn’t a child predator, but he is a kidnapper. He kidnapped many children, actually. The story romanticizes this as a fun time. Personally, I have a problem with my own children thinking it’s okay for a stranger (or anyone) to take them away in the middle of the night. There are real monsters that take advantage of this naïve view of the world.
Wendy is a Servant
Peter and Wendy are the main characters of this story. Peter Pan, of course, is the titular character, but Wendy is the reader. She represents us as we find out more about this magical boy and his fantasy world. She’s pretty, smart, resourceful, and kind. So, it’s a little disappointing that someone who has all the makings of an effective leader is put in the position of a servant to every other character in the book.
Yes, they call her “Mother,” but not because she is someone they listen to and learn from, but because she nurtures them. She takes care of their boo-boos and feeds them. Wendy provides what the brilliant but brutal Neverland can’t: someone who cares. There’s nothing at all wrong with what Wendy does for these boys. Traditionally feminine nurturing is a great quality that any gender can and should embrace. What bothers me is that, for this reason, she isn’t the leader. Peter still holds that role. Why? He’s a charismatic boy who is ready to fight. Once again, traits society attributes to men are held in higher regard than those we attribute to women.
Women Hate Each Other
The first time I watched the movie as an adult was with my daughters. I couldn’t wait to share Wendy, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and the mermaids with them. With my grown-up eyes, I realized something I had never noticed before. Every female character hates all the rest, every single one. They all consider each other competition for the heart of Peter Pan, a boy who will never become a man. (Let’s be honest. That part is a little gross.)
Tinker Bell and the mermaids both try to actually murder Wendy because Peter pays even a little attention to her. Wendy helps Peter rescue Tiger Lily from Captain Hook, but then becomes very jealous when Tiger Lily rewards Peter with a kiss. Let’s be clear; Peter brought her to Neverland for one reason, to take care of his recruits. This isn’t a love story. These two aren’t destined to be with each other.
There’s more sexism in this story than I have time to write about, but this is the worst of it. Women are taught to hate each other in our society. We are taught that what we want is a man, and we are each other’s competition. There is no limit to the internalized misogyny we have to unlearn and fight every day. At a young age, we are rewarded for not being “like other girls.” We are told that we must stand out, that other girls are stupid because they’re more feminine. We need to be special, the one the man chooses because we are both beautiful and have learned to be more like men, and therefore we are superior.
Want to know what that does for us? Bubkis.
First of all, not every one of us is happy with a man in our lives. Some of us prefer women. Some of us don’t even want a sexual or romantic relationship at all. Telling someone what they want is deplorable manipulation. Stop.
Secondly, women need each other. As a woman who frequents the internet, I can tell you that my women friends are necessary. We warn each other about predators. We give each other confidence boosts when men make us feel unwanted or unworthy. We defend each other against people trying to hurt us. Over the last week alone, I have witnessed women helping each other out (and me) through dozens of frightening situations. Teaching us to hate each other leaves us vulnerable to abuse. Stop.
Blatant Racism Abounds
Disney+ actually includes a disclaimer about this before the movie plays now, so there’s at least that. However, the racism didn’t start with Disney’s adaptation, unfortunately. Barrie did all he could to portray the “Piccaninny tribe” as “exotic and savage.” Quite honestly, I feel that the author would have been delighted with Disney’s “What Makes the Red Man Red” bit.
Every moment spent on the characters modeled after Native Americans is so disgustingly racist. They are nothing but exaggerated caricatures. The story spends so much time talking about their skin color and their inability to talk in a civilized way. I cringe every time I hear them use the word “squaw.” This word originated as a generic Algonquian term for a woman but quickly shifted to the equivalent of “dirty slut” when colonizers began using it. I just…I can’t even explain how bad it is. See for yourself. Words can’t describe how much this makes me want to puke.
All that being said…
Peter Pan retellings abound. Starting with Hook (Rufio! Rufio!), each retelling outdoes the last. I have seen so many improvements on the story, taking what works and chopping out all the bad. Disney’s modern series of Tinker Bell movies are actually outstanding. Tink and her fairy friends are intelligent, adventurous, and compassionate. Legend of the NeverBeast makes me cry EVERY SINGLE TIME. In the case of “Once Upon a Time,” they leaned into the dark of it, acknowledging just how creepy Peter Pan is and turning him into a villain. Creators prove time and time again that we can repair what’s broken and create narratives capable of making this a better world.
If you would like to read the full story, check out THIS ENTRY on a site devoted to Russian fairy tales. I plan on bookmarking the site myself.
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Struggling With the Current is the first book in The Telverin Trilogy, a story about an exiled princess who finds herself in a terrifying world with equally frightening powers.
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Princess Eya’s life changes forever with the discovery of the Statue of the Goddess Winds, just as she’s coming of age. The long-overlooked kingdom of Hicares finds itself in a war it isn’t prepared for against the far more powerful empire of Pescel. To survive, Eya must flee her home, losing everything and everyone she loves in the process.
Yet, by leaving behind all she’s ever known, she learns that her sheltered life didn’t prepare her for the real world’s strange and frightening nature. She encounters people, places, and creatures beyond anything she ever imagined, along with sinister enemies from every direction. Perhaps her most surprising revelation is that she is developing terrifying powers of her own. Will Eya be able to find happiness in her new life, or will she continue struggling with the current?
Struggling With the Current is the first book of The Telverin Trilogy, a fantasy war story that takes place between several countries in the world of Telverin.