There are a lot of things about Peter Pan as a story that are SUPER old-fashioned (All the ridiculous racism re: Native Americans! Wendy is the main female character and she’s forced into the mother role because I guess adventures are for men only in the early 1900’s?) Somehow, the story has remained a staple of theater and film to this day. It was just announced that Finding Neverland could be coming to Broadway in March. Meanwhile, a big-screen version of the classic, called Pan, is in the works, and come December, Peter Pan will be all up in our TV faces with NBC’s live version of the play, featuring Allison Williams of Girls fame in the title role. So what makes Peter Pan still so relevant today? We have some ideas.
Peter Pan is Gender-Fluid
The 1954 original Broadway musical Peter Pan featured Mary Martin in the title role. A woman playing a man (well, okay, a boy, but still) in the 1950s was a big deal. This was before the feminist revolution, this was before the gay rights movement, and this was WAY before Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine accompanied by the text, “The Transgender Tipping Point.” In the 1950s, gender roles were strict and inflexible. The boundary that separated the masculine and the feminine was a hundred-foot wall that seemed near impossible to scale. So Mary Martin as Peter Pan did not scale the wall, she flew right over it, blazing the trail for gender experimentation in the decades to come. Since then, Martin’s performance opened the door for other female actors like Sandy Duncan, and now Williams, to get a shot at flying and never growing up. Meanwhile, female Peter Pans have taught young kids that strict gender roles don’t have to apply to their heroes.
The Play’s Unforgivable Racial Stereotypes Have Led to a Larger Conversation
Some of the most unacceptable moments in the play and the book—particularly, the racist depictions of Native Americans—have been used to raise awareness about intolerance. One mom wrote an amazing story on Tolerance.org about how she successfully made her child’s school rethink their production of Peter Pan, prompting them to change racist lines, eliminate the cultural appropriation and use the opportunity to talk about the problem of stereotyping and racism throughout history.
Meanwhile, the recent casting rumors for the upcoming Warner Bros. Pan flick sparked major controversy when Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily. The decision to cast a non-Native American in the role prompted a petition and some serious Twitter backlash. “The casting choice is particularly shameful for a children’s movie. Telling children their role models must all be white is unacceptable,” reads the petition calling for Warner Bros to “stop casting white actors to play people of color.” It’s a topic that needs attention and Hollywood and schools need to listen up. And yes, Peter Pan is at the root of these awareness-raising movements—for better or worse.
Wendy Darling is a Reflection of Women’s Evolving Role in Society
She was penned over a decade before women had the right to vote, and it shows. Wendy Darling wasn’t given the freedom to fight pirates and play with the boys, even though, she totally had it in her. Certainly, there were glimmers of empowerment: “Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys,” said Peter in J.M. Barrie’s original book. Still, there are so many problems. “All of the women share unrequited attractions to Peter, their emotions trapped in a limited range between jealousy of one another and mute longing for Peter,” writes feminist blogger Alison McCarthy. “Much of the play’s assumptions regarding gender essentialism are in line with Victorian attitudes on women’s roles.”
Last year that all changed when the the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a feminist version of “Wendy and Peter Pan” where Wendy fought pirates and proclaimed: “I am Wendy Darling, I am brave and I am strong and I am going on an adventure!” Playwright Ella Hickson, adapted a version of the original show eliminating all the problematic versions of Wendy Darling. “Forget Wendy the happy homemaker, demurely prepared to be mother while the Lost Boys get to be eternally, irresponsibly youthful, or Wendy the damsel in distress, waiting for the plucky boy to save her,” writes the Independent’s Holly Williams. “Hickson’s Wendy is multi-dimensional, allowed to play house, but perfectly capable of fighting her own battles too.” At last.
The Lost Boys Were The Original Millennials
You know how everyone’s always yelling at millennials for refusing to grow up and wanting to remain young and responsibility-free forever? There is a precedent for this kind of behavior, all the little dudes in animal suits running around Neverland. Also, I feel like you could wear a Lost Boy costume to Coachella and all the other festival goers would be like, “Oh nice, we’re all dressed up like lost boys too, except for those of us with donut buns and flower crowns who are OBVIOUSLY Tinkerbelle-ing up in here.”