First Theatrical Release: February 5, 1953
First Home Viewing Release: September 21, 1990
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My family’s VHS collection (the 45th Anniversary Edition from 1998) — it’s my sister’s.
Bechdel Test Score: Passed, barely. There are quite a few female characters — Wendy, Tiger Lily, Tinker Bell, the Mermaids, Mrs. Darling, and Nana. Yet despite all these girls and women, they rarely talk to one another, and when they do it is mostly about Peter Pan. I noted only one exception, which was at the beginning when Wendy and her mother talk about Mother’s dress.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw Peter Pan. It was a hot summer night, and my mom took me, my sister, and our cousin to see one of its theatrical re-releases. Afterward, she told me that the first time she had seen Peter Pan, she had walked out feeling certain she could fly. Her eyes sparkled, and I loved thinking about my mother having just the same experience when she was my age as I had just had.
As I got older, Peter Pan resonated with me in a different way. I was the girl who didn’t want to grow up. As a teenager, I had an image of Wendy tacked to my bulletin board in my bedroom, gazing out her window longingly. Below it were the words, “I’m so glad you came back tonight. I have to grow up tomorrow.”
That sense of dread and nostalgia hung over every day of my adolescence, and I always felt as if I were continuing to indulge in childhood on “borrowed time.” I was 25 before I finally, really accepted that I would have to grow up, and by that time I was paying my own rent and established in my career. Even then, I may have held off much longer if not for a personal upheaval that forced me to reassess everything about my life — including, and especially, my reluctance to let go of childhood.
We glimpse an abbreviated version of this in Peter Pan — as Wendy has one last adventure, her own personal upheaval, before deciding that she, too, is ready to grow up.
Like Wendy, there came a moment in my life when I knew I had to leave Neverland.
Neverland – The Island of Jealous Females
Do you want to know why this movie, despite being unusually populated with females (for a Disney film), barely got a passing Bechdel score?
Because the females only want to interact with Peter Pan, not with one another. I kept getting the feeling that they were passing by one another with eyes averted, each wanting to believe that she was the only girl in Neverland.
Female jealousy is used for humor throughout, as we watch Tinker Bell turn red with rage, obliterate Wendy’s reflection as they fly to Neverland, or convince the Lost Boys that they should shoot her down. But female jealousy is also the linchpin of plot developments: Tinkerbelle is captured and the Lost Boys’ home is destroyed because Hook takes advantage of her jealousy toward Wendy.
[As an aside — Tinker Bell’s jealousy of Wendy does seem to be romantic in nature … she breaks up a potential kiss between Peter and Wend at the beginning of the movie. And yet, she is the only one of Peter’s female companions who has a womanly shape. Peter Pan, on the other hand, seems to be halfway through puberty at best. I would place him at about age 12 or 13. Perhaps Tinker Bell is around the same age and just went through puberty faster, perhaps fairies age differently … or perhaps Tinker Bell is a pedophile. I’ll let you decide.]
While this one-dimensional portrayal of girls’ emotional lives is eye-roll inducing, it’s also strangely believable. Throughout history smart girls and women have known that often their only path to power lies in aligning with a powerful male — Peter Pan, leader of the Lost Boys and a match for Captain Hook — is the obvious choice.
Wendy is not immune to the green-eyed monster that preys upon Neverland’s girls — it might even be argued that her jealousy of Tiger Lily is what leads her to start looking toward home. Still, although she has her moments of jealousy, she is the only girl who seems capable of transcending it.
Wendy – A Paragon of Feminine Virtue
Although Wendy is a complex enough character to avoid being a female stereotype (as, I would argue, Tinker Bell is), her complexity rests firmly within a feminine ideal. She is the girl everyone would like to have for a daughter — she tells her little brothers stories, she corrects them when they go astray, and she fetches clean water for the basin without being asked. (I’m not buying that Nana caretaking bit for a moment — clearly Wendy is the live-in babysitter.)
And even though Wendy’s poignant dilemma is her reluctance to grow up, Peter Pan takes her to Neverland precisely so he can thrust her into the role of “mother” — that is, the cultural epitome of what it means to be female, the ultimate attainment of “womanhood.” Strangely, she does not object to this, and even “grows into” the role as she comforts the Lost Boys when her brother Michael begins to forget their own mother.
So while Wendy represents both a perfect girl and gives viewers a glimpse of perfect womanhood, she is more than that — she is the moral compass of the entire movie.
It is Wendy who puts her foot down and refuses to serve the men as a “squaw” at the Indian camp. Despite Tinker Bell’s attempt to have her hurt or killed, she implores Peter Pan to go easy on her. She refuses to take credit as Michael’s “mother” when he begins to forget (although I still contend she’s the primary caretaker of those boys). And perhaps best of all, she will not align herself with Captain Hook and is the first to defiantly walk the plank because of it.
Yes, Peter Pan ultimately saves her from the water as well as Captain Hook. But she still has the strength to do something far braver than impersonating Hook or rescuing Tiger Lily.
She has the courage to grow up.
On the verge of adulthood, she spends one night in the land of perpetual childhood and realizes that it is not for her after all. Even when she is offered the chance to stay in the nursery at the end of the movie, she does not take it. She moves forward with far more efficiency and grace than I moved through my own struggle toward adulthood.
I guess I’ll just come out and say it: I love Wendy.
Just a Glimpse
There’s also a sense in Peter Pan that this one night is not the whole story; the story seems to expand beyond the 76 minutes of the movie in a way we don’t often see in Disney films. While Cinderella gives us a couple minutes of backstory, Peter Pan implies that Very Important Things have happened off-screen, and that they will continue to happen in the future. We don’t see Peter feed Hook’s hand to the crocodile, yet this is a driving force in Hook’s pursuit of him. We don’t see the relationship between Tiger Lily and Peter before he saves her, but it seems to be a warm and fond one based on what little we do see. We even get the sense that Father might have once had an adventure with Pan.
As a child, I fell in love with Disney’s romances. Yet, I respect Peter Pan for being a movie that is much closer to the actual experiences and struggles of the children who watch it.
Don’t want to grow up? You’re not alone. There is a whole land for kids like you.
Eager to be an adult? Then say goodbye to your childhood with grace and spend one last night in the nursery. Everything will be okay on the other side of that door.
Not only that, but Peter Pan the only movie so far to offer truly positive and complex role models for both girls and boys. Although I’ve focused on the girls, I would be happy to have a son that turned out like any of the primary boy characters, too. Peter, while somewhat self-centered, is also welcoming and warm. John was happy to be a nerd before being a nerd was cool. And Michael shows that it’s okay for boys to wear pink and bring Teddy everywhere they go.
Not bad for a movie that emerged in the 1950s, a time I think of as epitomizing rigid gender
roles. Now, if only Disney had given the same care to its depiction of Native Americans, or known a little something about eating disorders before animating the scene where Tink freaks out over the size of her hips.
For further reading:
- A more articulate examination of racism in Peter Pan than I could muster.
- An examination on whether Neverland symbolizes “heaven” for dead children.
- My short review of once of the source materials from 2008.
- My reviews of a couple Peter Pan retellings, Second Star, Tiger Lily, and Peter and the Starcatchers.