This week, my son had a snow day, so we settled down on the couch to watch a Disney’s Peter Pan. I’ve seen the movie a few times recently (repetition is kind of big with the four-year-old set) and I’m always struck by how much of a jerk Peter Pan is. I mean, the guy’s ostensibly the hero of the movie, but — at least by adult standards — he’s truly unpleasant. But this time — as the snow fell relentlessly inside, and I snuggled cozily with my little boy inside — I realized something: the story isn’t really about Peter at all. It’s about Wendy. And — much like a Disney princess movie — it’s about growing up.
We first meet Wendy on her last night in the nursery. Her father, fed up with her “childish” stories of Neverland and Peter Pan, has decreed that she must grow up. But Wendy — like many children — doesn’t want to. She wants to stay in the nursery, and wait for Peter Pan.
But Peter, when he does come, isn’t exactly what Wendy had in mind. Because Wendy — whether she likes it or not — already is growing up. And the way she feels about this playful, charming boy is not the same way she might have felt a year ago. While her younger brothers, John and Michael, are eager for Peter to show them the pirates and the Indians, Wendy hopes for something a little more intimate: a kiss from Peter Pan.
In much the same way that Snow White practices her newfound womanhood on the dwarves — cooking and cleaning and caring for them — Wendy practices on the Lost Boys. Peter decrees that she is their mother, and she rises wonderfully to the challenge. But, for Wendy, Peter is different. Wendy hopes that Peter will be, not another child to care for, but the father. She feels for him what a wife feels for her husband, not what a mother feels for a son. But Peter isn’t interested — can’t possibly be interested — in that.
Seen through Wendy’s eyes — as he is in the film — Peter Pan comes off as a bit of a sociopath. And he certainly isn’t the charming young gallant we want him to be, for Wendy’s sake. He laughs when Tinkerbell calls her “a big ugly girl,” and when the mermaids try to drown her. He’s angry with her for insisting they all behave like gentlemen (instead of rowdy boys), and for charming the Lost Boys with her song about mothers. And he sees nothing wrong with ditching Wendy completely to dance with Tiger Lily at the Indian celebration. He’s completely and utterly narcissistic. He’s a little boy.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with Peter Pan. Children are narcissistic and can’t be expected to understand the yearning heart of a newly adolescent girl. But Peter’s narcissism is jarring both in the face of Wendy’s budding romantic interest, and in light of the fact that Peter isn’t really a little boy — he’s lived far longer than Wendy has or will. He’s simply stuck — through the magic of Neverland — in perpetual boyhood. And that — as perceived through Wendy’s eyes — is kind of horrifying.
John and Michael, being younger than Wendy, are perfectly content to stay in Neverland forever. Their developmental states are aligned with the forever-states of Peter and the Lost Boys. They have yet to glimpse the world beyond childhood that Wendy is becoming aware of. If they never returned home, they’d happily play pirates and Indians indefinitely, completely unaware of what they’d be missing in not growing up.
But we, the audience, see — almost painfully — what they’d be missing. Wendy thought Neverland would be a beautifully romantic Eden, where she and Peter pan would nurture a budding romance surrounded by mermaids and fairies. But Peter’s interest in Wendy extends only as far as her ability to tell stories about him and marvel at his daring deeds. And, in fact, the mermaids and fairies that Wendy was so excited to see, are examples of what Wendy might become if she chose to stay in Neverland caught, as she is, between childhood and womanhood.
Tinkerbell and the mermaids feel for Peter what Wendy feels. They are attracted to him romantically. We know this because both Tinkerbell and the mermaids are so jealous of Wendy’s closeness with Peter that they literally want to kill her. When the mermaids see Peter Pan approaching, they primp and preen and fawn all over him. Tinkerbell wants Wendy gone so badly she reveals Peter Pan’s hideout to the villainous Captain Hook. But, because Peter will never be able too see them as they want to be seen — as women — Tink and the mermaids have become jealous, whining, nagging, brats instead of examples of feminine virtue and grace.
Childhood is beautiful, but it was never meant to last forever. Peter Pan is stagnating in childish narcissism, missing out on the full human experience. Wendy, just on the cusp of adulthood, sees the world beyond the nursery and can never go back. She must leave Peter Pan to his eternal playtime and embrace the fullness of life. “I am ready to grow up,” she tells her father. Peter Pan just can’t cut it anymore.
And yet, the movie wants us know, we can’t completely abandon childhood either. The carefree, adventurous, playful spirit of Peter Pan must have a place in our hearts. If it doesn’t, we become like Wendy’s father, Mr. Darling, rigid and irritable and endlessly dull. When Mr. Darling looks out the window and sees the shape of Peter Pan’s flying ship in the clouds, his face becomes dreamy. “You know,” he says to his family, “I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen that ship before. A long time ago. When I was very young.” The music swells, his women embrace him, he’s made progress. We mustn’t forget our childhood selves, you see, we’ve got to take them with us. Out of the nursery and on into the world.
At first glance, Peter Pan seems like a movie about Peter — the wonderful, carefree spirit of childhood. But it isn’t. It’s about Wendy and her acceptance that she must grow up. Peter Pan expertly shows us that we can’t stay young forever — that we wouldn’t really want to. Peter chooses to stay in Neverland — he doesn’t understand what he’s missing. But, with a tip of his hat and courtly bow, he brings Wendy home. There is something she knows, he realizes, that he just never will. We have to grow up. That’s what Peter Pan is all about.