At the end of high school, I became really interested in JM Barrie’s classic story of Peter Pan. This made a lot of sense at the time – I was on the cusp of adulthood. But as I contemplate giving birth to two boys, I’m revisiting the story from a new perspective.
JM Barrie wrote the story of Peter Pan across two different media, as a 1904 play and a 1911 novel. Despite the Disney version’s insistence on placing Peter at the center of the story (in both the 1953 animated film and the 1991 live-action reinterpretation Hook), Barrie’s version focused equally on Peter and Wendy (the title of the novel). When I read it for myself, I was struck by how much Wendy had been toned down in the animated movie and, by extension, the popular notion of the story itself. Unsurprisingly, the 1953 animation depicts Wendy as the perfect young lady – bossy, motherly, upset by messes, and demure. Victorian Wendy was a wild little girl, who was just as responsible for creating the shape and content of Neverland as Peter was (although Neverland only functioned when Peter was around). She wanted to live in the woods with a pet wolf where the strictures of society couldn’t tell her to brush her hair. With more recent backstory tellings of Peter Pan, like 2004’s Finding Neverland, more complicated versions of this fable are at least available, but both that movie and Hook mostly focus on Barrie himself and the frankly obvious reading that the boy who doesn’t grow up is the avatar of a middle aged man afraid of dying. But when I read Peter and Wendy for the first time, I was overwhelmed by an entirely different sad reading of the story, how the boy who doesn’t grow up makes and breaks promises to the girl who goes on adventures with him, and he immediately forgets her when she gets old. He forgets her so completely that when he returns to her window, he isn’t, as Hook has it, shocked by the fact that she is old – he doesn’t understand that the old woman is Wendy, and instead calls her granddaughter Wendy, and generations of women take on the role of adventuring helpmate to this eternal child, only to be forced to grow old and die while he stays perpetually young. This reading was clearly in Barrie’s original intent, not only because he positions Wendy as one of two main characters (and, arguably, the main character), but also because Wendy is the frame for the book – the story begins with her discovery of Peter, and it ends with her deciding to allow him to live his perpetual childhood with the help of her female offspring. She chooses not to disabuse him of the notion that she has also remained eternally young, and that is the end of the story.
When I discovered the literary history of this story for myself around the age of 17, it was on the tail end of a years-long obsession with fairy tales. My first deep dive into historical research, I had been hunting down increasingly earlier editions of Grimm’s fairy tales and other folklore that had become the Disney movies of my childhood to learn the “real” stories. At this point, we’re all pretty familiar with the Disney-fication of classic fairy tales – it’s common knowledge that the Grimm’s version of Cinderella has the step sisters cutting off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper, and thanks to works like the musical Into the Woods and novels by Gregory Maguire (of Wicked fame) our culture at large is at least somewhat familiar with the trope of flipping the story to be more sympathetic to the villain or in other ways complicate the moralistic narrative. What surprised me about these “real” fairy tales wasn’t that they were more gruesome than the versions I had been raised on – I was pretty familiar with a lot of these earlier versions of the stories from a young age, mostly because of creative teachers who had my class read more wide ranging interpretations of these stories, as well as New York’s New Victory Theater, which offered children’s programming like settings of the Grimm’s versions of the stories and other folk stories like the Thousand and One Nights. What kept me digging into fairy tale literary history for most of my teenage years was the historical context around the stories, the features of the stories that faded away as they became less socially relevant (clearly I was on my way to being a historian, not a literary scholar). I was shocked by how Christian the Grimm’s stories were, with clear references to the resurrection of Christ (Cinderella hides inside a well every night for three nights until she reveals herself as the mysterious princess) and the repeated use of Christologically-significant numbers (3, 7, and 12 in particular) – and this was before I knew anything about Christianity. I also started to think about why Disney had picked these particular stories as the foundation for an animation empire, and that led me down a real rabbit hole of American use of European (particularly Germanic) cultural traditions to foster Nationalism in the interwar period (and which is why I will never not believe that Walt Disney was a Nazi sympathizer).
Seeing these stories holding artifacts from their time allowed me to reflect more on Peter and Wendy, not just as JM Barrie’s own personal anxiety or a product of Victorian taboo, but as I experienced it myself at that point in my life – it allowed me to reflect more on myself and the meaning I drew from this book. When I started my attraction to Peter Pan, it was because I identified with Peter – wild, free of parental supervision, and boyish. My friend N and I spent our summers totally on our own exploring the city or the area around her parents’ house in the country, getting our legs dirty in the mud and being totally unconcerned with whether we looked cute. But when I read Peter and Wendy I snapped back to my anxieties – my staunch feminism, feeling too old for my age – and I identified more with Wendy. I wrote a short story from a slightly older Wendy’s perspective, in which she bemoans her relationship with Peter, recognizing how she allows him to enter and exit her life, to take other women along in the same way, and to take on no responsibility, but finding him appealing regardless. I knew at the time that I was writing about my ex-boyfriend, a surprisingly serious relationship of 2 years that I felt had ended because I was too bogged down by the complicated things in my life. Identifying with Wendy was a good development for me, because it meant that I was starting to see feminism as an issue for all women and not just my own problems. The whole trajectory from Peter to Wendy was a good growth experience for me, and I think it helped me to come to terms with feeling like I wasn’t embracing my youth. I think it also gave me the idea that I could be more independent in my relationships with men, although that one didn’t really stick yet. In all, Peter and Wendy was a formative story at the end of my childhood.
Which is why it occurred to me, as I idly think about the things I want to share with my children, how different their reading of Peter and Wendy might be because they are boys. I want to raise feminist boys, ally boys. And I can’t just tell them how to be, I have to find ways to impress other people’s experiences on them. Some roads to that seems easy and obvious – encourage conversations with and about people who are different from them, especially by exposing them to stories from diverse perspectives. But Peter and Wendy poses an interesting problem as a story that they would have no reason to read the way I did, because they could easily see it just from Peter’s perspective. It’s one thing to have stories that obviously prioritize voices that are not straight white cis men, but it’s something else to encourage (presumably) straight white cis men to find other voices in stories that don’t. Not that they have to read Peter and Wendy or have the same formative experience with it that I did – that was my life and my experience. But reflecting on my experience made me realize that even if I gave them the same book to read, they might not even see my interpretation of it as a possibility. Not so with another beloved childhood book, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass – there is only one main character in that story, and she is a little girl frustrated by the stupidity of the imaginary world around her. Certainly there are plenty of interpretations to read into Alice’s story – whether you focus on Wonderland as a crystallization of Alice’s frustrations with the real world and her powerlessness as a little girl, or you just like the absurdity of it all, or you find the wordplay clever. But you can’t escape the fact that the book is about a little girl. In Peter and Wendy it’s entirely possible that you might miss that the story is about Wendy, and not just possible, but, given that every major interpretation of the story since its original publication has pushed her aside, very likely.
So I am left with this conundrum – beyond exposing my boys to diverse stories and voices, how do I encourage them to see what’s right in front of them when it’s not what they are familiar with or might expect? I certainly don’t have an answer for this, and maybe it won’t even be a problem. Maybe my children will be immediately deeply empathetic. But it’s certainly something to consider.