When the curtain rose at the London premiere of the play Peter Pan in 1904, it unveiled a drama of flying children, fairies, and pirates that would soon become a classic—and inspire countless spin-offs, adaptations, and reinterpretations. On the cinematic side, these began with the 1924 silent-film version of the play, starring Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily. Disney’s animated Peter Pan (1953) has been described as “ageless” (though one wonders if critics took note of the decidedly dated, stereotypical depiction of Native Americans), while Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) told the story of a grown-up Peter’s transformation into a mature father.
The films celebrating the centenary of J.M. Barrie’s tale include Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland (2004), another plot centered on a man’s maturity (this time, that of Barrie himself), and J.P. Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003), arguably the truest to the original with its sexualized undertones (in an early version of Barrie’s play, a seduction scene with Peter and Tiger Lily was deleted).
The cultural repackaging of Peter Pan doesn’t end with film: In the early 1980s, pop psychologist Dan Kiley coined the phrase “Peter Pan Syndrome” to describe the psychic disorder plaguing men who won’t grow up, and the lesser-known “Wendy Dilemma” to describe overly maternal women.
But over the years, it’s the literary world that has been most inspired by Peter, Wendy, and Neverland: A BarnesandNoble.com books search for “Peter Pan” results in over 500 titles. In the past decade, a significant number of female authors have revisited the story—from Jane Dentinger’s and Laurie Fox’s literary novels to the children’s books of Jane Yolen, Phyllis Shalant, and Mary Hoffman, to name a few—not only capturing a new literary zeitgeist, but encouraging a necessary evolution of the Peter Pan story.
Just as Barrie wrote his fairy tale of a play in response to a historical moment (England had recently buried her queen and been humiliated by the Boer War), contemporary authors are also writing in an age of uncertainty, as women continue to struggle to reconcile individual successes with the stereotypical images that pervade the culture. As England entered the turbulent 20th century, Barrie retreated into the preternatural sanctuary of Neverland and its most insouciant of rulers. In the contemporary female-penned inversions of the story, Neverland remains, but the heroine has become the hero as the various Wendys confront family chaos, racism, and an inability to escape simply by flying away. Barrie created a boy who would not grow up. Today’s authors create female characters who can’t afford that luxury.
In her 1995 mystery novel Who Dropped Peter Pan?, Jane Dentinger writes of the “strains of misogyny in Barrie’s story,” and she’s not the only one who has described Peter Pan as less than female-friendly. Viewed in context, however, the criticism is arguable: While Barrie did create a female character (Wendy) who is wholly devoted to the domestic arts, this was a common characterization in early 20th-century children’s literature. We might also consider that Peter Pan, in its time, was not easily categorized along gender lines. It melds the domestic storyline of girls’ literature with the adventure narratives of boys’ literature, obscuring the borders between distinct male and female realms with a story that begins and ends in the nursery.
At the same time, there’s clearly something rotten in Neverland. In Barrie’s telling, Wendy has no conflicted feelings about her role as housekeeper, cook, and mother (in contrast to, say, the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, who adamantly refuses to wash dishes for the King of All Spiders). In fact, Wendy’s decision to leave Neverland hinges on Peter’s refusal to return her romantic feelings, effectively dead-ending her path to love and marriage. It’s also worth noting that none of Barrie’s female characters has a voice of her own: In the novelized version of the play, written in 1911, Tinkerbell does not speak, but rather makes the sound of bells; the crocodile (identified as “she”) simply, if ominously, ticks; Tiger Lily’s one instance of speech is a compliment to Peter delivered in broken English; the mermaids make “strange wailing cries.” And Wendy, whenever she speaks, obtusely mimics the übermaternal voice of her bourgeois mother.
The character of Wendy poses a dilemma for contemporary writers: Should an author lampoon it, as Jane Yolen does in her short story “Lost Girls”; approach it ambivalently, like Laurie Fox does in her novel Lost Girls; or assimilate it into one of the valid realities of a complicated modern heroine, as Karen Templeton does in Playing for Keeps? Whatever their approach, these writers have forged a number of reversals of the Peter Pan tale.
As Elizabeth Wanning Harries notes in Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale, women have been writing against the grain of patriarchal fairy tales since the days of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Rejecting the morally absolute narrative style of their male counterparts, European women of the 17th and 18th centuries composed longer, digressive tales that were witty, ironic, and offered ambiguous conclusions. This tradition resurfaced in the 20th century with the ominous fairy-tale updates of Anne Sexton, Emma Donoghue, and Angela Carter, who subverted happy endings and introduced a wealth of female characters that defy the polarized categories of the past. In their stories, witches are not evil but vulnerable, and fair maidens realize dreams that don’t include marrying the prince. In the Barrie-inspired works discussed here, it’s the female correlate to Peter Pan who becomes central to the plot as a feminized Peter, a savvier Wendy, or a person external to Neverland—an au courant girl or woman whose main conflict arises when she is faced with some aspect of Barrie’s story.
Spin-offs of Peter Pan written, like the original, for children tend to present the kind of lucid dramatic drive that continues to draw adults to children’s fiction. Increasingly, children’s literature is penned with a feminist slant—nonracist, nonsexist, and with a wider range of roles and achievements for female and nonwhite characters. Storybooks like Phyllis Shalant’s When Pirates Came to Brooklyn (2002) and Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991) are more sophisticated than the juvenile fiction of earlier eras, addressing injustice and isolation as well as a strong sense of heritage and a belief in oneself. In revisiting the Peter Pan story, neither author replaces a male hierarchy with a female one, but both embrace a democratic way of being and reinforce the idea of female friendships as a key source of inner strength.
These principles are also well illustrated in Jane Yolen’s wickedly humorous “Lost Girls,” a short story from her 1997 children’s collection, Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The Wendys, led by Wendy Darling, are a clonish tribe. Neverland is recast as a kind of Stepford, where the tribe goes about their dismal tasks of cleaning and cooking for the Lost Boys. Peter, though charming, is clearly a villain: In the windowless kitchen where the Wendys labor, he keeps an upholstered chair that they’re forbidden to sit in. He tells the Wendys that they are important, but can’t remember their real names and offers them no respite from their chores.
Protagonist Darla slides down a tree into Neverland, descending into what she soon enough recognizes as a reprehensible situation. She calls for a labor strike in Neverland to free the Lost Girls from their “yoke of oppression,” and rallies the Wendys to action. In the final twist of the story, the pirates wear the white hats—their ship is a model of democracy where housework is evenly distributed among captains and crew.
The chapter books by Karen Wallace and Phyllis Shalant similarly address political issues (women’s suffrage and racism, respectively). Karen Wallace’s Wendy (2003), a profile of Wendy Darling in the years before she meets Peter Pan, explains just why a middle-class Edwardian child would fly off to Neverland in the first place. We meet Wendy at a moment of growing insight into her family’s chaotic dynamic: She sees her father passionately kissing their neighbor, Lady Cunningham, and feels a building resentment toward her mother, who is selfish and slow to acknowledge the abusiveness of Wendy’s nanny Mrs. Holborn.
In Barrie’s story, Wendy thoroughly absorbs the values of her mother: She is overdomesticated and stoutly accepting of the patriarchal order. If Peter’s disregard for social strictures represents the power of the imagination, then Wendy ultimately rejects such nonconformity by leaving Neverland and returning home. But in Wallace’s vision, Wendy is more faceted and intuitive. She befriends a suffragist named Esther, who signifies a matrilineal heritage from which the Darlings are utterly disconnected, and who offers Wendy another way of thinking about the role of women in public space. And instead of being an emotionally buttoned-up duplicate of her parents, Wendy questions their sex roles and bourgeois aspirations.
Shalant, in her children’s novel When Pirates Came to Brooklyn, juxtaposes the freedom of Neverland with the bigoted reality of New York in the 1960s. A 10-year-old Jewish girl named Lee Bloom suddenly sees “the shadow of a boy with a feather in his pointed cap,” and thereafter her thoughts turn increasingly to Neverland, and, significantly, away from her own mother, who is a bitter racist.
Lee’s epiphany—the rejection of her mother’s beliefs—is dramatized through her flight across Brooklyn to her friend Polly’s house. Shortly after this scene, Lee finds the strength to tell her mother she will continue her friendship with Polly, whom she has been forbidden to see. As in many of the Peter Pan spin-offs, flight suggests the opposite of the escapism it offers in Barrie’s narrative. It means, rather, a rearrangement of values, a confrontation with reality, and a moment when the heroine takes ownership of her own story.
Mary Hoffman’s picture book Amazing Grace most succinctly represents this inversion. Hoffman tells the story of Grace, an African-American girl who wants the role of Peter Pan in the school play, but meets with protests from her class because she is black and a girl. Her grandmother reacts to the news with unflinching optimism: “You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it”—and, in the end, Grace’s audition for Peter Pan is so impassioned, she wins the part hands-down.
Grace is guided by a matriarchal tradition, and her antagonists are the children destined to play Captain Hook and Wendy, who defend the status quo much like their predecessors defend the Edwardian world in Barrie’s original. Yet there is also a vital reversal of the story: Barrie’s Pan is a boy who never grows up, and therefore never fully engages in life. By taking on the role, Grace learns the lesson that will ensure her confident coming of age: Becoming Peter marks the apex of her participation in the world. This explosion of categories—in Grace’s case, those of race and gender—form the buoyant subtext of all these children’s books, where the heroines effectually turn their worlds upside down. The theme continues in the adult literature, albeit through narratives that are distinctly more ambivalent.
Lost Girls Found
In adult fiction, Peter Pan invariably represents elements of an adult psyche, and sexually, he’s either full of ulterior motives (using sex to create a superficial closeness or a false persona) or, as in Laurie Fox’s novel Lost Girls, exasperatingly asexual. The Wendys and female Peters likewise have their psychological reckonings to face, but when it comes to sex they are, more often than not, candid about their needs and unapologetically lusty. Karen Templeton’s romance novel Playing for Keeps (2003) is an example of the revisionist fairy tale, a new subgenre of the romance category. Her heroine, Joanna Swann, is mouthy and goes after what she wants; and she happens to want love in the end, with sex along the way.
Templeton’s male lead, Dale McConnaughy, is the stand-in for Peter Pan, and the owner of a toy shop–cum–ersatz Neverland, with “feathers, jewels [and] miniature drum sets.” Dale, like Peter, cannot keep track of time, has trouble remembering things, and is associated with the woods, where as a child he would go to escape from his abusive father; Joanna, like Wendy, is heart-swellingly maternal, even taking in the stray cats that are drawn to her house.
Reinventing the famous flight scene, Templeton leads Joanna and Dale to a rubber-tented trampoline. Dale uses it as a diversion when Joanna asks too many questions about his past. Joanna is unsure in her footing at first, but then she lets go and “takes flight,” exhilarated by the freedom of flying.
After this scene, Joanna’s conflict becomes more sharply defined: She is falling in love with Dale, knowing full well their relationship is temporary. But, being the grounded and assertive woman that she is, she successfully challenges Dale to face the tragedies of his past and to embark on a full adult life. The formula for the romance novel calls for a happy ending for the heroine—anywhere from married-with-baby-on-the-way to tacit commitment, from chaste kiss to mind-blowing orgasm. Given Templeton’s options, it’s disappointing that Joanna rather expediently marries Dale. In this respect—and perhaps in keeping with the built-in parameters of the romance genre—Playing for Keeps is the least subversive of the works discussed here.
Jane Dentinger’s Who Dropped Peter Pan? spotlights the theatrical tradition of casting a woman, rather than a man, to play Peter: In Barrie’s original 1904 production, Nina Boucicault played Peter; in the ’50s, when the stage musical was produced, the lineage famously continued with Mary Martin, and later, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby.
In Dentinger’s narrative, the historically female role is usurped by Rich Rafelson, a brazen, gracelessly aging thespian who assumes the part mostly to indulge his narcissistic needs. He’s also homosexual, a fact that accentuates the naiveté of the Wendy he attempts, for the sake of his ego, to womanize. When Rich’s harness fatally breaks as he flies over the audience at the end of the play, Dentinger summons childhood events from the book’s star detective, Jocelyn O’Roarke. (After watching Mary Martin perform the role on stage, young Jocelyn jumps off the furniture for weeks, seeking out higher and higher points of lift-off, thinking if only she concentrates hard enough, she too can fly.)
The character of Amy St. Cyr, who plays Wendy, serves as a commentary on the original Wendy Darling. When the book begins, she is young, deferential, and nervous. Over the course of the novel, we see her evolve into a more complicated, ambitious woman, one who plays Rich’s games to advance her career.
Jocelyn herself resembles Peter Pan, for they are both stuck between worlds. Just as Barrie’s Peter chooses a suspended life, Dentinger’s heroine appears to yearn for the same. Her novel ends with Jocelyn going to the airport, not to catch a plane but to sit in the lounge, positioned at the verge of flight. Yet this doesn’t indicate failure—the scene is more introspective than defeating. Where Peter exists in the realm of absolutes (he really can’t grow up), Jocelyn is a character with a capacity for change. Dentinger also pens a metaphor for some of the hinges of modern times: Jocelyn won’t marry but nonetheless has fulfilling romantic relationships with two different men; Amy St. Cyr feels entitled to professional success, but still engages in age-old gender games. Both women value female solidarity, while other women in the story adhere to a competitive kill-or-be-killed mentality—reflecting a contemporary culture that gushes over women’s friendships even as it sensationalizes their rivalries.
A neurotic, bedraggled quest for self-acceptance emerges as a motif in Laurie Fox’s Lost Girls (2004). Barrie’s story ends with a legacy of “spring cleaning” in which Peter returns for the next Darling daughter to housekeep Neverland. In Fox’s novel, we zoom in on the ritual for four generations, from Wendy the Original to her great-great-granddaughter Berry, each of whom represents a distinct facet of the hypothetical woman who goes to Neverland. Great Nana is the Original Wendy, a quirky sage. Jane goes to Neverland never to return—until one of her descendants needs her. Margaret is seductive and intellectual. Wendy (the Second), our narrator, speaks of a lifelong struggle with mental illness and a fear of abandonment. Her life readily coalesces with fantasy as she’s haunted by the naive Peter, who cannot fathom her madness, and Jason Hook of the Hook clan, who reinforces her fears.
Like her fellow Pan revisionists, Fox explores themes like the female protagonist’s struggle to individuate from her mother; the experience of a reality mingled with otherworldly elements; and a character’s ability to create a healthy sense of self even in the midst of disconnects. When the time approaches for Peter to claim Wendy’s daughter Berry, our narrator becomes the anxious mother who will soon allow her daughter’s adventure while she herself is left behind. But the anticipated conflict does not come to pass. Berry becomes the only Darling girl who fails to fly to Neverland—she falls down after ascending “the symbolic inch.” (Peter, in his no-fault fashion, quickly leaves the scene.)
In many respects, Fox’s book is the most culturally entrenched of the Peter Pan works, mirroring both the psychological recovery described in women’s memoirs and the themes of fragmentation and healing of mother-daughter relationships popular in cinema. At the same time, the novel provides a smart model for romance fiction, offering us a love story without the tidy pill of romantic consummation.
Now or Neverland
In the context of literary history, these writers’ renditions of outspoken heroines and soulful alliances between women disrupt the patterns of withdrawal and inaction that have formed a narrative cage for female characters in the fairy tales and fantastical books of the past.
But they’re still just a bunch of fairy tales, right? So who cares? Well, recent research by behavioral psychologist Susan Darker-Smith, who has studied the developmental effects of classic fairy tales featuring passive protagonists, points to some interesting conclusions about the stories we grow up with. In a study conducted in England involving 161 subjects (men and women, both with and without a history as victims of domestic abuse), Darker-Smith discovered a subtle but provocative correlation between fairy tales and violence. Women who grew up reading such tales as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, she found, internalize unrealistic attitudes about romance, namely by manifesting submissive behavior and holding fast to the belief that love conquers all—even violence. Darker-Smith has her critics: Author Marina Warner notes that Darker-Smith misreads certain tales, such as Beauty and the Beast, in which the beast treats the heroine well, and the crux of the tale centers not on female thralldom, but on seeing past appearances. Likewise, others view the character of Rapunzel as resourceful instead of helpless. And Deborah Cameron, a language professor at Oxford University, declared that this is just another study that examines the psychology of victimized women rather than questioning why so many men think it’s okay to beat their mates.
But whether or not her study is truly conclusive, Darker-Smith’s research rings true on an intuitive level. After all, the classic texts she studied are rife with subservient princesses and self-abnegating maidens, who, like our Wendy, are passed down from father to husband. While such inflexible portrayals are symptoms of a larger cultural ailment that typecasts women, the revised fairy tale may likewise serve as a template in changing mindsets. We can, in our texts and subtexts, obliterate the notion of a blissfully submissive female reality, where “happily ever after” means little more than, to quote Anne Sexton, “a kind of coffin/A kind of blue funk.”