Sunday, June 14, 2020

Mansplaining Peter Pan

The disdain with which Peter and Wendy is now regarded in some feminist circles needs some answering.  It is an excellent example of people, usually but not always women, taking a few feminist ideas in isolation and applying them thoughtlessly.  Mansplaining is appropriate because the book's defenders don't seem full-throated enough about this, trying to be nice and explaining patiently to the younger women who just aren't getting it.  I'm going to be harsher than that.

The complaints usually center around the preponderance of boys plus the repeated theme of Wendy being a mother to Peter and the lost boys, with a role of darning socks, telling them stories, and putting them in order. Any book offering a girl only that role is rejected out of hand these days. That is not entirely unfair. There is also the Victorian virtue of woman elevated to sacred guardian of the home. It was a different era, and any suggestion of going back to that could be regarded with suspicion, yes.

Yet the book is kept alive mainly by female readers of many generations at this point.  If the book were that far from their experience, no one would like it. That is our first clue.  Barrie may have intended this to be an adventure book for boys with girls listening in, but its strength is as a coming-of-age book about Wendy. Peter doesn't change or develop. The novel is about Peter at the beginning, but Wendy takes it over and it is about her by the end. The title could almost be Peter, Then Wendy. This is less obvious in the Disney version. The phrase "this is less obvious in the Disney version" has general application, now that I look at it.

There is the problem of Tinker Bell, who has found her own popularity these days as a tattoo.  (No one has a tattoo of Wendy.)  I hear there is some advocacy for her to be included as a Disney Princess, but that won't do. Tink is all emotion, and the attraction for girls seems to be that she can act like this and get away with it. Wendy wants to be her friend despite the fairy's jealousy, but there seems no temptation to want to be like her. Young Ms. Darling has passed that milestone.  To hold Tinkerbell against J.M. Barrie because she isn't a good role model of modern effective womanhood misses who she is in the story. She is like Peter - charming, but lacking important qualities.

 Barrie wrote scenes of intense poignancy for female characters,  accessible even to girls reading about Wendy and observing her caught between child and adult. He has written other characters a ten-year-old could understand, even in his adult plays.  Their in-betweenness is not above children or beyond them.  Most coming-of-age books are about slightly older girls, so questions of sex, bodies, and womanness get involved.  Those stories resolve with the girl coming to grips with growing older and entering a new phase of life.  Significantly, Wendy's resolution is to say "not yet" and go back to being a girl, with a mother of her own.  It is revealed later that this worked out fine, as we see the adult Wendy with a daughter of her own.  Even that scene is poignant, however, as she hides from him at first, not willing to reveal she has grown up.

The poignancy derives from characters caught between one thing and other, relationships that are and are not: children that are yours and not yours, spouses who are not spouses, women who disappear for days or decades to reappear unaged, women who take on new personalities to recapture a chance at lost youth, a butler who is not a butler.  His main characters are partly unreal, and imaginary characters partly real.  To single out Wendy caught between mother/not mother, real mother/pretend mother and call that a problem is to miss what Sir James is all about. 

I don't know if a "not yet" novel could be written today, by man or woman. We hurry them all along today and want them to embrace being strong and in charge. Wendy does well enough at the pretend version of the adult role, but one of the most humorous lines in the book reveals how far she has to go. When the boys are being made to walk the plank, Hook sneeringly asks her to give a mother's last words to her children. "These are my last words, dear boys," she said firmly. "I feel that I have a message to you from your real mothers, and it is this: 'We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.'" A mother might say this to a grown son, but not a young boy.  Yet the grand and theatrical gesture is all Wendy can think of. She is still a girl at play, even when trying to be something more grown-up. She almost gets it, which is what gives the rest of the scene its charm.  The pirates decide they want her to be their mother as well. Priceless.

You can have a reread of the novel here.


james said...

The young ones should listen when their elders explain things.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, me in specific, anyway.