Monday, October 19, 2009

The Kind That Likes to Grow Up: A Look at Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

"All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!' This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end." -J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, Chapter One: Peter Breaks Through

There's nothing like a pornographic excursion to really clear the senses. Last week, I read Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls after years (literally years) of anticipation. I had been intrigued since I first heard the premise: the heroines of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan meet as grown women in a Swiss hotel on the brink of WWI and swap the stories of their childhoods, in particular the stories of their sexuality. Only instead of the familiar Wonderland, Oz, and Neverland of yore, we in the audience bear witness to three very different sexual awakenings all starring the beloved icons of these classic tales. A friend and I searched for this graphic novel (i.e. comic book) in all manner of strange places since the on-line prices were always too expensive and no stores seemed to carry it. Before finally finding it at Barnes and Noble, the only place I had seen it for sale had been in the NYC Museum of Sex where I had a very strange encounter with a very sweet boy who very awkwardly tried to strike up a conversation about it. But I can barely talk to a boy in a neutral setting, let alone one where I am holding a huge book of porn in both hands. So I didn't get a good look at him or the book. Finally, last week, I got it thanks to a trusty gift card and an understanding (or oblivious) check out girl. I had been warned that this wasn't light erotica I was venturing into. No "and then his hand fell on my breast and we succumbed to the sweetness of Cupid's love juice." No, they told me, this was porn, plain and simple. Hardcore. "Ah," I said scoffing, "but I am sophisticated and wise now. I have been at college. I have gone to dances where boys ran around wearing nothing but condoms and duct tape. I can take anything."

Silly little green girl.

I flew through the massive tome once in a frenzy and then went back to the beginning and flew through it again. I have to admit I didn't pay much attention to the bookending story at first, though it became clear almost immediately that our three heroines swapped plenty of fluids in addition to their stories; I was more interested in what had been done to the source material. Probably the scariest thing about the book is how much sense each of the retellings makes. As someone who sometimes prefers reading the same books over and over to reading new ones, I'm very drawn to how old stories can be retold, particularly how fantasy works as allegory for real life and how easily fantasy elements can be transformed into realistic elements without losing their magical qualities. I don't want to give away too much for the uninitiated reader, but perhaps it takes only a dirty mind and/or a brave imagination to guess how these new age fairy tales were transformed into pornographic coming of age stories. It soon made perfect sense to me that the stories of Wonderland, Oz, and Neverland could have resulted from the traumatic experiences of these women as a way to make sense of their lives, not the other way around. And considering I read Lost Girls a week ago and have known the three books that inspired it all my life, that should say something about the psychological punch it's capable of.

But believe it or not, I didn't actually intend for this entry to be about Lost Girls, even though it is what inspired me to write it. No, it's really about Peter Pan. I've wanted to write about Peter Pan for awhile. It's my favorite book. I feel a little bad admitting it because there are so many books I love but it's the truth. Every now and then I find a new book that I think has usurped its place in my heart, but the feeling never lasts long. Peter Pan is one of the books I've marked my life by. I had read bits through out my childhood, but didn't read it seriously or all the way through until I was twelve. The best books change the world in little subtle ways only you can see. After reading it, my world became a little sadder, a little sweeter, and a much fuller, richer place, all because suddenly this book existed in it and it had found me. I've read it countless times since. It's the book I turn to when I'm lonely, when I'm sad, when I can't sleep, when I need to laugh, when I need to cry, when I need to feel like a kid again, and when I need to be reminded why I had to grow up. Every time I read it I notice something different and learn something new. It grows with me without ever changing.

I doubt I need to summarize it, but you can never tell who the rock has hidden lately. Spoiler warning. Peter Pan is a boy who refuses to grow up. He lives in a world called Never Neverland made up of the dreams, desires, and fears of children everywhere. Together with his fairy friend, Tinkerbell, he visits the three Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael, and takes them away to Neverland. There they have adventures with Peter's orphaned comrades, the Lost Boys, as well as Indians and pirates, especially Peter's nemesis Captain James Hook. In the end, all the kids, except Peter, return to real life and grow up.

Peter Pan, the character, first appeared in J.M. Barrie's novel The Little White Bird in 1902. Two years later, the famous play Peter Pan premiered on the London stage where it remains a Christmas tradition. In 1911, Barrie turned the play into a novel called Peter and Wendy. Time and fame turned this new title back into Peter Pan before long, and the book is rarely published as Peter and Wendy now, though that is its actual title. A Broadway musical starring Mary Martin followed as well as many movie versions including: Disney's 1953 animated venture; Steven Spielberg's 1991 critical scourge/loving gift to children of my generation, Hook; Freud's personal favorite, a 2003 feature film with the subtext ratcheted up to eleven; and the Oscar winning Finding Neverland in 2004. All this love and attention has turned Peter Pan from a character in his own right to a symbol of eternal youth. However, does Barrie's original book paint him as the heroic figure so many adaptations embrace? Is he even the main character? I say nay.

Peter Pan is at its heart, the coming of age tale of Miss Wendy Moira Angela Darling, storyteller extraordinaire, eternal mother, and perfect foil to Peter Pan. We know from the opening paragraph that Wendy is destined to grow up and Peter Pan tells the story of her whole life. It shows us her parents' courtship and early marriage (both of which are wonderfully satirized), her birth, the birth of her brothers, and her early life in the days before the arrival of Peter Pan. Or at least the arrival of Peter Pan, the person. What Peter is exactly is a delightful mystery that I still don't quite understand. He is a person, a real boy. Obviously, he must be since he appears in the Darling nursery "on that never-to-be-forgotten Friday" and takes the three kids away. But he's also an idea, a spirit representing everything you could ever want out of childhood. He lives in Wendy's mind for years before she actually meets him. When he appears as flesh and blood in her bedroom, begging her to join him in Neverland, he is literally a dream come true. How can she refuse? The act of indulging her most powerful childhood fantasy sets her on the path to becoming an adult.

Feminist is a complex word and a dangerous umbrella term, but I don't think it would be farfetched to say that, stereotypically speaking, Wendy as she appears in Barrie's book is not the typical feminist wunderkind we girls are brought up to admire. After all, more than anything, she wants to be a mother and a homemaker. She comes to a land of eternal freedom and youth and inflicts structure on it. She takes the Lost Boys under her wing. She spends her days doing housework, mending clothes, cooking, and essentially raising nine children while still a little girl herself. She brings adult reality to the Neverland. Her icky, unmentionable, undeniable feelings for Peter are also very grown-up. So much so that Peter can't understand them and certainly won't indulge them, a realization that finally pushes her over the limit and out of Neverland. There are no grown-ups in Neverland except Wendy. There are pirates and Indians but these are a child's fantasy of adults. Wendy is the real deal. In the 2003 movie, Wendy's personality was radically altered to suit the expectations of a 21st century audience. This time, Wendy doesn't want to be a mother; she wants to be a pirate and adventurer. She tells stories not to entertain the kids around her, but because she wants to be a published author. She wears a sword, uses it frequently, and appears generally badass. This is all well and good, but it is not Wendy. The entire point of her character is that even before she goes to Neverland, she wants to grow up, even though she may not know it. She desires one of the most adult roles in life--motherhood--and by going there, she assumes that role and makes Neverland grow up too. But that's not what Neverland is for; finally, she has to leave in order to become what she is meant to be. After all, as Barrie says, "you need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls."

Many opinions I've encountered (including my own for a time) tend to favor Wendy as the unfortunate one, a would-be hausfrau who gives up a life where anything is possible to be just like everybody else. To most audiences today, growing up remains the enemy. But Peter is the one ends up alone. By refusing to grow up, he refuses not only to die, but also to live. By the book's end, he has no one except Wendy (when he remembers her) and the generations that follow her (when he remembers them). He is empty, "so light that if you got behind him and blew he went faster." But Wendy has the courage to grow up and live life with all its joys and sorrows. There is undeniable sadness in her decision, (what grown woman hasn't looked in the mirror and said something like "woman, woman let go of me" as she does) but Peter is pure tragedy. He is left alone, doomed never to change. Wendy transforms.

Of all the stories in Lost Girls, Peter Pan's retelling was the one I was most nervous about and least surprised by. The subtext it invokes is all there in Barrie's book. There are moments of incredible darkness, eeriness, confusion, and sexuality in the book that show up tenfold in Lost Girls, albeit with vivid X-rated illustrations. Some of it was disturbing to see. The phrase lost innocence kept popping into my head a lot while I read, as in "how can they do this? these pictures are robbing the book of its innocence!" But then I remembered Peter Pan is all about lost innocence, what is lost by growing up and what is lost by staying a child. Who am I to fault someone for trying to communicate that in an unorthodox way?


  1. I loved this! And I love that about children's stories (Peter Pan especially), that they say so much about us as adults. I cant wait to look at your Lost Girls and see those stories through that pornographic lens...

    (Love the layout and pictures too - wonderful reformat)

  2. Thanks! I have so much to say about this book it might show up again from time to time. It's a psychological minefield as so many children's stories are.

    And you must read Lost Girls soon. I have to expose somebody else to the insanity.

    Thanks for reading.