In 1953, Disney brought us Peter Pan, its fourteenth animated feature. It is based on the play by JM Barrie, which was first produced in 1904. Gender roles are hard enough to overcome today, but they were also a problem during Barrie’s time. Pan is a story steeped in gender roles, so it only makes sense to discuss them.
I went into my re-watch of Peter Pan expecting to be hit over the head with this notion of women as mothers and that is where all our worth comes from. I was feeling this way since I had just watched NBC’s Peter Pan Live and there was so much talk of mothers and pockets I was trying to remember the novel I loved so much with lines like:
-“Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys.”
-“For Wendy?” John said, aghast. “Why, she is only a girl!”
“That,” explained Curly, “is why we are her servants.”
-Peter explains that the Lost Boys are babies that have fallen out of their carriages. Wendy then asks if there are any girls and he replies with, “Oh no; girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams.”
Do you see? Don’t you see the respect for women? Women are clever and wonderful and we get shit done. Not that being a mother means you don’t deserve respect, of course not. But women can be more than professional mess picker uppers, our only job to trail after little boys and make them look good.
So while I warred with the novel’s portrayal vs what I was seeing on my tv Thursday night, I started thinking about the animated film. It was, of course, my first introduction to the story of Pan. I couldn’t recall if Wendy’s role was emphasized so heavily as a caregiver and nothing else, who was supposed to clean up after Pan and tell stories nonstop and then her future daughters were to do the same thing. To solve this problem, I decided to pull out my copy and watch.
Because this is Animated Meta, I will limit myself to discussing gender roles at play—or subverted—by the Disney feature. However, I recommend Barrie’s novel highly and make no guarantees I won’t be slipping in more quotes throughout this meta. I mean, I made sure the first thing I did when I landed in London last year was find the Peter Pan statue in Hyde Park, okay? My love cannot be contained.
(Okay, we had breakfast, picked up our London Pass, and left our bags at the hotel. Then we went to Hyde Park. Same thing.)
We’re starting with Hook cause you all expected me to start with Peter or Wendy, right?
We all have an image of the elegant Captain Hook: those luscious permed locks, the red coat, the feathered hat, the twirl-able mustache, pointed hook…
Look, Hook’s a nasty little prat, make no mistake. He shoots one of his men for having an awful singing voice and he throws another one overboard for expressing concern that there was no “splash” after Wendy walked the plank. He’s got anger management issues to the max: throwing tables around, threatening Smee with his hook, kicking Smee’s row boat back into Skull Cove.
He talks fondly of all the different torture tactics he can use on Tiger Lily to make her give away the location of Pan’s hideout. Hook, in many ways, fits the role of the hyper macho masculine pirate captain, meant to strike fear into our hearts.
What do I mean by “hyper macho masculine?” I’m talking about this idea that men need to be TOUGH, they can’t cry or be afraid, or express their feelings.
Captain Hook is certainly someone not to be trifled with, but he also has another side to him. Hook subverts his gender role completely by being freaking terrified of the crocodile that wants to eat the rest of him. This was probably overdone in Disney’s film to provide some slapstick humor for the kiddies, but it does not negate the fact that we’re given a man that cowers openly in the face of fear.
With the merest inkling of the ticking crocodile, Hook is in a frenzy. He hides under a sheet, he trembles, he screams for “SMEEEEEE!” He jumps into Smee’s arms multiple times!
But his fear does not negate the fact that he’s a cunning and murderous man. He leaves Tiger Lily to drown, he frequently tries to kill Peter, dueling with him at Skull Rock, and later successfully planting a bomb—preying on a child’s love for presents. Hook’s willingness to express distress does not make him any less terrifying to his crew, they answer to his beck and call. They all want to leave Neverland, his first mate Smee most of all, evidenced by the fact the he advocates for this move the entire film. But none of the crew leave or try to stage a mutiny.
Besides his violent streak, Hook also prides himself on being a gentleman. He isn’t really, considering he tried to stab Peter in the back, among other things. But Hook values his appearance highly, something usually reserved for women in films. He gets a shave from Smee—which goes horribly wrong.
He puts on his coat and hat when Pan arrives so that he can fight in his best clothes.
His outfit is colorful and frilly. He’s certainly trying to make a statement. When he attempts to woo Tinker Bell to his side, he again tries to look his best, trading the silver hook for a gold one with a shiny ring. What’s nice about Hook is that he goes againt the usual “fashionable = flamboyant” tradition with men. His care in his appearance is just one aspect of his character; it doesn’t at all take away from his violence and villainy.
Hook is ruthless and a hateful man, consumed with wanting revenge. He hates the Indians simply because they won’t betray Pan to him. He manipulates Tinker Bell into helping him, something we’ll discuss later, and craftily promises not to lay a hand (or hook) on Peter. So he’ll just use a bomb instead! He smokes two cigars at once just cause he can. He threatens to have Wendy and all the Lost Boys walk the plank and follows through with it—until Pan spoils his fun. He is The World’s Most Famous Crook.
Costuming in Peter Pan
What are the stereotypical colors for girls and boys?
Girls = pink
Boys = blue
Take a look at what the characters are wearing below.
Do you see it?
Hook wears pink and red. His crew is a rainbow.
Wendy wears blue.
Micheal wears pink.
I like to think Peter and Tink wear green to signify they are part of the island. They are connected to nature in a way no one else on the island is. They will always be in Neverland. As the novel says, “Feeling that Peter was on his way back, the Neverland had again woke into life. We ought to use the pluperfect and say wakened, but woke is better and was always used by Peter.”
I’m not saying Disney just did something incredible by dressing a girl in blue and dressing a little boy and some pirates in pink.
But look below at the famous Cathy Rigby version:
Michael wears blue.
Wendy wears pink.
A simple costuming decision that flies in the face of gender roles. Pink for girls and blue for boys is so ingrained today that baby clothes especially follow this pattern. Color labeling is still a massive problem today. However, it is easier for women to wear typical boy colors—we have no problem finding blue clothes. But boy clothes in pink are much harder to find.
Mothers, Mothers, Mothers
Here’s some Barrie trivia for you. Caution, is will break your heart.
JM Barrie had an older brother named David. David died just before he turned fourteen—Barrie was six at the time. It was an ice-skating accident. Their mother was so distraught she fell into a deep depression. Barrie tried to fill his brother’s shoes, wearing his brother’s clothes and such. But his mother could not be moved. One time he went into her room and she mistook him for David. She found comfort in the fact that David had died a boy and would never grow up to leave her. Barrie suffered from stress dwarfism and his marriage was never consummated—perhaps a way to never grow up.
I told you. Sad tale. Which of course led to Peter Pan, the boy who would never grow up, the boy who wanted a mother so bad, but also left his.
George Darling, John Darling, Michael Darling, and Peter Pan were all named after the Davies boys, whom Barrie became the legal guardian of. This is the focus of the film Finding Neverland. Much like Barrie’s early years, there is a sad end—not the film, I just mean in real life. George was killed in WW1 and in 1921, Michael drowned in a lake while away at boarding school with a friend. It is unknown if they were lovers and had done it as a suicide pact. Peter committed suicide in 1960.
I’m sorry I had to traumatize you all.
But mothers. Mothers are super important to the story of Peter Pan. Disney puts less of a stress on this aspect, perhaps because they wanted to avoid such stark gender roles. The film opens with, “Peter Pan chose this particular house because there were people here who believed in him.” Our focus switches instantly to belief and the strength of the imagination, which is mostly prevalent in childhood. Next we hear that Mrs. Darling believed Pan to be the spirit of youth.
Cue my heart breaking for JM Barrie, his brother David, and his mother.
“Mr. Darling was practical.”
John and Michael made Pan the hero of all their stories.
Wendy was the supreme authority on all things Pan.
When Peter arrives in search of his shadow, Wendy tells him that she’s so happy he came tonight because she has to grow up tomorrow, aka, no more stories. Peter is horrified. No more stories? He wants to take her to Neverland so she can keep telling stories, mainly to him and the Lost Boys. Do you hear the word “mother” mentioned? I don’t. Wendy is more than happy to go, but first she needs to pack and leave a note for her mother—
Oh, mother. There it is. Hold that thought.
Wendy’s not just about to run off with to a strange land with a boy. She knows her family will worry and she should probably bring a change of clothes and maybe some snacks for the trip. She’s, in a word, practical. Wendy is already very grown up. She’s poised. She’s “the supreme authority.” Mr. Darling really had nothing to worry about.
Okay, so mother. Peter asks Wendy what a mother is. She tells him that a mother loves and cares for you, but none of that interests him.
Once she says it’s someone that tells stories, Peter is all over that, cause the boy loves his stories—mostly cause he’s the star of all of them.
A mother is seen primarily as a storyteller for most of the film. When they arrive in Neverland, Peter says to the Lost Boys, “I bring you a mother to tell you stories and you shoot her down!” Wendy is not seen as a maid. She is seen as creative, a source of knowledge (she knows how the stories end!), the supreme authority.
The role of a mother is later fleshed out, when Wendy sings her song:
The helping hand that guides you along
Whether you’re right, whether you’re wrong
Everyone gets emotional over this. Even the pirates stop their schemes and listen. Smee starts bawling and Hook shushes him cause he’s ruining the song! John cries, another example of Disney breaking the mold of what A Man should be.
Wendy’s a lot of things. She’s kind, even in the face of animosity. Pan tells her Tink thinks she’s a big ugly girl and Wendy replies with, “I think she’s lovely.” Tink tries to have her murdered, Wendy does not want to see her banished.
She’s nurturing and comforting, naturally fitting the Jungian archetype of The Mother. She voices concern repeatedly for her brothers and Peter. “Oh, NAME, do be careful,” she says A LOT. She even shows concern for Hook in the Skull Rock duel and says, “Oh how dreadful,” when it appears he’s died. She then voices her disapproval like a mother when Pan has Hook hanging off the cliff and is mocking him.
Parts of her character do conform to the typical female role, though. When Peter comes for his shadow, she does say, “I saved your shadow for you… hope it’s not rumpled.” If it wasn’t, it sounded like she would iron it for him. At the Indian dance party she doesn’t want to take a hit of what everyone’s smoking, this very Victorian model of women being “pure” and men getting to engage in all manners of debauchery. (I’m labeling this Victorian since Barrie’s tale is circa 1900 and Queen Victoria died in 1901. It just made it.)
She also follows the damsel in distress mold a lot of people associate Disney females with. She gets saved by Pan. A lot. Or she wants his help all the time.
- Tink has the Lost Boys shoot stuff at her. She loses her focus and can’t fly anymore. Peter saves her.
- Peter saves her when she walks the plank.
- The mermaids are attacking her: “PETERRRRRRRR!”
- “Peter! WAIT FOR ME!” When he flies off with Tiger Lily.
- Stands behind John’s umbrella when they first meet the Lost Boys in fear.
However, when they’re all captured on Hook’s ship, Wendy is the bravest of them all. She refuses to become a pirate when everyone is tripping over themselves to join the crew.
But she’s also insanely jealous. I was never a fan of Wendy, but watching this now, I did warm to her. Wendy is kind. She’s not snarky or sarcastic. She believes the best in people. She worries about people. She grounds Peter—ie, he nearly leaves Tiger Lily to drown, forgetting about her in the midst of celebrating his humiliating Hook. Wendy reminds him.
But she’s also flawed. Jealousy brings us to our next topic.
The Love Square: Peter, Wendy, Tink, Tiger Lily
There are three prominent women in this film (Mrs. Darling makes it four, but even she thinks highly of Peter) and they are all madly obsessed with Peter Pan.
Tink and Wendy are the jealous type. Meanwhile, Tiger Lily is a princess and has too much going on to worry about that.
This conflict plays itself out throughout the entire film. Hook uses it to his advantage. Disney actually plays up this stereotype more than anything else: The Jealous Woman.
“A jealous female can be tricked into anything,” he says. Basically, women are ruled by their emotions and go ga ga over guys. Even the mermaids in this film are all swoony over Peter and try to drown Wendy the moment they meet her.
“Who’s she?” They cry.
Hook’s manipulation of Tink sounds so much like arguments used by girlfriends trying to cheer up their friends after a man either cheated on them or dumped them. Hook tells her that Pan took the best years of her life and then cast her aside! How familiar does that sound? He tells her it’s all Wendy’s fault, that if they get rid of Wendy everything will be as it was before. Basically, Wendy is the “other woman” in this situation. And how often does the Other Woman get blamed instead of the man?
But it begins long before this. From the moment Peter wants to take Wendy to Neverland, Tink is furious. You think she’d be used to this since the film makes a point to say that all of this has happened before and it will happen again, but this time it happened in London. We can infer that Peter has been taking kids on adventures in Neverland for a very long time. Regardless, Tink is jealous and is livid when Wendy wants to give Peter a kiss. She turns bright red—a nice homage to Barrie’s work where he says pixies are so small they can only feel one emotion at once. So Tink feels her jealousy 110%. She also acts on it, pulling Wendy’s hair.
When they’re flying to Neverland and Wendy is admiring her reflection in the water, Tink messes it up.
For Wendy’s part, she’s never jealous of Tinker Bell. Instead, her jealous side does not flare up until she sees Tiger Lily dancing for Peter. Not to mention their eskimo kiss. She’s so jealous she leaves the party early and that’s when she decides they have to go home.
Peter knows she’s mad and doesn’t understand, saying, “Everyone thinks I’m wonderful.”
Wendy, envious, quips, “Yes, especially Tiger Lily.”
Tink’s jealousy is the worst out of the three women. And she is the one that gets taken advantage of. Hook’s line about a jealous woman speaks to gender roles more than the mother storyline of Peter Pan and that surprised me more than anything as I did this rewatch. As did every woman fawning over Peter and being incapable of doing anything else.
There’s not much to say about The Darlings except they fulfill typical gender roles.
Mr. Darling is hyper masculine. He’s stern, not fun, and the breadwinner. He’s stressed about his job and money, providing for the family. He goes on a ramble to his wife about what’ll happen if they don’t go to the party, or the party’s a disaster and their family will end up on the streets.
He calls Wendy’s stories “silly” and “poppycock.” He’s the one that starts with the grown-up idea and says Wendy has to move out of the nursery. When Mrs. Darling is concerned for Wendy and that her stories may be true, he mocks her. He’s exasperated with childrearing—telling his kids to be quiet and annoyed with their games.
The nursery is overseen by Nana, the nurse dog. I found it interesting they called her Nana, a feminine term. She’s a dog that takes care of the children. She did not have to be female. But she was by nature of what she does. A woman’s job to raise the family.
Mrs. Darling, for her part, is the typical feminine, mother figure. She scolds the children, but does not yell like her husband. She tucks them in and whispers comforting words—the nightlight comment. She defends her husband to their kids, trying to be the peacemaker. She gets her husband ready for the party, ties his tie, cleans his shirtfront.
And in usual fashion, Mr. Darling bent to the will of his wife. By the end of the evening, as they get home from the party, Mr. Darling regrets his yelling and ordering around and general pigheadedness. He’s a big softie on the inside, “You know I never mean those things.” But because of the social status, because of what men have been conditioned to be, Mr. Darling has to be soft on the inside, not on the out. He has to yell. He has to be loud. He has to be strict.
In the end, when he sees Pan captaining the Jolly Roger, he is reminded of his childhood and says touchingly, “You know, I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen that ship before, a long time ago, when I was very young.”
Pan is a boy. And you know what they all say, boys will be boys.
(I hate this saying. So much.)
The very first note I made during my re-watch was when Pan says “I’m not crying.”
He’s not crying in this version. He is in the book.
Barrie wrote a boy that cried. Barrie also wrote a boy that recognized he was not supposed to cry.
Disney gave us a boy that did not cry, period. And did not want to be mistaken for crying, either.
He’s also unaware of the effect his actions have, making a ruckus and a mess of the nursery trying to find and reattach his shadow. Later, moments after meeting Wendy, the girl he’s been stalking listening to for some time, he says, “Girls talk too much.” Honestly, I was holding my breath waiting for someone to call Wendy bossy. Nobody did, to my immense pleasure. He does take that comment to the next level, though, when he forcibly shushes her, putting his hand over her mouth just before the Skull Rock sequence. Pan has no filter and doesn’t value anyone’s opinion but his own.
Peter plays the role of the leader. He is the leader of the Lost Boys, he leads the Darlings to Neverland. As leader, he tells them to go to safety and he’ll stay to deal with Hook.
Something that irked me was the way he refers to people. The Lost Boys have BOYS in their title, but Peter refers them as men frequently. When Wendy expresses interest in seeing the mermaids, all the boys are like, we want to hunt! MASCULINE, HUH. LETS KILL STUFF.
Pan says, “All right, MEN, go out and CAPTURE a few Indians.”
Meanwhile, when they go to see the mermaids, he says, “Hello, GIRLS.” When Wendy defers him to later to back her up after the mermaids attack, he says, “They were just having a little fun, weren’t ya, GIRLS?”
There’s a discrepancy, here, clearly.
Pan’s other traits fall into the boys will be boys idea. He’s a show off, (“Watch this Wendy!”), he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s indestructible. He has his weird bird call he does. He can’t wait 12 more seconds to open a present. He forgets he’s mad at Tink the moment he sees her again.
“Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be rewarded instead of smacked.”
“…and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”
Peter is innocent and heartless. He wants a mother to tell him stories, unaware of what a mother truly is. He wants everyone to adore him. He wants to play games with Hook.
However, Disney does have Pan grow by the end of the film.
“Wendy… the boys…? Well I have to save you first. Hold on Tink, hold on. Don’t go out. Don’t you understand? You mean more to me than anything in this whole world.” He’s not playing like when he saved Tiger Lily. He’s actually scared and concerned. After they defeat Hook, Peter is open to Wendy and her brothers going home. Before where he was angry and resentful she wanted to leave—but ultimately shrugged it off and said she would be back—now he recognizes her seriousness and respects her wishes.
Wendy: Sir, you are both ungallant and deficient!
Peter: How am I deficient?
Wendy: You’re just a boy.
I think this 1953 version does a pretty solid job of subverting gender roles. Hook is a coward, but he’s also so unhinged you’ve no idea what he’s gonna do next. He has no qualms about making kids walk the plank or planting a bomb in your bedroom. Wendy gets to wear blue and her brother wears pink, she is kind, but also flawed with her jealousy. John cries!
It also falls prey to some: girls are slaves to their feelings for a man, Peter does not cry, Mr. Darling and Mrs. Darling are reflective of gender roles they are expected to play.
Peter Pan Live bothered me with this emphasis Peter had with his mothers and pockets and making Wendy and her descendants clean up after him. The novel I remembered gave women way more credit and had much deeper undertones. The animated film instead played The Jealous Woman card.
Ultimately, though, Wendy said goodbye, Tinker Bell found satisfaction in her role as Peter’s friend (or she was just more than happy to dose the ship in pixie dust so she could get rid of Wendy) and confidence in herself (she was very looks obsessed in the beginning), and Tiger Lily never really cared.
What I think I’m most proud of is Hook, though. When I was little I just laughed at him, but now I’m so glad there’s a male villain out there that struts around in red and pink and flips the hell out every time he hears the ticking of a clock, cowering like nobody’s business but kills is crew whenever feels like it and is a manipulative little swine.
Also, one of his crew has a tattoo of a heart that says Love and another that says Lulu among ships and sea monsters. That’s pretty freaking awesome. If only he also had an I Love My Mom one.
Truth: this picture isn’t from my first day in London. They’re from my last. The Pan statue was the first and last thing I saw. And I don’t like any of my pictures with it from the first day, so here you go.
Leave a comment and let us know what you think! Did Disney do a good job subverting gender roles? Are you a Peter Pan fan?