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10 May

The Tragedy of Wendy


When I was about 11 years old, I wanted to go to Neverland. I desperately wanted to go to Neverland. I wanted Peter Pan to turn up at my window and make the offer: a one-way flight with pixie dust, in exchange for a healthy offering of faith and trust and an open-hearted willingness to reject the ‘Mainland’ of the adult world.

I did not want to go as Wendy, it is important to note, or as any kind of Wendy analogue. Because Wendy didn’t hold to the bargain. Wendy did not open-heartedly commit to the terms of Neverland. Wendy wouldn’t – or couldn’t – entirely reject the adult world. She brought the Mainland with her – she brought grown-up sensibilities and grown-up concerns to a child-like place. She defeated, in other words, the whole purpose of going to Neverland, which was, after all, to prolong childhood, to stay in the place of imagination and play and to not worry about the looming adult world. To leave the Mainland and escape the inevitability of a certain kind of adulthood – an adulthood characterized by duty and responsibility and order and the quotidian cycle of work and family. As a young girl struggling in the liminal space of female pre-adolescence, I wanted nothing more than to escape that inevitable cycle. Wendy didn’t. Wendy traveled to Neverland, but she didn’t escape.

Which is, of course, the larger point of the Peter Pan story. Wendy can’t escape, and she shouldn’t want to. Girls must become women who become mothers who carry in their bodies and their spirits the weight of the responsibility of care. There is no Mainland without mothers. Mothers, according to the logic of the story, are the very soul of the Mainland, the force that keeps children there and that lures Lost Boys back. It’s why Peter eternally returns: affection is – love is – a powerful lure. By another perspective, a trap. It’s how and why we perpetuate the cycle of growing up: we love our mothers (notice that fathers are rarely characterized as affectionate in such stories) and stay close to them until other loves compete for our affection and we expand our experience of love beyond our family of origin to lovers and then to spouses and then to our own families, and so on. So it is; so it ever was. Wendy represents the force of that cycle. Peter represents its rejection.

And although there’s nothing wrong with the life-path of motherhood (I say this as a mother who loves motherhood, mostly), it’s not heroic in the folkloric sense. In the J.M Barrie story, the path of Wendy is anti-heroic. Peter is the hero. It’s Peter who lives the glorious, rebellious life of the eternal child, chasing dreams and fighting pirates. It’s Peter who represents freedom and flight, spirit and star-chasing. Sure, J.M. Barrie imbues the original story with enough marginal melancholy to make the reader wonder how happy Peter really is, but the 1953 Walt Disney film – which for most people is the sole reference point for Peter Pan – makes clear that Peter represents unfettered imagination, free-spiritedness, and magic. Wendy, on the other hand, represents the mundane; she represents responsibility, order, and the duty of care. Sure, at the end of the Disney film, she is allowed to stay in the nursery – and in childhood – a little while longer, but the story has made clear: adulthood is in her bones. It’s her destiny, as a girl, in a way that it just isn’t for Peter or the other boys. She’s a girl-mother, a Wendybird: her whole being comports to her future as a caregiver, a grown-up woman dedicated to furthering the cycle of family, for whom magic and imagination will soon be a distant memory.

I did not want to be Wendy. I was sad for Wendy. Wendy, I thought, didn’t have a choice.

That’s what adolescence felt like, to me, as a girl: an imposition. A forced march to the Mainland. The moment or series of moments when I would have to begin growing up – and not on my own terms. Boys, it seemed to me, had a lot more freedom to stay Peters, for much longer. Boys didn’t stop playing. Girls did. It still feels that way to me: we celebrate a lot of free-spiritedness and rebelliousness in men and boys, far less of it in women and girls. Mark Zuckerberg rejects the grown-up cycle and builds a playground, and then rules it in his hoodie; Sheryl Sandberg wears a ladysuit and heels and runs operations to keep that playground going. Donald Trump rages and rambles and battles imaginary enemies like a 3rd grader on a sugar bender and becomes president; Hillary Clinton was called moody if she didn’t smile and un-serious if she did. We’re happy to have Peters run companies and countries and to treat both of those endeavors as play; we want Wendys stick close to home and make sure that everyone is tucked in warmly and given a bedtime story at night.

I didn’t want to be Wendy and I don’t want girls to think that Wendy is their only choice. I don’t want Wendy to represent the narrow, restrictive path – and I don’t want Peter to represent a path that is really only open to boys. I want the narrative to shift, and to evolve, and to open up. And as it happens, my friend Rebecca is taking on exactly that challenge. Her film PANS takes on the Neverland narrative and gives it a feminist twist and it is, I think, a crucially important work of art and of feminism. It’s a story that needs to be told. And if it’s going to be told (it has to be told) it needs your support. Please, support her Kickstarter.

Do it for Wendy, and for every Lost Boy and Found Girl.