Peter Pan

This article is part of a series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.

Bechdel Pass: Yes
Number of female characters: 4, plus assorted mermaids and a dog.
Female characters’ goals: not to grow up.
Lesson: Mothers are important.
OK, I know that Peter Pan isn’t a Disney princess movie. But I wanted to give this a try, since Tinkerbell is Disney’s other big commercial character aimed at young girls.
Which is odd, since Tinkerbell is probably the most sexualised Disney character I’ve ever seen.
Although the movie is ostensibly about Wendy’s reluctance to grow up, it presents itself more as a rivalry between two extreme stereotypes of womanhood: the mother and (to put it bluntly) the whore. Wendy is, for all intents and purposes, already grown up into the mother figure. She acts as a mother to her brothers, telling them stories and taking care of them, and is brought to Neverland as a mother to the Lost Boys as well. She is very no-nonsense, sewing Peter’s shadow back on for him, and constantly warning everybody “do be careful!” When the boys play, she, as a woman, is instead sent away to work. Not to mention the fact that she has the voice of someone in her twenties at the youngest.
Meanwhile, with the exception of Wendy’s mother and the dog, every other female character in the movie is incredibly, jealously sexual. The mermaids try to drown Wendy when she appears with Peter, and even Tigerlilly, who doesn’t have a single line in the movie, dances with him and kisses him as the pretty blush-inducing girl in the deeply racist Indian song. And then, of course, there is Tinkerbell. Curvy and skimpily dressed, Tinkerbell cannot speak, but instead pantomimes everything with her body. When we first meet her, she is shown admiring herself in a mirror… and then feeling self-conscious about the size of her hips. Oh, and she tries to kill Wendy, repeatedly, because Peter pays attention to her. Female sexuality is explicitly represented as jealous and violent, even to the point of murdering the competition.
Because, of course, the greatest threats aren’t the other sexualized figures — the half-naked mermaids, for instance — but the pure, sweet, innocent girl who is on the verge of growing up. Wendy has some jealous moments herself, such as when she sees Peter kissing Tigerlily, but her interest in Peter is mostly quite innocent, and unreciprocated. He only wants her to be a mother, and as the “mother” figure, she’s allowed to have more character and depth (and lines!) than her sexualized counterparts, but she’s not allowed to play games, enjoy herself or be at all childish, as the boys are. Childhood, for Wendy, seems rather like adulthood… or at least motherhood, because the other kind of “adult” woman is a horrific, manipulative figure.
Meanwhile, the male characters give us such valuable tidbits as “girls talk too much” and “a jealous female can be tricked into anything.” The sexism and hatred of any female role other than “mother” runs disturbingly deep in the movie, and that’s not even touching on the horrific racism that also fills the film.
Peter Pan is, perhaps, a movie of its time. And now it’s time for it to be forgotten.

06 comments on “Peter Pan

  • Jen , Direct link to comment

    I don’t care how bad it is, I could never forget it, even if I wanted to. Peter Pan is every kid’s dream. I mean, I’m one and I don’t think that all that sexual stuff you talked about was aimed at kids. When I first watched this movie, I wasn’t old enough to understand anything but the mermaids and pirates , but my parents who were watching could laugh, or cry watching this movie, and I can’t say that about some of the shows we’re watching now. Thank you for posting this, it’s always nice to know other opinions!

  • Bob Uppala , Direct link to comment

    I liked this post, though I wished you’d spent more time on the racism, since Tiger Lily’s sexualization have to do with fetishization and exotification of WoCs (Women of Color). I don’t know much about that, but I know it has to do with “Other”ing.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thanks! And thanks for pointing that out. Unfortunately, I’m not the best person to write about it — the racism in Peter Pan is blatant and is uncomfortable to watch, but I don’t feel I’m knowledgable enough to speak about it with any authority. Which is made clear by the fact that I missed the ways that Tiger Lily’s sexualization is associated with racism and exotification.

  • Emmy , Direct link to comment

    I haven’t seen Peter Pan since I was a kid, and even then, I always felt a little uncomfortable watching it. I did love the sequel, though. I’m curious what you thought of Jane and also Wendy becoming a mother.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I haven’t actually seen the sequel (or any of the Disney sequels, I don’t think, except the Aladdin ones). Perhaps I should add it to my “to watch” list.

  • Lady Bluestocking , Direct link to comment

    Actually, in the book, things are much more . . . complex. It shows both the bright side of childhood (innocence and a sense of justice, adventure) with its dark side (lack of empathy, the inability to understand love). It’s basically a big coming-of-age story for Wendy, and how becoming an adult (with EVERYTHING that entails) is preferable to staying a kid. It’s important that Wendy is already growing up, and WANTS to grow up – something that involves figuring out what romantic love means (hint: she gets it in the real world, not in Neverland), something that Peter can never understand.

    And lastly, to be mature, you have to, by definition, be immature first. Wendy is just sitting on that awkward phase between the two.

What do you think?

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