LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Peter Pan and Feminine Gender Roles

on March 19, 2013 1:15pm

Peter Pan is a childhood figure that we all grow up loving. The desire to remain innocent and fancy free overcomes us all and, boys and girls alike, imagine themselves as Peter Pan—adventurous, daring, and free of consequences. But the way J.M. Barrie portrays females in his lesser known work “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” (and even in Barrie’s more famous work “Peter and Wendy” Peter Pan has or leads all the adventures while the female characters fawn over him with none of their affections or considerations returned) implies that Barrie might think girls are ill-equipped to be a Peter Pan figure; that all women are fit for is to keep on the heels of heroes.

Even on a Peter Pan Statue in the real Kensington Gardens, females are depicted falling at his feet.

Even on a Peter Pan Statue in the real Kensington Gardens, females are depicted as falling at his feet.

On the very second page of text in “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” Barrie characterizes the qualities that are to be punished in young boys: “disgraced… if they have been mad-dog or Mary-Annish. To be Mary-Annish is to behave like a girl, whimpering because nurse won’t carry you, or simpering with your thumb in your mouth, and it is a hateful quality; but to be mad-dog  is to kick out at everything, and there is some satisfaction in that” (4). In characterizing the qualities of young femininity as “hateful” and the qualities of young masculinity as creating some “satisfaction,” Barrie right away points to which sex more aptly fits into the title character role of fearless child rebel. Indeed, one boy is even punished for being too feminine by being forced to go out to the park dressed in his sister’s clothes. Similarly, when a female finch questions the powerful male figure of Solomon, ruler of the birds on the island Peter Pan is stuck on, Barrie characterizes her as speaking out of turn or being annoyingly persistent: “Kate was her name, and all Kates are saucy” (23). In fact, Barrie’s characterizations of the female characters are all very similar. When Peter wishes to return to his mother, “he never doubted that he was giving her the greatest treat a woman can have” (37). When the narrator is describing Maimie, the girl for whom the fairies first built the Little House in Kensington Gardens, he says that “when she was batting, she would pause though the ball was in the air to point out to you that she was wearing new shoes. She was quite the ordinary kind [of girl] in the daytime” (42). Barrie again and again reinforces an image of femininity as focused on nurturing and vanity; as more comfortable in the home than on Peter Pan-esque exciting adventures.

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2 responses to “Peter Pan and Feminine Gender Roles

  1. heatherhalak says:

    I agree that J. M. Barrie somewhat isolates the female character and portrays her in an inadequate light as compared to young boys. This is more prevalently seen in “Peter & Wendy” in which Peter is the object of interest of three female characters: Wendy, Tinkerbell, and Tigerlily. Though Wendy and Tinkerbell are given somewhat important roles (especially Wendy), they are portrayed as somewhat weak or prone to emotions such as jealousy, anger, or sadness. Tinkerbell, a fairy governed by jealousy, must tend to Peter’s every wish and is thus placed in a position of servitude. Wendy is a strong main character, acting as a mother to Peter and the Lost Boys in addition to her own brothers while they are away. Though it may seem that Wendy fawns over Peter and her affections are not returned, Peter does seek to keep Wendy around as long as possible and delays her journey home therefore reflecting that Peter is capable of attachment. Even after the journey home, Peter and Wendy see each other every year (except when Peter forgets) and he continues the legacy of visiting her daughter and later, her grand daughter, etc. This illustrates that somehow Peter has a dependency on the Wendy character archetype despite his heartlessness and hatred for mothers.

  2. bgugliemino says:

    I think you make several good points about Barrie’s flat, stereotypical characterization of the female characters in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. However, I think that something important to consider is the other side of Maimie’s character. As you point out, Maimie is “the ordinary kind in the daytime” (42), ordinary in this case meaning typically feminine and easily distracted by things like new shoes. However, there is more to her character: “Maimie was always rather a strange girl, and it was at night that she was strange” (41). In fact, Maimie is more than strange but is “terrible” (42) at nighttime, terrorizing her brother Tony with tales of horned creatures coming to get him. Here Maimie is portrayed as a mischievous troublemaker, a role that is more usually filled by young boys. Furthermore, when Maimie and Tony hatch a plan to remain behind in the Gardens overnight, Tony chickens out and it is Maimie who ends up staying. When she realizes that Tony is too scared to carry out the plan, she is so disdainful that “she could not sob,” and in “protest against all puling cowards” (45) she runs away to hide instead. Maimie is the adventurous one who gets to spend the night exploring the Gardens, witnessing fairy weddings, and eventually meeting Peter Pan. Admittedly, once she meets Peter, Maimie is placed back into the same role as the other female characters. She begins by pitying Peter, and her nurturing pity is soon transformed into admiration for Peter and his adventures. Meanwhile, Peter is concerned not as much with Maimie as with Tony, asking questions about him and wishing to be “as brave as Tony” (59). I think that discussing the more adventurous side of Maimie’s character in fact strengthens your argument, because while she temporarily exists outside of Barrie’s “image of femininity,” as soon as Peter shows up she is reduced back into the same feminine stereotype.

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