LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Peter Pan in Popular Culture: An Icon for Children and Adults

on March 20, 2013 12:35pm

Though many children and adults may not be familiar with the exact story Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, most are definitely aware of the character of Peter Pan. Regardless of what inspired J. M. Barrie to create this ageless boy, it is clear that Peter Pan has become a popular figure worldwide.

However, a comparison between how the original character is described with how he is depicted in popular culture today suggests that Peter Pan has taken a completely different role in modern society. Barrie writes that the original Peter “escaped from being a human when he was seven days old” and that the reason he stopped being able to fly was because “he had lost faith.”  This is quite different from modern depictions of Peter Pan, who is famously seen in the 1953 Disney movie Peter Pan as forever twelve, wearing the hallmark green outfit, and being able to fly thanks to his trusty fairy sidekick, Tinkerbell. Though these are considerable differences, the real question to answer is how Disney’s Peter Pan has become a completely different character with different meanings in modern society.

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Though the increased popularity of the Peter Pan clad in green may be attributed to the availability and novelty of the animated film, I believe that his role as an icon can be credited to several other factors. The infant Peter Pan in Barrie’s novel was a realistic portrayal of the devilish side of children that the Victorian era denied. Being a rough and rowdy boy with the only intention of playing, having fun, and staying young forever was a testament to how real young boys acted. However, the Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens can be most favorably directed to exact that: young boys.

The modern day idea of Peter Pan taken from popular culture’s Disney film encompasses a much broader audience with present day themes. Specifically, both children and adults, male and female, find themselves associating with this Peter Pan icon. First of all, most can agree that it is easier to relate to a twelve year old on the brink of puberty than an infant of seven days. Second, he is actively portrayed as a lovable boy and a symbol of the younger years where adult responsibilities had not yet taken over. He is used as an icon of the freedom of childhood, and even commercialized for children. This can be seen in the popular brand of peanut butter named after this character. Furthermore, while Barrie’s original story contains themes of gender roles, popular culture expresses the character of Peter Pan with more acceptance to all children. These features are what make the modern character of Peter Pan more available to everyone, and also the icon of childhood.

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Altogether, Barrie’s character Peter Pan has become an icon of childhood in the modern day. His portrayal is often linked to freedom, fun, and a nostalgic glimpse of childhood but is definitely remembered for these positive elements and not for the truth behind Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens where Peter would have liked to become a real boy again but was replaced and so was exiled to childhood forever. While some could argue if the modern day Peter Pan icon is a sign of disrespect to the author, the only concrete truth is that Peter Pan is kept alive in the minds of young and old as the boy who will never grow up.

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One response to “Peter Pan in Popular Culture: An Icon for Children and Adults

  1. broatchlit says:

    When I first read Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, I believe I had the same reaction as everyone who expected the original story to be similar to the Disney adaptation of the novel. Of course, the novel that we read recently was just a different version of the Peter Pan story we have grown up with, but the idea of an infant who is part-bird seemed a little interesting when one first reads the book. You point out a lot of good points when contrasting the 1953 Disney film with Barrie’s original novel and it is true that the character of Peter Pan is defined through his Disney portrayal rather than the seven day old infant in the novel version. The gift of flight is indeed a very important part in the Peter Pan franchise, but both serve to motivate someone to believe, because despite the pixie dust, the characters are still required to believe.

    Pixie dust aside, I definitely agree with you that the green tights version of Peter Pan is the most renowned in popular culture. I am glad you mentioned the peanut butter as most people grew up eating the peanut butter snacks and would associate the Peter Pan character as a symbol on the snack. I would also like to add to your argument, that the Disney version of Peter Pan played the role of a hero with a sense of adventure, which never got tired, and joined forces with the Lost Boys to pull pranks on the pesky pirates. It seems a lot more believable if a child, prior hitting the teen years, was leader of the Lost Boys and who could take on a fully grown pirate without fear of losing his life. The character of Peter Pan in the version we have all grown up with is that of a very confident, reliable, and almost adult-like child who will never grow up. All in all, you had a very insightful argument and you comparisons and contrasts between Peter’s portrayal in the films, novels, and even merchandizing were spot on.

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