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

This week’s guest entry from Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” class comes from Christina Paik, who considers the legacy of Peter Pan in like of his lesser-known origins.

By Christina Paik

Undoubtedly, the story of Peter Pan exploring Neverland with Wendy and her brothers is a childhood tale that most hold dear to their hearts. However, the story that preceded this tale and is often overlooked is called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Published in 1906, just a few short years before the classic Peter and Wendy became a novel in 1911, this novel tells explains the origins of the character Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie explains that all babies, including Peter Pan, are first born as birds. Within the week it takes to become a human baby, these infants attempt to fly away, back to the island of the birds in Kensington Gardens. Peter Pan is the only baby to actually fly back to the gardens and stay there, not fully a human and not fully a bird, but “Betwixt-and-Between.” Because of this, he stays eternally seven days old. The remainder of the story involves how Peter cannot return to being a normal boy because his mother has replaced him with a new child, how he meets Maimie, the female heroine who cannot stay with him but returns to her childhood, and finally explains how Peter Pan buries all the children who are lost in the garden or stay past the Lock-Out time and perish in the cold. Many of the typical fairy tale elements aren’t present yet, but Barrie does include detailed accounts of fairies. Though rough around the edges, this story set the stage for the fantastical stories of the character of Peter Pan to come.

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.

Peter

Illustration

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 and a hallmark of the Edwardian era. Nevertheless, 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.

PB

Illustration 2

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.

Christina is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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