you can’t catch me and make me a man: Peter Pan as a trans metaphor

A little while ago, I decided I wanted to write a trans fairytale, so I jotted down a list of my favorite classics and started daydreaming about injecting them with queer content. Peter Pan rose quickly to the top of my list, though not necessarily because I recognized it as a particularly interesting trans metaphor. (In all honesty, it captured my imagination because the 2003 live-action Peter Pan stars Jason Isaacs as an outrageously handsome Captain Hook. I can be shallow.)

It was only while I was wrestling with the second draft of Peter Darling that I started to puzzle out why Peter Pan is such an especially queer-resonant text.

I once attended a panel about the unique ways that trans people experience age discrimination. The panel host, who was nonbinary, recounted being treated as if they were younger and less experienced than their coworkers of the same age; their androgyny was seen as “immaturity”. This is a problem I’ve frequently noticed affecting trans men as well, particularly those who don’t pass and/or haven’t undergone medical transition: we’re seen as “boys” much more readily than “men”, regardless of our actual ages. As a result, I think many of us internalize a sense of being forever cut off from adult masculinity. The androgyny of youth makes “boy” an easier, safer space to inhabit — but we also get stuck there, often whether we like it or not.

Not shockingly, I know a lot of trans men who, as boys who can never seem to grow up, relate to Peter Pan on at least a superficial level. However, I think the metaphor goes deeper than that. Firstly, Peter isn’t just forever young in the sense that he doesn’t age, but in the sense that he’s defiant of adulthood and all it entails. He rejects grown-up interference in his life; he rules over a world in which freedom, self-fulfillment, and imagination are paramount and builds a community with other abandoned children. It makes sense to me that this would appeal to a marginalized community who are threatened and excluded by mainstream society, told that they do not and will never belong.

Secondly, the trade-off of Peter’s eternal youth is that he is locked out of society and all the joys associated with it. In the epilogue of Peter and Wendy, Wendy gets married, builds a family of her own, and passes down a legacy to her daughter. Meanwhile, Peter’s only legacy is himself; his Lost Boys leave Neverland and become a part of Wendy’s life instead of his. (In the book, even Tinker Bell dies a few years after the story ends.) In this sense, I think Peter Pan reflects more than a queer/trans empowerment fantasy — his story digs into a set of very queer/trans anxieties about abandonment, infantilization, and exclusion.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Peter Pan I loved as a child, the 2003 film, shares some basic similarities with the Disney classic but draws much more directly from the original book, Peter and Wendy. Like the book, the live-action film doesn’t simply depict Peter as a plucky personification of youth and boyhood, but as a tragic, borderline antagonistic figure. Even though Peter gets his name on the tin, Wendy Darling is the real protagonist. The film centers on her coming-of-age; initially, she runs away from the pressure to grow up, but ultimately chooses to leave Neverland and become a woman. In Wendy’s story, Peter and Captain Hook are both antagonists. Peter represents the lure of eternal youth, while Hook — a cruel and miserable man who hates children — represents the worst of adulthood. Importantly, Wendy rejects both of them, but she doesn’t reject growing up. Rather, she rejects the version of adulthood represented in Peter’s world, where adults are seen as evil, coercive, and joyless, and sails off to build herself a happy family as a grown woman.

Before leaving, Wendy tries to persuade Peter to go with her, but he refuses on the grounds that he would be forced to go to school and later to work in an office. “You can’t catch me and make me a man,” he retorts. Man, in this context, doesn’t simply mean a grown-up boy; it represents the restrictive, joyless adult masculinity that Peter rejects. So Wendy takes the rest of the boys home, and Peter winds up without even his found family, staring through Wendy’s window at “the one joy from which he [is] forever barred”: family, legacy, and love.

Even though Captain Hook is unambiguously evil, the film uses him to voice some of its most painful interpretations of Peter’s character. While spying on the children, Hook realizes that Peter is in love with Wendy and is genuinely torn by his desire to be with her after she decides to leave Neverland. In his final battle with the children, Hook torments Peter by describing a future in which Wendy grows up and replaces him with a real husband, calling Peter “incomplete” and “a tragedy”. This distresses Peter so much, he nearly allows Hook to kill him. Wendy saves Peter by kissing him and reassuring him that she will never forget him, but Hook’s vision still essentially comes true: Peter, by refusing to leave Neverland, traps himself on the other side of the window and finds himself alone.

Particularly since the public consciousness of Peter Pan is as a lighthearted and heroic figure, Peter masquerades as the protagonist of the film, but in the end, he’s the temptation Wendy overcomes in order to live a happy life. He’s the personification of what gets left behind as we mature, even though we ideally carry some of his free spirit with us. His refusal to sacrifice his youth makes him “deficient”, in Wendy’s words. The joyful reunion of the Darling family, including their massive horde of newly adopted sons, puts his eternal youth in a grim perspective — he’s going to be playing his games forever, while generation after generation leaves him behind.

◊ ◊ ◊

This is where I come back to Peter Pan as a trans/queer metaphor. There’s an implication that we each have a Peter Pan inside us, and that responsible people choose to give him up. When they do, they are rewarded with all the pleasures of adulthood. But the vision of “adulthood” offered in Peter Pan is extremely rigid and binary: women marry and become mothers, men marry and work in offices, and “growing up” is finding the joy in these things. At the beginning of the 2003 film, Wendy wants to be a novelist who writes about her grand adventures; at the end, the only mention of this ambition is the stories she tells her children about Peter Pan. We could choose to believe that she becomes a novelist offscreen, but the film casts doubt on that in one of its opening scenes, in which Mrs. Darling defines “bravery” as her husband having “made many sacrifices for his family and put aside many dreams”.

But what happens when the sacrifices required to become “normal” adults are so intrinsic to who we are that they would be better called self-destruction? What happens to those of us who don’t want to stay children forever, but cannot or will not fit within a rigid, binary framework for adulthood?

To put a point on it: What about those of us who can’t legally get married, can’t have children or don’t want them at all? What about those of us who can’t go flying joyfully back to our families because they abused or disowned us? What about those of us who are systemically denied opportunities to become the kinds of adults we want to be on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc? Do we still get to grow up?

Are we selfish for being unable to fit the mold? Are we just stuck in Neverland forever?

When I was a teen, I decided I didn’t ever want to have children. Because I was assigned female at birth, this decision was met by a whole lot of condescension: I was just too young to understand the miracle of childbearing, and everyone knew I would want to be a mother as soon as I grew up. The subtext of this experience was that my desire to not bear children was fundamentally childish, and if I didn’t grow out of it, I was in some failing to mature. That same mindset lurks in the familiar argument that queer folks are just in a “phase”— someday, society hopes, these little Peter Pans will grow up and become real, normal adults.

Our own ways of maturing, meanwhile — becoming queer adults who understand ourselves, forming bonds that validate our true selves and desires — are forever seen as deficient. We might as well be running around and playing with toys in our nurseries; our ways of growing up and living authentically simply aren’t recognized as such. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to be a father.

Peter Pan is basically right. There is a whole world of joy to experience on the other side of childhood, and growing up is in many cases worth celebrating. But many of us are denied the opportunity to grow up into our happy, full-fledged queer selves and are instead given a choice between conformity and tragedy. No wonder so many of us identify with Peter— he has the sweet lure of a respectable but inauthentic adulthood dangled in front of him and, again and again, manages to say no.

Hey! If this post got you intrigued about trans Peter Pan, Peter Darling came out this February from Less-Than-Three Press and is very much about a trans man trying to grow up in a way that feels authentic to him while (of course) falling in love with Captain Hook. You can snag an excerpt or a copy right here! You can also get more queer content every month on my Patreon.

 

2 thoughts on “you can’t catch me and make me a man: Peter Pan as a trans metaphor

  1. This is a really cool insight into some of the thought process behind Peter Darling! I definitely feel that sense that “growing up” often means conforming to binary gender norms, which is pretty frustrating as a nonbinary adult. There’s so much to process there. I love the work you’re doing with the Peter Pan mythos, and I look forward to that sequel!

    Like

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