The boy who refused to grow up, who lived in a land of enchantment and idled in games of innocent mischief. It is a story that captivated me when I was a young girl – from watching the original Disney cartoon, to the live version with the dreamy Jeremy Sumpter, or the spin-off with Robin Williams where I chanted Rufio Rufio Ruf-i-ohhh! I was officially hooked when I went on Disneyland’s Peter Pan themed ride. I mean, your seat is a ship and you sail through a night sky embossed with twinkly stars over a miniature London, how can you not cave to the magical story?
Growing up I took the lesson I learned from good ‘ol Pan, to always remain true to your inner child, and tried my best to apply it to my life. However, there was another lesson I didn’t catch the first time, not until I was much older and I started to hear more and more women naming it. “He’s just a Peter Pan,” they’d say, “he just doesn’t want to grow up yet.” This was a lesson only girls seemed to have learned and began to live by.*
This is the dark side of Peter Pan that I somehow missed when I was younger. You see, the key element of Pan’s decision to finally grow up was his love for the darling Wendy. Because of her persistence and dedication, she was finally able to show him that he doesn’t need to be scared to leave Neverland and enter the world of Adulthood. At first, this seems like a romantic gesture. Wendy is even a hero in some way; she is strong, caring, and a truly dynamic girl. However, in using a female character to urge the male to grow up, this story reinforces the idea that it is up to the woman to make the boy grow into a man.
Dangerous because we have yet another story urging women to not “give up” on who they are dating because he needs time to grow up. But time, like the ticking clock of the crocodile in the story can be a ravenous thing. It will eat your arm if you aren’t careful.
I say, sure if you love someone and you see potential then stick by them because there isn’t one person in this world who won’t come with some sort of thing to be fixed or helped with. But know your limit. Be honest with yourself. Do you see him trying to make those changes so he can be the man you deserve? Are you providing all of the labor in the relationship to make it work without reciprocation? And most important, are you relying on the hope that one day, some magical unnamed day, you are going to be able to convince him to leave Neverland just like Wendy succeeded in helping Peter to?
It is clear: the lesson I took from Peter Pan, to never lose sight of your playful side, was not a lesson meant for me. It was for the boys of the world. Those Lost Boys and Peter Pan’s, not me. For me what lesson was left? That I had to grow up. I had to be the strong one because one day I will have to find myself one of those Lost Boys and carry him through boyhood and hope that one day he can be there for me.
Except that is not our only option. We do not have to put ourselves through that exhausting emotional labor. We have every right to leave in order to look out for our own well-being. If I knew Wendy what would I say? I’d tell her to be that one word so many girls are told not to be: selfish. I’d tell her she doesn’t have to wait for Peter, she has the power to free herself and begin her own adventure.
*In this essay I am discussing the dynamics between woman-man relationships. This is not because I want to exclude other relationships and genders from the discussion, but because this is what I know since I, myself, am a cisgender/heterosexual female. I am interested to know, however, if this “Peter Pan Effect” goes on in other types of relationships within the LGBTQ community (I’m sure it does) and what, if any, kinds of conversations happen to dismantle this problem. Therefore, please feel free to comment and discuss your story.