Books

From ‘Great White Father’ to Loisel’s Waif: The Troubled Tropes of Peter Pan

Loisel’s retelling is a gorgeous one. But it’s a contribution to a troubled tale. Is Neverland about rejecting adults – or just women?


Peter Pan

Publisher: Soaring Penguin Press
Author: Regis Loisel
Price: $49.95
Format: Hardcover
Translator: Nicolas Rossert
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: 2014-10
Amazon

Peter Pan’s got one thing right: growing up is tough. Especially when it means having to come to terms with the dark truths behind our childhood heroes.

My first memory of Peter Pan was one of those Golden Books that were so delightful as a child. Peter Pan was empowering: he rejected adults, lived on an island with lots of fun and treasure, and hung out with mythical beasts and a beautiful girl named Wendy.

Well, memory can be selective. Peter Pan’s first incarnation was in a series of novels and theatrical plays by Scottish writer J.M. Barrie in the early years of the last century. And as Allison McCarthy noted in her impressive 2009 essay, "Feminism and Peter Pan" (published on The F-Word, 19 April 2009): “The original working title of the play was The Great White Father, a somewhat satirical reference to both Peter's masculinity and perceived racial 'superiority'”. Another working title was “The Boy Who Hated Mothers”. Wiser heads than Barrie’s prevailed and persuaded him to change it.

Sexism – as well as the ubiquitous racism of the period -- is rife in the original, as in many of its remakes. Though not all. Last year, British playwright Ella Hickson, also critical of the sexism in the original, wrote a ‘feminist’ version of the play that was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and titled, Wendy & Peter Pan.

In most versions however, Neverland is a playful paradise only for boys, where women’s role is to do the domestic work. (How is Neverland different from the ‘real world’, again?) In the original, Wendy eventually leaves Neverland, marries and has a daughter (Jane), with whom Peter eventually absconds to Neverland, as well (he repeats the cycle with Wendy’s granddaughter Margaret, too, ever attracted to ‘childhood’ and ‘innocence’). Perhaps Peter Pan doesn’t need a ‘dark origin story’ – the more one learns, the more one realizes the story’s origins are already shady enough.

Be that as it may, the story endures, and continues to inspire new interpretations and retellings. The latest is Peter Pan, a comic rendition produced by French comics artist Regis Loisel. Soaring Penguin Press has published the first complete English language translation of Loisel’s tremendous work, which is by now a well-established staple of French pop culture.

Loisel is a French comics artist who has been producing award-winning material since the '70s. His rendition of Peter Pan, published from 1990-2004 in France, offers us a ‘dark origin story’ for young Peter. Prequels and dark origin stories are themselves becoming an ubiquitous trope, but better this than the 1001st story of Batman.

The storyline is intriguing. Without giving too much of it away, Peter and his future companions are poor children living in the streets and slums of Victorian London. Orphans and children of abusive and alcoholic parents, the reasons for their dislike of adults becomes tellingly apparent. Loisel holds nothing back: the children are beaten, exploited, sexually abused, and the adults, with one notable exception, are despicable at best, heartless at worst.

The comic offers a unique range of visual styles, alternating between pleasantly light, childish cartoon scenes on one page; sexually explicit nudity on the next. Needless to say, this is a retelling that's intended for an adult audience.

Out of this dark and dingy London appears Tinkerbell one night, spiriting Peter away to Neverland on a mission to save the island’s varied denizens from piratical terror. It's at this point we’re introduced to the pirate recent generations have already come to know as Hook.

Within and around this theme of pirates, treasure islands, and escaping the slums of Victorian London, Loisel sketches another complex storyline involving, of all people, Jack the Ripper. It’s one of those complex storylines that leaves the reader with competing theories as to what is actually going on, and what the complex relationship between Peter Pan, Hook, and Jack the Ripper really is. It’s intriguing and innovative, to say the least; the multiple possible readings are a testament to Loisel’s talented storytelling. Freudian psychoanalysts would love it.

Yet it’s also a disturbing one. It’s difficult to find a storyline involving Jack the Ripper that doesn't descend into lurid misogyny at some point. But it’s not just the murders of London prostitutes that challenge the reader’s sensibilities; the plot-line raises troubling questions about the broader role of women in the Peter Pan mythos.

Laura Sneddon addressed the gendered dimensions of the tale in her masterful review of Loisel’s work for Comics Beat, "Peter Pan, a Prequel by Régis Loisel: Dark, Discomforting, and Delightful" (11 November 2013), and her excellent overview does not leave much left unsaid. There is not, really, a single female character portrayed in a positive light in the entire series. Of course, there’s not really anybody portrayed in a positive light – this is part of the deliberately ‘dark’ take on it: few heroes, and such heroes as exist are full of personal failings.

Yet there's still a marked difference in the portrayal of women in the series. Peter and his boys are deliberately dismissive and hostile toward them. Girls’ efforts to join in the games are ridiculed as girlish; the boys live in constant fear of being domesticated or required to assume adult responsibilities (even while they expect the girls to do the cooking).

The negative dimensions of Neverland have come under growing scrutiny. In her illuminating article, "Fairies, Mermaids, Mothers, and Princesses: Sexual Difference and Gender Roles in Peter Pan", published in the academic journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality in 2012, Heather Shipley draws on French psychoanalytic feminism to contrast the homosocial society Peter and his boys desire, with the heterosexual role assignment it requires (finding women to cook and clean for them). She suggests that the ‘dream’ offered by Neverland is one that reflects “Men’s deep-seated desires of sociocultural interactions with one another, with women solely represented as goods of trade.”

Indeed, the rejection of adulthood is central to the Peter Pan motif, but what occurs in Loisel’s take is a conflation of adulthood with femininity. Peter’s relationship with the father figures in his life is fraught and complex, but at least it plays out as fraught and complex. ‘Mummies’, on the other hand, are simply killed off with recurring and dismissive frequency. Peter is not so much afraid of adulthood as he is afraid of having to kiss girls, take on a domestic role and be beholden to mummies (even though he idolizes his own abusive, alcoholic mother: in fact all the Boys idolize a fantasy vision of women which is deliberately contrasted against the critical depiction of the real women around them).

The women that do feature in Neverland spend their time concocting murderous ways to fight over the men they desire. Peter and his Boys are not always nice or kind (sometimes they act in horrifically blasé ways toward violence and death), yet they are always surrounded by a faint aura of childish innocence. The women, however, are depicted as unabashedly deceitful and demanding. Even the central feminine character – Tinkerbell (who, tellingly, does not speak a word in the entire series) – turns violently vengeful in the final chapter.

On the one hand, it was at first impressive that Loisel managed to render a character so endearing and likeable without even having her say a word: a true reflection of his technical prowess at the art of comics. Yet in the final telling, it's ironic that the one feminine character portrayed in a positive light the longest, is the one who silently serves without speaking.

Against this backdrop of what one might call ‘soft misogyny’, then, it’s unclear what Loisel’s work contributes. Art for art’s sake is a typical defense of this type of work, but does repeating an already tired trope really count as doing something for the sake of art? Certainly, our society affords artists freedom to explore whatever themes and ideas they desire, and this is a good thing. But the expansive freedom granted to artists is also precisely why there exists an imperative for artists to use that freedom in ways that challenge; to go places others have not gone; to push conversations and ideas forward. The portrayal of women in comics such as these does none of that.

Thus, the conflicted feelings a work such as this produces. It’s a beautifully drawn and richly conceptualized piece. Loisel's artistic style is rich, dense with detail, and offers consistent aesthetic delight. The dark, brooding atmosphere of London’s broken and poverty-lined streets, with their violence barely held in check, is palpable. So too are the rich mysterious jungles of Neverland. The work easily draws the reader in with a compelling tale that is gorgeously rendered. And in all of this it's undoubtedly faithful to the bifurcated and complex themes of Barrie’s dark and subtle original.

Yet it's impossible to ignore the increasingly dissonant nature of the pull which Peter Pan evokes. Mystery slides into misogyny; darkness into dismissiveness. Peter becomes not a child seeking eternal innocence, but yet another boy who hates women. And there's nothing innovative in that: it’s the oldest story in the book.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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