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 PanPublisher: Soaring Penguin Press
Author: Regis Loisel
Translator: Nicolas Rossert
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: 2014-10
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.