Far away, in a place called Neverland, there is a special rock pool in the mermaid lagoon where baby mermaids wiggle and splash their fins. Their tired fangs gnaw on fish bones and they call out at different frequencies, testing their voices on the most powerful notes. Some nights you can hear them calling across the sky, insisting that even you can fly…
One warm summer night, while her parents were away and her brothers slept soundly, a girl named Wendy opened her window so that her friend Peter Pan could visit. Peter was one of Wendy’s favourite people in the world, and she was always telling her brothers stories about Neverland and Peter’s adventures. Wendy was a great storyteller, and though her parents wanted her to pick a more practical occupation, she just spent her days imagining Neverland.
“Peter Pan is not a boy or a girl,” Wendy explained to her brothers when she first started telling the stories, “Peter gets to be both, that’s part of the magic.”
Wendy’s parents hated the Neverland stories and told the children that there was no such thing as Peter Pan. Before they left that night, they forbade Wendy from talking about him.
“Can’t you be a good little girl and forget this story, Wendy?”
Wendy nodded. She wouldn’t tell any more stories, but they couldn’t stop Peter from visiting.
The truth was that Peter was real and magical. On the day of this story, Peter decided to be a he, so we’ll call him “he” for now, until there is a better word for people in-between. He could fly. He glowed with pixie dust that looked like moonlight on his skin. He was also a prankster, acted selfishly sometimes and was always getting into fights with Captain Hook, an evil pirate in Neverland. On the night when Wendy left her window open, Peter knocked impatiently.
“Can I come in?” he asked
“Yes! Are you here for a story?”
“No, there’s an emergency in Neverland. I need your help.”
So Wendy agreed to go with Peter to Neverland. She had never been invited before, but on warm nights she could hear the littlest of mermaids calling, inviting her across the dark sky. Sometimes when Peter visited she came in wearing a short dress made of leaves, but tonight he was wearing a green tunic and matching green pants. He rubbed his fingers together and golden dust sprinkled into Wendy’s hands.
“Think of a very happy thought, any happy little thought,” he instructed.
Wendy felt herself floating upwards as she spread the pixie dust on her skin. Flying felt like swallowing a big ocean wave that was curling towards the sky. Peter and her began swimming through the air, out the open window towards Neverland. When they arrived, they sat on a cloud, looking down at the island with a mermaid lagoon, pirate’s bay and indigenous camp.
“What are we here to do, Peter?” Wendy asked.
“Tiger Lily, the island’s leader and indigenous princess, has been kidnapped by the pirates,” Peter explained. “They want to take over the island and think she will sign it over, but she knows their tricks. They’ll have to torture her, or worse…”
“What can we do?” Wendy asked.
“The pirates don’t think girls would ever fight against them. They’re prepared for the lost boys and the indigenous warriors to attack from land, or boats, but they won’t be expecting the mermaids. I want you to help them, and I’ll work with the warriors and the lost boys. We’re going to get our leader back.”
Peter took Wendy to the mermaid lagoon. They were greeted with calls of “Peter” and “darling!”
And Peter basked in their attention, fawning for a while. The mermaids loved him because he was kind to them, and helped babysit the baby mermaids when they went on hunts through the ocean. Amid the attention, he almost forgot about Wendy and the looming war. Meanwhile, Wendy was enchanted by the mermaids. They were all women, with long hair, sharp fangs and claws. The one nearest to her had lilac skin and turquoise hair with shells twisted through it. Some of the mermaids used their voices as weapons, and some of them carried spears and hunting knives strapped to their backs. The baby mermaids were raised by anyone who wanted to help, and everyone taught them how to sing in chorus. Wendy watched as one mermaid dragged a comb through another mermaid’s fiery hair and twisted it into hunting braids. When they noticed her watching, they called to her, “Do you want your hair braided?”
The lilac mermaid’s hands were gentle as she wove Wendy’s hair into two intricate braids. While braiding, she explained the hairstyle’s significance. Wendy realized how important their invitation to wear her hair like this was.
“Wendy is going to fight with you against Captain Hook today,” Peter announced, and the mermaids nodded their agreement. They fashioned her a spear and taught her how to swim with it strapped to her back. Peter left to meet the lost boys and to join ranks with the warriors.
Meanwhile, on the deck of the pirate ship, Tiger Lily was a little annoyed and scared of the pirates’ antics. She was the kind of leader who knew exactly when to speak up, and when to be silent. She had almost escaped them twice that morning; undoing their rope knots had led to them putting her in chains, and picking the lock had landed her in a cage. The pirates really were barbarians, but they were still afraid to touch her, since they knew she could do powerful magic and wouldn’t hesitate to kill any of them if she got the chance. A single stony glance from her sent a secret shiver of fear down the bravest pirate’s spine, but none would never admit it. Captain Hook called his men “cowards!” because they were afraid of a woman, but secretly, he was the most afraid of all, so he sent his quaking lackeys one by one into the room to interrogate her. When Tiger Lily did speak, it was in her own language and the sound of words they didn’t understand frightened the pirates most of all. When she realized this, Tiger Lily shouted so loud in her language that Captain Hook instructed the pirates to tie a rag around her mouth.
“What can we do with her captain, if she won’t sign things over or even speak properly?” a pirate asked.
“We will put her into the bottom of the ship and let it slowly fill up with water. She’ll have to speak to us in English unless she wants to drown.”
“What about her people, and the lost boys…. And Peter Pan?”
Captain Hook howled, outraged at the name of his nemesis. He hated Peter. He hated that the child could fly and that each day he/she looked different but still looked confident as himself or herself.
“We’ll kill anyone who comes near the boat, and you’ll leave Peter Pan to me.”
Hiding in the shadows, with their backs pressed against the side of the boat, Wendy and the mermaids listened carefully to Captain Hook’s plans. They would have to rescue Tiger Lily, before it was too late.
“Put her cage below decks,” Captain Hook snapped, “and break open all the below-deck windows so the ship fills with water.” As the pirates lifted the cage, avoiding the eyes of Tiger Lily, Wendy and the mermaids heard the brave leader’s silence, like a winter wind as she went below.
“I want one man guarding her cage at all times,” Captain Hook added.
Suddenly, a war cry from above them pierced the ear. Peter Pan dove onto the deck, followed closely by the lost boys. The pirates were ready. Swords clashed and clanged. The lost boys were outnumbered, so they zoomed around the pirates, ducked between their legs and stuck out their tongues, causing the pirates to curse and lose balance. Soon after, the indigenous warriors jumped on board.
“Your precious Tiger Lily is below decks being drowned!” Captain Hook yelled out.
His announcement shook the fighters, who loved and needed their leader. Wendy was horrified, she noticed the pirates seemed to be winning the battle. They had managed to capture some of the lost boys, while others were being forced to jump overboard and swim to land to save their lives. Wendy nodded to the mermaids, and they started to sing. Their voices reached out, enchanting the pirates, who were left swaying on the spot, unable to move. The warriors and lost boys were also entranced and everyone found their weapons slipping out of their hands. Meanwhile, Wendy climbed aboard, unnoticed, and slipped below deck, where the water rose up to her knees.
“Who are you?” the pirate asked.
“I’m Wendy, I’m here for Tiger Lily” she said.
He laughed and put a hand on the hilt of his sword. “You seem like a good little girl, Wendy. Why don’t you go back up and turn yourself over to the captain?”
He took a step towards her.Wendy didn’t move.
“You’re a very pretty girl, Wendy,” he said. She knew he was trying to intimidate her, with his glittering gold smile. Behind him, Wendy saw Tiger Lily crack open the lock and put a finger on her lips, smirking.
“I’m not a good girl,” Wendy snapped. As the pirate stood mid-laugh, she punched him straight in the throat.
The pirate’s eyes bulged as he staggered back with a strangled sound. Tiger Lily leapt from the cage and she and Wendy shoved him in, locking the door. Bursting through the door, Tiger Lily let rip a war cry, tossing the the cage onto the deck with the surprised pirate still heaped inside. The sound of Tiger Lily’s voice caused a burst of energy from her warriors. The mermaids echoed her cry, throwing their spears so the pirates had to duck for cover. The lost boys rounded up the pirates and tied their hands behind their backs.
On the mast, Peter Pan and Captain Hook were locked in a sword fight.
“Stand and fight me like a man; no flying allowed!” Captain Hook insisted.
Peter smiled, “I’m not just male, but fine, you have my word that I won’t fly.”
Captain Hook grinned with victory and thrust his sword towards Peter’s chest. As Peter fell from the mast, Wendy leapt into the air and caught him in her arms.
Craning his neck to check whether Peter was dead, Captain Hook lost his balance and fell into the water, where the mermaids were waiting for him. They dragged him out to sea, and he was never to be seen again. Everyone cheered, including, quietly, the pirates.
When Wendy returned home from Neverland, she was woken up by her Mother and Father. She sat up and told them all that she had seen without allowing them to interrupt, and floated a centimeter off the ground to prove to them that she could indeed fly.
They never tried to stop her storytelling again.
Peter Pan is Problematic: The Reasons Why This Story Needs a Hefty Rewrite
In Disney’s Peter Pan, the female protagonist, Wendy, visits mermaid lagoon, a place where a group of hyper-sexual, white, feminine, humanoid characters dubbed ‘mermaids’ attack her. Wendy attempts to connect with her fellow females, and as a result she is almost drowned, and is teased and rejected because the mermaids are jealous that she might steal Peter’s affections. This depiction of female relationships is not only incredibly destructive as it reduces them to a jealous and unsafe space, but it is also part of a pattern of destructive feminine behaviour within the movie and within literature as a whole.
In her 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf asks the radical question, “What if Chloe liked Olivia?” This question seems simple at first, but Woolf points out the fact that in literature, women’s relationships with each other are so often reduced to rivalries. Similarly, Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel test 56 years later in 1985, to test how many films include two named women speaking to each other about something other than a man. Female relationships have been de-legitimized and demonized in all kinds of literature, and one part of what makes this film so unacceptable for children is its depiction of female relationships, in both the mermaids’ and Tinkerbell’s treatment of Wendy. Peter Pan subscribes to and reinforces traditional gender roles, creating a world of segregation and hierarchy between the story’s two accepted genders. The film could be read as a manual for helping children to understand gender, so in my rendering of the story, I decided to try and undo a lot of the film’s teachings and subvert them.
I started with the mermaids because I was so bothered by them in the film. In my version, the lagoon is not a place of jealousy and petty rivalry, but a nurturing, loving space. I also wanted to establish that the mermaids are powerful as well as loving, and I wanted to immediately emphasize the importance of the female voice with their singing. In the lagoon, Chloe does like Olivia. The mermaids raise children together, but only if they want to; they take care of each other and they are also powerful hunters and fighters. They don’t love Peter because he’s a boy and they want his attention, but because they have a mutually beneficial friendship with him. I was reluctant to give Wendy an independent, traditionally male story of heroism, so I decided that her positive relationship with the mermaids would also help to avoid falling into the old pattern of male anti-social, rebellious heroism.
I also wanted the mermaids to be inextricably feminine and violent. Their claws and fangs are just as much a part of their identity as their beauty. I was reluctant to racialize them because of their monstrosity, as I didn’t want their violence to be conflated with race, which is why they all remain non-human colours. At the same time, I wanted to speak a little about cross-cultural exchange when they invited Wendy to have her hair braided. Their acceptance of her, and their invitation to join in their cultural practice meant that she was not exploiting them or appropriating their culture either. I wanted to provide an example of positive cultural exchange.
Tinkerbell’s sole purpose in Disney’s Peter Pan seems to be to show the female fallacy of jealousy, something that the male characters are impervious to. Tinkerbell is jealous of Wendy, as are the mermaids, and Wendy becomes jealous of Tiger Lily. I thought the best way to eliminate this toxic jealousy was to eliminate Tinkerbell. When I learned that most productions of Peter Pan have him played by a woman, I thought it would be interesting to merge Tinkerbell and Peter’s characters.
Peter being non-binary makes a lot of sense in a story that teaches children how to navigate gender roles. Peter has access to both genders and switches between them, so he is the most qualified to teach them. For the sake of clarity, I refer to Peter mostly as ‘he’ in the story, and I chose to make Peter mostly male because I thought there were enough positive female roles in the story with Wendy, the mermaids and Tiger Lily. I experimented with calling Peter only “Peter” and “they” as well, but found only using his name made the story unreadable, and “they” made it confusing. I also thought that the narrator pointing out the problem of not having a word that applied to Peter was another way to critique ideas of gender as a whole.
In the original Peter Pan, Tiger Lily doesn’t speak except to say “Help!” right before she is about to drown. I decided to subvert her silence to talk about different kinds of female voices. I didn’t want Tiger Lily to need a saviour, not a male one or a white one, which is why she jumps out of the cage herself, and together with Wendy escapes to defeat the pirates. Tiger Lily’s voice is important and valued. I also wanted to address the fact that the original film dehumanizes the indigenous population – they have no faces, no individuality and are portrayed as cunning but ultimately unintelligent. I wanted Tiger Lily to be intelligent and cunning, as well as truly loved by her people, with the indigenous population depicted as equally valuable to Peter and the lost boys, unlike in the film.
If we read Peter Pan as Wendy’s escape from the “real world”, this version’s escape is not to a boy she likes and a world where she doesn’t have to grow up, but instead is geared towards a world that has positive female leaders, nurturing female relationships and loud, powerful female voices. Of course, I wasn’t able to undo everything that is wrong with the film, and Wendy’s escape could have been wildly different depending on what I wanted and chose to subvert.
If I was going to criticise my own version of the story, I would need to address the fact that there are no positive purely male characters. I decided to take John and Michael (Wendy’s brothers) out of the story for simplicity’s sake, but if I was to lengthen it, I would want them to have a similar journey to Wendy’s, learning about maleness, and all its positive traits, within the framework of Neverland.
Artwork courtesy of Disney