Warning: This story contains spoilers for Wendy, in theaters February 28.
Wendy, Benh Zeitlin’s (Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild) long-awaited re-imagining of the Peter Pan story from the perspective of its female protagonist, opens with a telling scene. Set in a dusty rural Louisiana town in present day, rather than turn-of-the-century England, we meet Wendy as a cherubic toddler (Tommie Milazzo) on her mother’s (Shay Walker) hip as she waitresses at the local diner. Through her eyes, we see the cast of characters that populate her life: her older brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin); her young neighbor and friend, Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn), whose grandmother owns the train-side diner; and the wizened regulars who cheerfully chuckle at their downtrodden circumstances. When Thomas is teased about his inevitable future as a “mop-and-broom man,” he runs off, catching a passing train that will carry him anywhere but here. As the cars pull away, Wendy spies an unknown figure running atop the train, seemingly beckoning her to join him.
That memory haunts the little girl as she grows into a serious and independent 10-year-old (now played by Devin France), who all-too-clearly sees her single mother struggling to retain a sense of identity as she fights to make ends meet and take care of her three kids. So the next time the train rattles by their house in the middle of the night, Wendy and her two brothers take the leap, joining the figure, who of course turns out to be Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) in escaping their fate.
Zeitlin’s film isn’t perfect, but it does prompt a re-examination of the way we’ve been telling, and re-telling, the Peter Pan story. How does Wendy play into all of this, and how might she, as a young woman, have a different experience of what it means to grow up?
Ask anyone about the legend of Peter Pan, and chances are they can give you the basic facts: A sprite-like boy shows up in the middle of the night to ferry children off to the fantastical Never Never Land, a place filled with pirates and mermaids and adventure, and where, most importantly, they never have to grow up. The tale, first penned by J.M. Barrie more than a century ago, is a celebration of the magic and innocence of childhood, a state of possibility, before the responsibilities and drudgery that come with adult life rob us of our rambunctious joy and wonder. The story has its somewhat dark origins in Barry’s real-life friendship with the Llewellyn Davis family, whose five sons — George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico — inspired Barry’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.
The emphasis on the world “boy” is no coincidence. Peter Pan is, at its roots, a male-centered story. It’s about young men fearing the burden of the future, and what they perceive as their fathers’ lack of whimsy. (Peter has even lent his name to a syndrome used to describe grown men who haven’t quite transitioned into adulthood — something that is often laughed off instead of being a red flag.) That much is clear in the 1953 Disney adaptation, which opens with Mr. Darling berating his children for drawing a treasure map on his white dress shirt right before he and his wife are to head out to a party. As the breadwinner for his family, he has no time for fun. Mrs. Darling, on the other hand, appears to have retained some of her childlike joy, even as she encourages her kids to try and be more understanding of their father. In fact, it’s her fantasy-filled bedtime stories that lead Peter to the Darlings’ London house in the first place. This makes sense, given the Victorian context from which the original story stems, and the 1950s obsession with the perfect housewife as the paragon of femininity. In both of those worlds, women are destined to become mothers, and therefore keep some child-like qualities, even as they grow up to become romantic objects for men.
And then you have Wendy. Almost out of childhood, but not quite an adult, she has traditionally played both love interest to Peter, and mother to his Lost Boys. While Peter Pan made his first appearance in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, the character of Wendy shows up for the first time in the play that bears his name, and then more substantially in his 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy. Though she’s technically the protagonist, and our way into the world of Peter and Neverland, it’s clear from the get-go that this story isn’t really about her.
Barrie’s and Disney’s vision of Wendy is as a spirited young woman, excited to embrace the promise of a midnight romp to Neverland. But there’s never any question that she’ll also be ready to accept the role society has prescribed for her when the time comes. In other words, she’s no rebel. In fact, Barrie’s text sets her up as an aspirational womanly figure, positioning her against competing visions of womanhood in Tiger Lily, a Native American Neverland princess, and Tinker Bell, Peter’s fairy best friend. Predictably, Barrie pits these women against each other. Wendy is jealous of Tiger Lily’s perceived seduction of Peter, a storyline that plays into an insidious trope of women of color as temptresses, while white women are virginal and pure. Meanwhile, magical pixie Tinker Bell is jealous of Wendy for taking Peter away from her, and tries repeatedly to have her killed. With no room for women at the top, they’re all forced to focus their attention on the one attainable prize: A man.
Zeitlin’s Wendy, on the other hand, is freed from those shackles. In the script, co-written with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, she’s a scrappy tomboy. Gone is Wendy’s signature blue nightgown and ribbons. This version favors her mother’s baggy concert tees and shorts, and isn’t squeamish about blood, dirt, or anything else that may come her way. She’s a new Wendy for a new generation, but she too carries the burdens of the past.
In Barrie’s epilogue for Peter and Wendy, called (I kid you not) Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought, Wendy returns to reality, marries, and has a daughter of her own, Jane, whom Peter eventually takes to Neverland. And then once Jane grows up and gives birth to Margaret, she too joins Peter, and so the cycle continues.
One night in Zeitlin’s take, Wendy and her brothers ask their mother what her dream was as a little girl, long ago. The look on her face is wistful, almost tragic and she dares to briefly revisit a memory of an ambition that she’s buried away. “I wanted to be in the rodeo,” she replies, before reassuring them that she’s just as happy to be their mom. Wendy, clearly disturbed, remains unconvinced.
At the end of Wendy, she too returns to her Louisiana town, and grows up. And then one night, her children also follow the train’s siren call. It’s a sober reminder that while boys may eventually embrace growing up, with all the freedom that entails, girls face a different reality. Too often, the adventure is curtailed, with women surrendering their pixie dust to ensure that their own children can learn to fly.