Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland: heavenly or hellish match?

Peter Pan  and Alice in Wonderland are two well known English tales, a play and a novel respectively, by Barrie and Carroll,  about escapism and a fantasy world.

Peter Pan is the boy that refuses to grow up.  His world is one of endless adventures in  Neverland. Peter is somewhat selfish and terrified of ever becoming an adult. His relationship with the Darling children and Wendy Darling in particular, whom he wants to be mothered by, is somewhat fraught, because of the Darlings attachment to their parents and because deep down Peter knows that Wendy does want to grow up and eventually even marry him, in other words, she wants him to grow up.

Pop-psychology author Dan Kiley discussed the so-called "Peter Pan syndrome" as a variant on the puer aeternus (eternal child)  Jungian archetype, in connection with adults who are socially immature and unable to form adequate relationships. Medically there is no such a thing as a Peter Pan syndrome, but this has become a shorthand to identify immature men - although the Peter Pans can be both male and female, they tend to be primarily male. In a nutshell, when men affected by the Peter Pan syndrome form  attachments with a woman they become extremely jealous, exhibit violent outbursts and can become enraged when the woman asserts independence in any form.  The fear of impotency and rejection contributes to verbally abusive behavior.

 Photographer: Gadras

The Peter Pan male strives to patronize the woman and to appear strong and assertive but in actuality he feels threatened by the woman’s independence or desire for independence. The fear of appearing weak and unmanly causes the Peter Pan male to deny any desire to share his own sensitivity with the woman. The Peter Pans of the world are extremely childish in their attachments and in their behaviour. Like petulant, fractious and obdurate children, they refuse to budge, will insist on denying their share of responsibility for anything that goes wrong and will attribute faulty behaviour to others alone, especially the women whom they feel threatened by. They want a Wendy Darling by their side but when Wendy Darling begins to act like a grown up  and chooses conventional maturity they will feel betrayed.

 Photographer: Jan Murphy

Alice  is an intelligent young girl who like Peter initially  rejects  the adult world - in her case the stifling ordered Victorian world in which she is growing up - but through her escape in the illogical and magical world of Wonderland is determined to discover its paradoxes, leading to acceptance of the adult world in a new key and thereby acceptance of her own  maturity. Alice's constant question which she puts to everyone she encounters is 'Why'. The screen version of Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton has strong feminist overtones, a re-reading and a rendering of the novel which pleases me despite all its faults because I have always felt that Lewis Carroll's Alice  epitomised a strong willed adolescent woman  not afraid of growing up, only unwilling to do so without self understanding and self knowledge: she rejects the adult world because she wants to grow up on her own terms. Peter Pan on the other hand is afraid of the adult world and escapes into childhood, hoping to acquire true freedom, which in real terms is untenable. Peter Pan escapes, whereas Alice does not.

In real life the Alices of the world are women on a voyage of self discovery. What happens when Peter Pan meets Alice in Wonderland?  They are bound to be a match in hell. Despite their initial common ground and attraction they misunderstand each other. Alice seems to want to leave the adult world behind, and in this she appears to be more radical than Wendy who maintains some ambivalence in relation to adulthood, through her mothering. But in fact Alice wants to understand  adulthood, rather than fleeing from it.  Peter lacks the ability to keep Alice intrigued for long and feels threatened by her constant questioning.  To avoid the feeling of being swamped  by Alice's independent thinking  Peter  has to feign a depth which he finds difficult to sustain. His ability to fly will keep Alice wondering  but she is bound to want to find out more about 'the happy thoughts' and 'fairy dust' and he will not be willing to share such secrets. Alice lacks the conventional mothering qualities of Wendy Darling. She will want Peter to experiment with his size, like she does, not understanding that such experimentation will feel to Peter like acceptance of an inner growth of which he is incapable, without renouncing his Peter Pan identity. Eventually, Alice will disappoint Peter even more than Wendy because she does not  reject the adult world at all, she wants to decipher it and make it her own, on her terms.

 Photographer: Korrigan

I think Alice  is  better off with the Mad Hatter (not least because in Tim Burton's film, the Mad Hatter is played by Johnny Depp). I am quoting here from Kimberly Wilder's post from the wonderful blog Georgiana Circle.
The Mad Hatter is a positive force for a feminist society for a variety of reasons. He is kind to Alice, who is both female and a young person. He is supportive of women in leadership roles: He is a supporter of the White Queen (a woman leader, and the better royal in the movie) and a supporter of Alice. In addition, The Mad Hatter models feminist and non-coercive support for Alice, because he does not demand that Alice battles the Jabberwocky, but asks reflective questions and offers her support as she decides what to do.

And truly,  if the Mad Hatter looks like Johnny Depp, it won't hurt (I am a fan).

(All photos modelled by Alex B. )

2 comments:

  1. Sometimes I come across a blog post or something that causes me to reexamine my own life.

    I have known for a while now that I have many childlike and even childish qualities: I tend to want to be mothered, I run from responsibility, and I'm extremely impatient with many of life's details. These things contributed to my marriage's downfall, and my awareness of them has made me unwilling to commit to another such relationship despite some possible opportunities. On the other hand, I have never been jealous, violent or possessive. Is it my self-awareness that's enabled me to counteract any such qualities in myself? No, that's not right; I was never even tempted to act like that.

    What feels right to me is that I have certain childish qualities but not others. And perhaps also the fact that I have deliberately chosen to stay in contact with a childlike creativity. Instead of having to be the worst kind of adult--the kind that tries to leave behind anything that smacks of childhood while retaining a very childish wish to "be the boss"--I can, while I play music, embrace the childlike part of myself that just wants to have fun. (I'm sure you understand this, Alex, being a model and dancer.) And let me tell you, coming down from that can be hard! But without it, I really might be the worst kind of adult, or drive myself into clinical insanity of some kind. (Well, God helps too. :) )

    So I feel that, while certain aspects of the "Peter Pan syndrome" are destructive, we need other aspects for simple sanity and maybe even to save the human race from itself. "Except ye be converted, and become as little children..." (Matthew 18:3)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I take your comment on board and I agree that a childlike attitude can be very appealing and beneficial. But Peter Pan is not quite a role model. Hence the fact he was chosen to represent the immature grown up man.

    ReplyDelete