This week, we’re continuing our series on “selfish” female Disney characters, with a look at Disney’s 1953 animated movie Peter Pan, and the female characters contained within. Be sure to check out our previous posts on The Evil Queen and Alice in Wonderland vs Wendy Darling!
Peter Pan lends itself to a contrast of selfishness between genders, exemplified in the forms of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. Peter Pan is a child, one who is incapable of growing up, so it’s natural that he would be selfish. However, there is a reason why it is predominantly men who are diagnosed with “Peter Pan Syndrome,” which describes one’s inability to engage in behavior appropriate for adulthood.
Peter, like the men who are afflicted with his eponymous syndrome, wants to enjoy the perks of being a leader. He is the one the Lost Boys turn to for approval before “going out and capturing a few Indians.” He is the one who has the power to banish Tinker Bell forever for lying to the Lost Boys that he commanded them to shoot Wendy down from the sky, a sentence that he commutes to “a week” only after Wendy begs for his mercy on Tink’s behalf. He is the one who enjoys the attention of the attractive mermaids as they swoon over his every swashbuckling tale.
Meanwhile, however, he also wants a young woman who will take care of him so he can be free to play these games and live in these adventurous stories (The young women who fulfill this role in real life are fittingly diagnosed with “Wendy Syndrome”). It is empty leadership without the burden of responsibility. In their review of the film at the time of its release, Harrison’s Reports called Peter “a manly little fellow in every respect.” The modern reader may feel confused by this description, as the very point of Peter is that he has no desire to grow into a man, but it makes sense when considering the role of men at the time. A man of the ‘50s would leave in the morning for work, where he would socialize with other men, then return at night, ready for his wife to serve him dinner after her own day of taking care of the house and kids – not much different from the dynamic between Peter Pan and Wendy at its core.
The grown man may have appeared to have more stress and responsibility during this time, but it was still the woman who was expected to be the one behind the scenes performing his domestic and emotional labor. If our culture has little problem with disliking Alice for her selfish tendencies, then logically they should be similarly intolerant of Peter’s proclivities. Instead, Peter was and is to this day celebrated in much the same manner that grown men who model his behavior are celebrated.
Tinker Bell’s selfishness, on the other hand, has been treated much differently over the course of Disney’s history. When we first meet Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, she is hot-tempered, jealous, and even murderous in her selfishness – exemplified by the previously mentioned attempts on Wendy’s life – all the while unable to be heard as much more than a nondescript tinkling sound. She is completely flawed, but ultimately lovable and redeemable. It is Tink, after all, who rescues Peter from Captain Hook’s bomb plot and enables the Darling children to return home with the use of her pixie dust. In other words, she is complex, as the best of characters are.
However, it took a lot of fighting by the women of Disney to get her there, and even then it unfortunately didn’t mean she was well received by the patriarchal mainstream of the time. In her book The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History, Nathalia Holt writes about Tinker Bell’s artistic origins:
“In the original sketches made by the female artists of the studio, Tinker Bell strikes a balance between stereotypical extremes. She is neither the girl-child of Snow White nor the sexual fantasy of Fantasia’s centaurettes. Instead, she is a fully formed woman in miniature. Each female artist gave the fairy a gift; in Bianca’s hands, she became overtly sensual, in Mary’s sweetly feminine, and in Sylvia’s divinely colorful.”
Mary Blair – the same woman who fought to keep Alice’s imperfect characterization in Alice in Wonderland – had a vision for Tinker Bell’s potential. She partnered with directing character animator Marc Davis to bring that potential to life, with Mary’s art informing Davis’s drawings. Together, they became a force to be reckoned with on Tink’s behalf.
“Neither was content with Tinker Bell’s superficial depiction in the book, and they resolved to make her more independent than any female character they had previously developed,” Nathalia Holt explains as the basis for Mary and Marc’s partnership. “That representation, however, conflicted with the wholesome portrayal of women that was typical of the 1950s. At a story meeting, one of the men shook his head in disgust and then blurted out, ‘But why does she have to be so naughty?’ Other story artists complained that her hips were too curvy and her personality too bold, the opposite of the demure and sweet Wendy Darling.”
While Wendy and Peter’s adherence to the era’s gender roles contributed to the film’s success, Tinker Bell’s deviation from them was a major point of the film’s criticism. The New York Times, for example, in the same review that called “Wendy and the other children… good, pious Disney creations” labeled Tinker Bell a “vulgarity, with her bathing-beauty form and attitude.”
What do you think? Have Wendy and Tinkerbell been treated unfairly compared to Peter? Share with us in the comments below!