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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Peter Pan: Reflecting on Puberty and Gender

Updated: Apr 2


I am in the basement of a make-shift house on the seafront.  The room is full of windows that have a huge compelling vista over a beach and the ocean.  There is also a small concrete defence.  I can see on the horizon a tsunami moving at speed towards the coast line. A clock ticks and I worry about a crocodile.  I see a group of young boys lost in the room with me.  It is a kitchen.   We have to leave quickly, to get to higher ground.  The boys move swiftly out and up - climbing safely into a large real house, through a window.  To get to it they use a steep and curved path.  Knowing everyone is ok, I leave too.  The wave sweeps in.  The tsunami is arriving. The water levels rise and we can watch the landscape changing, knowing we will be ok. The concrete defence sweeps away.  I wake up. 

This dream reminded me of Peter Pan.  I doubt it was random, as Peter Pan happened to be the focus of a workshop I was planning about the same time.  This all also occurred in the same period when I was running workshops on body dysphorias and self-acceptance and began facilitating a check-in/ support group for desistors/ de-transitioners.  

So much of the story of Peter Pan is about the struggle to grow up.  That desperately painful gap between childhood and adulthood; the transition through puberty.   Puberty can feel like a time of overwhelm, where changes to our world flood in from every direction: It is a time of wrestling with how our changing body is, versus how we want it to be.  Wrestling with where we want to be in society versus where society places us.  It is also a time of development in how to think about the world in more complex ways. 

Enormous amounts of cognitive growth happen during this period. We start to grapple with the hugeness of the world and the many different paths there are to live a life. Some of the security blanket illusion of ‘right and wrong/ good and bad’ is lost. We can often experiment in this phase. Insisting on manifesting ideals as reality, without enough lived experience to see their shadow side.  This can be painful but necessary learning. 

Many young people manifest this struggle to master the transition into the adult world through disordered eating, or a desire for hyper control of their body and/or rejection of conformity to social norms.  There can be a necessary and healthy place for all of this. There is also a potential to get lost, for old trauma to find places to hide, for young adults to make decisions that cause irreversible harm and all of these sometimes find their way into the therapy room.  

Barrie’s story of Peter Pan, including knowing its context,  have helped me think about many of these struggles that I get to see clinically in some of the young adults I work with and I thought I would share my associations to the story here. In both Group and Jungian interpretation each aspect of a story is thought to represent a part of the self and the group.  A helpful exercise is to look at the characters in any story that one enjoys and find the character you have less empathy for, then try and find a way to connect with them.  

Peter Pan first arrived in the world in 1902 as a character in a small book called ‘The Little White Bird’ by JM Barrie.  Barrie brought him back to life again  in a play that was initially to be titled ‘The Boy Who Hates Mothers’. Only to have this changed to ‘The Boy who never grew up’.  The enormous success of this play was then followed by a book ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ in 1904.  At the time of Barrie’s writing the name Wendy was a boy’s name (similar to George or Lesley), that only became popular as a girls name later.  In fact Wendy became popular for girls because of these books and the play.

Barrie himself had a difficult childhood.  His older brother died when Barrie was just seven.  His brother was the favourite and there are tales of Barrie dressing up in his clothes cosplaying him to his mother, to make her smile. Barrie is thought to have suffered with an eating disorder and questions about his sexuality including if he was in fact a paedophile or a stalker (Dudgeon, 2009) have followed him relentlessly.  

There has been a phenomenal amount of interpretation offered regarding Peter Pan. Even the changes in title lend much insight into some of the psychological depth at hand.  In terms of psychological interpretations Peter Pan can be understood as a story about cognitive development, mind maps and cognitive development windows of opportunity (Ridley, 2016), a story of eating disorder (Risto Fried  and Walter Vandereycken 1989), a story about Wendy as an abused child who dreams up Peter Pan in order to escape her predatory father, a story about the Puer/Puella and a story that highlights the light and shadow of social deconstruction theory (Alderman, 2023). 

We learn at the beginning of the story that our gender non-confirming Wendy was due to grow up the next day - this is when Peter arrives in the night looking for his shadow, which is tucked away in Wendy’s drawer.  Peter happens to look exactly like Wendy in size and shape, just in male form.  In fact Barrie instructed Peter should only ever be played by girls.  

Peter in the book is quite a violent character.  He doesn’t know the difference between make believe and real.  Which most of the time the other children love but sometimes it scares them - particularly when they make believe food or being a doctor.  In part this occurs because Peter doesn’t know how to symbolise - he can’t understand what a kiss is, and so when Wendy asks for one he gives her something concrete - a button/or a thimble.  As an audience member for the play, the kiss also invites curiosity about hidden same-sex attraction - how self-aware are the characters?

Peter throughout the stories offers the children leadership and a sense of belonging, but in order to be under his protection and have access to his underground den, each child must be made to physically fit the access route.  Mostly this involves removing clothes, but sometimes bodies must be whittled down to size.  This raises questions about Peter’s capacity for concern.  “Concern is an important feature in social life. Psychoanalysts usually seek origins in the emotional development of the individual. The capacity for concern belongs to the two-body relationship between the infant and the mother or mother-substitute. Concern implies further integration, and further growth, and relates in a positive way to the individual’s sense of responsibility, especially in respect of relationships into which the instinctual drives have entered. Concern refers to the fact that the individual cares, or minds, and both feels and accepts responsibility. At the genital level in the statement of the theory of development, concern could be said to be the basis of the family, where both partners in intercourse—beyond their pleasure—take responsibility for the result.” (Winnicott, 1963). 

This also makes me think of the concrete defence in my dream. When we try to imagine that by doing something physical to the body such as binding breasts or ingesting synthetic hormones we will somehow be able to offer sufficient defence against this level of change.  Puberty blockers were designed to delay precocious puberty, puberty that occurs at a bodily level of a very young child,  holding back the change so that it can occur in alignment with other vital elements of puberty (the psychological and the social).  Given puberty is a phase of development from child to adult, where the biological, psychological and social are profoundly woven together it makes sense, if we have the technology, to encourage as  much alignment of these elements as possible. We do not know the impact on development when we intentionally disrupt the alignment of an otherwise ‘healthy’ process (Baxendale, 2024). 

In the story of Peter Pan we learn that he is in Never land because his mother neglected him and so he flew away.  This makes me think not just of physical mothers, but also the symbolic mother found in our belonging to groups - the brick mothers of institutions such as education or faith, mother countries and Mother Nature.  All the lost boys are there because the nannies their parents had hired to look after them had left them to fall out of their prams - these children had been doubly neglected, first by parents and then trusted carers.  We learn Peter had wanted to return home but his mother hadn’t left a window open for him, leaving him unable to trust the mind of adults and so Never land is where he remains.

Never land is a curious place.  The book is filled with deeply racist and sexist depictions of ‘otherness’ where there are relentless battles occurring.  Whilst there is constant drama, there is also very little development of character growth. Nobody ever seems to care sufficiently to learn anything new about themselves or each other.   Nobody grows up. They just go round and round.  So the island is in a perpetual state of vigilance and reactivity.  

The main villain in Never land (well at least if you are a lost boy) is Captain Hook.  Captain Hook is consumed by the idea of fairness.  Barrie instructed  that the same actor who plays Captain Hook must also play Mr Darling- Wendy’s father.  Captain Hook is angry and insecure, not knowing how he comes across to others. Mr Darling is emotionally immature. Both insist on respect.  Father’s in stories can represent physical fathers, but also symbolically they represent those in authority, the gatekeepers to care and access to intervention. This makes me think of the role of psychologists as gatekeepers to services.

The crocodile has already eaten one of Hook’s hands, which upsets him, but then he also quite likes having a hook.  He is terrified of the ticking clock.  This makes me think of insecure gatekeepers - who are consumed with being  seen to be fair, but are in part ‘out of touch’ with reality, unable to be present focussed. Gatekeepers who are terrified of ticking clocks and never feel they have enough time - that are always distracted by the gaze of the wider system. They cannot fully hold their responsibilities and instead enjoy using aggressive rhetoric as hooks to do the work.  The hook means they don’t get their hands dirty, but also means feeling is lost when touching another human. The exchange becomes mechanic and the focus can be on imagining dealing out fairness, rather than complexity of human interaction.

Tinker bell is also a notable and disturbing character in the story.  Whilst at first we see her as a fiesty affirmative supporter of Peter, with a sense of  certainty about her identity, she loves Peter to a fault, and in the end she risks her life to keep him alive.  Peter makes a great show of inviting the audience to believe in faeries, if children don’t believe the faeries will die.  Yet sadly this all comes to nothing, in the book Tinker Bell died in the year after Wendy and her brothers left Neverland and following her death, Peter forgets about her very existence.  

In the end Wendy realises she needs more than Never land has to offer.  She goes home, taking all the lost boys (except Peter, who refuses).  We learn they all grow up and are decidedly average in their adult lives,  but they are all also content.  Contentment is something they could never experience in Never land.  Wendy whilst still sometimes yearning for Peter likes her life as an adult.  Unlike others she remembers Peter.  She holds him in mind and is grateful for the initiative experience he gave her.  She also sees the necessity of letting her children go through something whilst containing the terror of not knowing if they will return.  She does however know to leave her window open, waiting watchfully, should they return. 

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