Rethinking a classic
As I mentioned recently, I just took a long, cross-country trip with my family. Said family includes my preschool-aged son, who is a young gentleman of prodigious energy and strong opinions. Keeping him happy and placid during our various flights was a task of major importance, the better to ensure the happiness and placidity of everyone on the plane.
Voilà, the iPad. A night or two before we left, the Better Half and I downloaded a selection of beloved movies for the Critter to watch. In addition to two Pixar films and “The Princess and the Frog,” we chose Disney’s “Peter Pan,” one of his favorites. As soon as portable electronic devices were allowed, it was quadruple-feature time! (I feel compelled at this point to announce that the Critter acquitted himself admirably for the whole of our air travel, including the tedium of standing on various lines without electronic distraction.)
Except three of the four chosen movies got no love. It was pretty much all “Peter Pan,” all the time. He got very good at playing favored scenes over and over, and I saw no particular reason to make him watch anything else. He was happy, I was happy, and so the Critter got to watch Smee shave a seagull’s backside repeatedly without interruption.
Now, I had never actually seen Disney’s “Peter Pan” all the way through. When I was in residency, the clinics where I did my outpatient care had big televisions on which movies would be played, and “Peter Pan” was one of them. I would sometimes linger and watch the “You can fly!” bit with the lilting song and the kids flying over London, which I found charming. But that’s pretty much all I knew of the film, other than its status as a beloved childhood classic.
However, this trip afforded ample opportunity to better acquaint myself with it. While I still haven’t seen the whole thing from start to finish, I’ve seen pretty much the whole thing piecemeal. I’ve certainly seen enough to be staggered by its overt racism and (somewhat) subtler sexism. I’d never seen either discussed before, and wouldn’t have thought to investigate before I bought the movie for my kid.
Midway through the film the plot involves the kidnapping of Tiger Lily, an Indian princess. This is revealed by the character of her father, the Indian chief. He speaks in the most horrifyingly hackneyed stereotypical fake Native American patois I have ever heard, complete with intermittent “um” suffixes. It was painful to listen to, as was the charming ditty “What Makes the Red Man Red?“.
Then there are the female characters. With the exception of the children’s mother (who never meets the titular character), every single female in the film is besotted with Peter Pan. And they almost all display some form of sexual jealousy when confronted with another female character who might enjoy his attention (usually Wendy). Indeed, both Tinkerbell and the mermaids display nearly homicidal levels of jealousy, trying to dash her against rocks or drown her (respectively) and only failing because of Pan’s intervention. Whether or not Wendy’s taking on a maternal role with the Lost Boys may or may not be sexist (YMMV), but the female characters’ incapability of tolerating any rivals for Pan’s attention seems undeniably so.
This raises a couple of questions for me. One of the things I enjoy doing with my kids is reading them books (though Squirrel is too much of a squirmer to get much out of it now), and as they get older I plan to read them a few that I loved as a child. Among them are a few from an earlier era than include language and stories that I would consider racist or sexist, but the stories are of sufficient quality that I still want to share them. However, I plan to read them to the kids when they’re old enough that I can address the issue directly. Rather than expunge them entirely from my children’s experience, I’ll discuss the bad along with the good.
I suppose ideally I would have found some age-appropriate way of addressing the racist and sexist themes in “Peter Pan” the first time I saw them. Let’s hope expedience didn’t cause me to miss a critical window to debunk pernicious ideas. (I doubt it.) The next time we happen to watch it together, I will see if I can squeeze in a short comment or two about the way the Indians talk or the women act, and whether or not Native Americans and women really talk and act that way in real life. Perhaps I’m overthinking the whole thing, but I still feel like it’s important to address bigotry, even if it’s outmoded and even if my kids are small.
I also find myself wondering if I should have been more attentive to what my child watches, and if I should have known better. We try to be judicious with what our son watches, keeping it limited in quantity and restricted to age-appropriate material. Disney has a checkered history with some of its animated features, and perhaps I should have given more thought to its treatment of Native Americans (whose presence in the film I only vaguely remembered at all). But unlike “Dumbo” or even “The Lion King” I’d simply never heard of there being anything problematic about “Peter Pan” (though a cursory Google search indicates the issue has been raised before if I’d thought to look).
Popular media is full of beloved movies that are, in retrospect, embarrassing in some way. I remember a (straight) friend prevailing on me to watch “Revenge of the Nerds” with him (I’d never seen it), and then having to reconcile his remembered affection for the film with the offensively fey gay character, which he hadn’t really thought much of when he first saw it decades before. (I wasn’t all that worried about it.) Attitudes change, generally for the better in my opinion. Unless we want to constantly cull things from our culture (which I am loath to endorse), we have to address the mixed bag of good and bad that they will appear to be from the perspective of our contemporary vantage point.
But it still leaves me a bit stunned that something so obviously racist was made such a relatively short time ago, and is still so universally embraced. For all the talk about whether or not Washington’s football team or Atlanta’s baseball team need new names, I would honestly have expected more attention paid to the much more overtly problematic content of a movie that has spawned a whole “fairies” franchise of its own. America’s attention to such things remains quite selective, it seems, and makes me wonder how much more attention I should be paying than I have up to this point.