thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Forever Young, Forever Violent: Imagination, Sadism, and Once’s Peter Pan

In ABC Soaps, TV villains, violence, white masculinity on September 11, 2014 at 11:40 am

(Or, “Violently Inclined, Part II”)

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Phoebe B.

In many children’s stories, young men function as the site of imaginative production. Books from Peter Pan to Harold and the Purple Crayon are populated almost exclusively by young boys who dream big and create their own worlds. Boys’ imaginations, these stories suggest, are capable of creating universes well beyond the scope of their immediate existence.

In Harold and the Purple Crayon, Harold draws his own world. Max ventures into the land where the wild things are; the little prince sketches his way through adventures to escape the adult world; and Christopher Robin traipses through the woods with a bevvy of furry imaginary friends. And in Peter Pan (the book and the movies), Neverland is a welcome escape for young white boys and even Wendy Darling—a place of youthfulness, fun, and a little benign mischief. 

On this last point, the latest season of ABC’s hit fairytale mash-up Once Upon a Time begs to differ. Instead of fun and clever mischief, Peter Pan’s creative landscape is a site of destruction and violence run amok. In Neverland, as Pan says, nobody ever says “no” and violence is a casual, everyday occurrence. This Neverland more resembles the heart of darkness or Lord of the Flies than Disney’s previous Neverland versions replete with laughter, song, and light. 

In Once’s fairytale world, Peter Pan is a permanent villain. His island is cloaked in darkness; his shadow—far from the playful version in the Disney film—is evil and entirely capable of murder. The character has kidnapped hundreds of kids over the years to keep him company in his eternal youth, preying on lost and lonely boys by convincing them that no one else cares for them, thereby breaking their bond to any worldly place or people. He even keeps Wendy Darling in a cage as if she is his permanent possession, using her captivity to turn her brothers into Pan’s personal henchmen for a century.

This twist makes perfect sense in a show that constantly reconfigures gender narratives in familiar fairy tales. In Once, women can be heroines, villains, saviors, and even big bad wolves. Red Riding Hood, for example, is both young girl and wolf. She embodies her own worst fear and has the capacity to protect herself from it, with the help of her crossbow-toting, bacon-cooking Grannie. Rapunzel, too, must defeat her own fears of becoming queen and save herself from her tower rather than wait for a prince to come along. Even when a Prince does come along, his main job help Rapunzel gain confidence and realize she can help herself. Snow White is no sleeping beauty, but rather a huntress, tracker, and general badass. Even the Evil Queen, Regina, is no longer quite so bad—as her lover Robin Hood notes, she’s “bold and audacious perhaps”–requirements for a heroine–“but not evil.”

Men on the show can be heroes too, and are given equal opportunities for redemption, complexity and happy endings.  Hook is no longer simply a villain with goofy curly hair and a twisty mustache; he too gets a backstory, a love interest, and a chance to truly be generous and courageous.

But, like Neverland, Hook’s male-dominated ship (which we see in flashbacks) is frequently envisioned as a violent space driven by revenge. It is only after he begins to care for others and makes permanent landfall–thereby escaping the confines of a self-created space that never challenges his personal narrative–that Hook evolves, abandoning his call to vengeance for a less selfish life. The show’s reimagined Neverland fits within its foregrounding of female heroism, showing how destructive it is when men romanticize everlasting youth and the lack of responsibility that accompanies it.

In a show that’s full of violent, twisted characters, Pan’s cruel construction is one of the more unforgiving and unredeemable ones. The Wicked Witch is similar in her extreme hatred and envy, but unlike Pan, the show allows us to feel some sense of sorrow for her. Abandoned at birth and unloved by her adopted father, she is ruled by jealousy (which turns her green) and wants to return to the past to change her fate. Both Pan and the witch suffer from greed and an unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions, but only Pan is entirely unsympathetic.

The first half of the season arc follows Pan’s quest for the “heart of the truest believer,” which happens to reside in his great grandson, Henry. Pan needs the heart to keep himself young, magical, and strong. Henry’s belief powers his heart, making it strong, supernatural even. Once continually emphasizes the importance of belief in magic and happy endings and this is no exception; Pan needs Henry’s faith in magic to sustain his life, his youth, and most importantly, his magic.

For Pan, Henry’s imagination is a generative site—but one he wants to manipulate into something evil and horrible, purely for his own gain. Henry’s near-downfall lies in his own desire to be a hero, a seemingly selfish desire in and of itself.

Pan’s greed is the logical extension, the show suggests, of staying forever young, white, and male. Ultimately, Pan feels he deserves this life: he is entitled to his happiness at the cost of all others, not because he was worked for or earned anything but simply because he exists. 

Peter Pan is unredeemable because he cannot and will not grow up. He uses magic greedily, takes what he wants violently, and sees no further than his own desires. He believes he is the world’s victim, a martyr in the face of unfair odds. In fact, the show suggests that this is just another self-serving narrative: he is extraordinarily privileged and always has been.

The connection between white male privilege run amok and violence here is crystal clear.  This retelling of the Pan story becomes a response to books like The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh and Where the Wild Things Are, in which young white boys’ imaginations create utopic worlds built for and by them. When boys and men create worlds that cater exclusively to their own needs and desires, it may be a utopia for them–but it’s a dystopia for everyone else. 

Once continually slams disparate Disney narratives together, placing familiar characters in unfamiliar worlds. Each instance forces old characters to confront new people, places, and histories that lie well beyond their own immediate experiences. As a result, unlikely alliances are formed and both heroes and villains become multi-dimensional characters who disrupt each others’ perspectives.

For a character like Pan the latter is a death sentence; he can only survive if his world remains impenetrable to outside forces, allowing him to believe he is the unequivocal hero of Neverland. In a TV landscape populated by celebratory and cerebral depictions of white male violence, last season’s Pan was an odd, yet welcome corrective that re-envisioned the dystopian potential of  white male privilege run wild.

 

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