New Ways to Fly: Wonderful Thoughts Are Less Racist

My fiancée is in the preparatory research stage of costume designing a local production of Peter Pan, which means there’s a lot of Pan talk around the homestead. And, honestly, there’s a lot to talk about.

We’ve nattered about discussing the “Indians” quite a bit, as that section of the show is especially … delicate. When their first scene consists of permutations on the phrase “Ugg A Wugga Wigwam,” you know you’re skirting Song of the South territory, children’s classic or no.

I can sort of make it work, if I decide that the adults in Neverland aren’t real people. The end of the show makes it clear that “grown ups” can’t get to Neverland, after all. If we assume the rules for Wendy apply across the board, then it’s hard to understand how Hook’s men or the Neverland tribe could exist there. And why else have the same actor play both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook if not to help clarify that the villains of the piece are twisted distortions of the nightmare of adulthood?

“Indian,” then, is a thorny stand-in term for that wilderness out there that industrialized Mommy and Daddy warn us not to wander into alone. The Neverland tribe consists not of anyone meant to be an accurate portrayal of a non-industrial culture, but rather a poorly-named and poorly-defined twisting of such ideas through the filter of “if I had to live without modern conveniences” or “if I were cast into the wide, cruel world.” If I decide Neverland is populated by the stranded cast-offs of childhood understandings about the world, of oversimplified constructs shaped as caricature, does this do anything useful to the racism?

I don’t know. The Lost Boys do strike an accord with the Neverland tribe, at least. The same can’t be said for the far more colonial pirate crew, at least a few of whom don’t even make it out alive. If I twist the lens a bit, I think it’s possible to work things such that there’s a far more positive outcome to be learned, as the children face down their ill-informed ideas about “savages,” and ultimately banish the demons of Western conquest.

I can’t pretend that the imagery isn’t a product of a far less multiculturally-sensitive time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t co-opt it to do something more than play to stereotypes, does it? Barrie himself re-wrote Peter’s story more than once, so in that sense, at least, I’m following the leader.

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