Peter Pan, Queer Icon

In NBC's Peter Pan Live!, Allison Williams continues the long history of women playing the boy—or "boi"—who never grew up.

Wikimedia/The Atlantic

Since Peter Pan’s first adventures to Neverland in 1904, by way of the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, his story has been retold in countless variations on stage, page, and screen. More recent versions, including tonight's Peter Pan Live! on NBC, have been rewritten in attempts to unburden the text of its disturbing racial stereotypes.

Peter himself has also been reincarnated many times over. Where his Edwardian roots cast him as an impish child, still with all his baby teeth, contemporary storytellers envision a prepubescent boy physically and emotionally tottering on the edge of teenagedom—that stepping stone to adulthood he both disdains and disavows. Peter has been Disney-fied and Universal-ized; with technological advancement he has gained access to an increasingly resplendent Neverland.

One of the few things that hasn’t changed in more than a hundred years: On stage, Peter is almost always played by a woman.

When NBC first announced plans to follow their commercially successful, critically iffy 2013 live broadcast of The Sound of Music with Peter Pan Live!, Aisha Harris at Slate detailed why women so often take on the role. Charles Frohman, the Broadway producer at the helm of the original play, told Barrie at the time that if a teen boy played Peter, the Lost Boys would have to be “scaled down in proportion”—that is, Peter’s size would require a supporting cast of children—and in 1904, British law prohibited minors under 14 from performing after 9 p.m. A female Peter, then, was the solution.

After Nina Boucicault starred in the West End production, actresses were cast in the title role for subsequent London seasons. In 1924, Betty Bronson played Peter in the silent film. A strong precedent for lady Peters established, directors and producers—particularly for the stage—have scarcely veered away ever since. With Allison Williams, NBC is hoping to replicate the ratings bonanza garnered by televised productions of various Peter Pan iterations in the 1950s, when Mary Martin—one of history’s most beloved Peters—was in her green-tighted heyday.

What has become a casting custom holds more value than simply that of tradition. Allison Williams becoming the latest woman to play Peter—whether her performance ends up as celebrated as Mary Martin’s, or as forgettable as Mia Farrow’s—represents the continued mainstream representation of boyish masculinity as expressed by someone female-bodied, which remains almost as infrequent a cultural occurrence in modern media as it was 50-plus years ago. For many queer women and gender non-conforming people sprawled in front of their TV sets when they were still children, watching women like Mary Martin play Peter Pan provided visual affirmation that a genderbent lifestyle was within their realm of possibility.

Regardless of sexual orientation, all girls are underrepresented in film and television; whenever depicted, they are all too often ultra-feminine stock sidekicks offering emotional support to male protagonists—boys who get to be the active heroes of their own stories. A study out of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California determined that out of 5,554 distinct speaking roles in recent top-grossing family films, just under 30 percent of the characters were female.

When he’s played by a woman, Peter Pan as both a character and a cultural touchstone evades the reductive gender categorization that pervades children’s media. Seeing a female-bodied character embodying the sort of roughness, recklessness, and confident swagger socially afforded to boys is a rarity and thus, a sort of treasure—particularly for queer women, and queer or questioning girls, so often denied popular representations of their own likeness.

Peter exactingly emulates so many hallmarks of the tomboy or boi, a term with which many female-bodied, masculine queers self-identify. Bois evoke an arch, soft-edged masculinity, buoyed by youthful lightness of spirit—less classically full-menswear butch, more trendy, androgynous flux. The kind of woman you may mistake for a teenage boy at first glance is the kind to most likely embrace boihood, either in label or in essence.

Eternally young; endlessly seeking adventure; brazenly living a fraught, fantastical life without grown-up interference or societal constriction—Peter Pan is the perfect character through whom society’s gender roles may be disrupted, and even abandoned. He’s more interested in killing pirates than kissing girls (he thinks a kiss is a thimble, besides). Rascally and clever and devil-may-care, Peter will never reach manhood; he doesn’t want to achieve manhood. So when women play Peter, the opposite of Boy, if anything, is Man—not Girl. According to this construct, girls are not relegated to the status of lesser, because the gender binary so effectively blurs and breaks. Any and all of us can be Peter.

Neverland as first conceived is far from a genderless paradise; the Lost Boys and Hook’s men fighting each other in a constant loop have all the fun, while Tinkerbell, Tiger Lily, a clique of mermaids, and even Wendy exist mostly to vie in vain for Peter’s affections. Wendy as kiss-bearer, Wendy as mother—it’s boring and hasn’t been much altered across dozens of Peter Pan variations. But women playing those Peter Pans, at least, present the possibility that not only can anyone be Peter—anyone can fall in love with him, too. (Or at least develop a good, strong crush.)

In J.M. Barrie’s original story, when Peter and Wendy meet for the very first time, they begin to quarrel almost instantly. In an attempt to comfort her:

"Wendy," [Peter] continued, in a voice that no woman has ever yet been able to resist, "Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys."

When women speak these kinds of lines, a children’s text is effectively queered. For me, growing up struggling to figure out why everyone was expecting me to “like” boys, watching female Peters like Mary Martin flirt unabashedly with Wendy became a personal milestone for coming into my queerness, as the experience has been for many others. A female Peter Pan remains a promising step toward more inclusive and diverse narratives for children.

Allison Williams is already preparing the hordes of hate-watchers who will show up to view tonight’s live broadcast, and she’s confident their hate will crumble into nostalgia. While that remains to be seen, I’m hoping the power of the pixie cut will afford the performance at least one kind of positive legacy.