Virtually everyone knows the story of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. A spritely young boy shows up at a house in England where he meets a girl named Wendy and her two younger brothers. With the help of his faerie friend Tinkerbelle and some magic fairy dust, they go off on an adventure to Neverland, where no one has to ever grow up. There, they meet Peter’s tribe of “Lost Boys” It’s every person’s fantasy — child or adult, boy or girl — to be able to stay young forever. To avoid the responsibilities of adulthood for as long as possible. To be young and carefree. But in both this literary world and the real one, why is it that boys seem to be afforded that luxury far longer than girls? Unlike boys, girls seem to be expected to act like mini-grown ups — even in Neverland.
Even in Neverland, Wendy, a 12 year old girl, is expected to act like the mother to Peter Pan and the lost boys. Even in Neverland, she is the one whose role is to make life easier for others (note: boys). Even in Neverland, she is the responsible one, the one who cares for and protects her brothers, who makes make the tough decisions and eventually convinces all the others (except Peter of course) to leave magical Neverland and return home. Why can’t Wendy, in a place literally only for children just enjoy the magic and be allowed to be a child?
To be fair, one should make allowances for the fact that the story of Pater Pan was written over 100 years ago. But has the world really changed all that much? In today’s real world, girls still seem to be expected to grow up faster than boys. From a young age what young girl hasn’t heard “act like a lady”? How often have you heard a boy being told to “act like a gentleman?” A boy’s immaturity is often excused or written off instead with “boys will be boys”. What about girls will be girls?
Boys are allowed to play rough. They’re allowed to play outside in the mud and get dirty. They can read comic books into their teenage years and beyond. Boys now seem to be allowed to act like kids well into their twenties. Contrast this with girls. From an early age, girls are expected to be “above” that. They are supposed to be more mature, more responsible.
Traditional expectations in J. M. Barrie’s time were that, while the boys were outside, girls were supposed to be helping in the home, learning to nurture and take care of others, and then to marry. In fact, Wendy’s big enticement to go to Neverland is being able to take care of the lost boys:
“Wendy,” he [Peter} said, the sly one, “you could tuck us in at night.”
“None of us has ever been tucked in at night.”
“Oo,” and her arms went out to him.
“And you could darn our clothes, and make pockets for us. None of us has any pockets.”
How could she resist?
So Wendy goes to Neverland. She tells the boys stories and tucks them into bed. She sings to them. And when they are all asleep, including Peter, she turns off the lights and goes to sleep herself. It doesn’t seem to matter if no one is there to tuck her in. No one makes sure she is safe. She is twelve years old.
With the passing of time some traditional expectations have changed, but not necessarily in a good way. The idealized nurturing little “Suzy homemaker” has been sexualized. Preteen girls are now increasingly being viewed as sexual objects and are expected to magically have the maturity and skills to handle their new role. My first catcall was at age twelve, Wendy’s age. I was walking back from the beach with my family. A man yelled something at me from a car and whistled. I didn’t know how to react. Emotional maturity does not necessarily track with biological changes. I did know that I no longer felt like a kid. Even though I still was one.
Girls are not afforded the luxury of a long childhood. From the minute you get your period, you get told “you’re a woman now”. I got my period when I was ten years old. Was I really a woman? I know that I didn’t want to be. I was only in fourth grade. I wasn’t ready to grow up. And I shouldn’t have had to. Childhood is stripped from girls.
In 5th grade our class went on a “sex ed” field trip. We were divided, girls and boys. The girls watched a movie about periods and birth. We were told we were becoming women. That our bodies were getting ready for motherhood and the responsibilities that entails. Things we could barely comprehend. It seemed that once we hit puberty we were no longer considered children. I was eleven at the time. Did that mean that I had, somehow, without my knowing, been an adult for the last year?
During that trip, the boys were told about their own puberty. However, they managed to skip the part about the responsibilities of parenthood. After all, they were just kids.
I think the world needs lost girls. We need girls that can roughhouse and play in the mud if they so choose. Lord knows I wanted to — and did. One of my mother’s favorite stories is of me as a young child sitting and splashing in the rain puddles until I was completely soaked and covered in mud. Note the word child — not boy or girl. I was a child. I was a kid. I had fun. It was my childhood and I enjoyed it and deserved it.
Girls deserve a childhood. They deserve to enjoy being a kid without worrying about acting like a lady. They especially deserve a childhood free of male catcalls. And while they need to know their own biology, they don’t need to be preparing for motherhood from the time they are eleven. They need to be out in Neverland, playing with the other lost children. They need to be sung to, and tucked in at night. They need to be protected. Yes, eventually they need to grow up. Just as boys do. But not forced. They need the time and the space. After all, Neverland is a big place. Let the the lost girls play too.