NBC is devoting its primetime block this Thursday night to a live production of Peter Pan. I'm excited. Peter Pan was my first lesbian role model.
Wait, you say. Peter Pan wasn't even female, much less sapphic. Consider, though: In the upcoming NBC production, Allison Williams continues the tradition of women playing the title role, following in the footsteps of Jean Arthur, Betty Bronson, Zena Dare, Sandy Duncan, Mia Farrow, Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby, among others. The first version I saw was the 1973 NBC airing with Martin. I was entranced. Here was a girl (for I never really thought of Peter as a boy), with short hair, a boy's outfit and a wild, carefree life.
I was aware pretty early on that I was a "tomboy," but had no lesbian role models or even (until high school) awareness of what it meant to be lesbian or gay. All I knew was that the women playing Peter somehow expanded my view of what a woman could be and how she could look. That somehow made it all right, for I had a representation, however inexact, that resonated with who I wanted to be. I spent many a day in the woods behind our house, pretending to be Peter, building "houses" from sticks and leaves and swashbuckling with imaginary pirates from the ship deck of my back porch. (I still enjoy camping in the woods and was a varsity fencer in college. Who'd have guessed?) I was thrilled when I first saw the Disney version and realized their Peter had red hair like mine.
I also had a bit of a crush on Mary Martin as Peter, although I didn't recognize it at the time. As fate would have it, my spouse, years later, has a haircut not dissimilar to hers -- which would seem a bit weird to admit, except that it's also a pretty standard lesbian 'do (think Ellen DeGeneres), so the odds were pretty high.
Peter Pan was always my mother's favorite story, too. She is straight, so her connection to it is very different from mine. I can't help wondering, however, if there was something about the androgynous character that subconsciously made her extra eager to share the tale with me, her tomboy daughter.
I know J. M. Barrie never intended Peter to be a girl, much less a lesbian. It was hardly a perfect fit, then, but my childhood encounter with it remains a bright spot in my memory. Playing Peter was in many ways the beginning of my coming out process, although it took me a decade and a half to realize that. (I should acknowledge, however, that the original story and many of its later interpretations also have disturbing amounts of racism in their portrayals of Tiger Lily and the Indians, which I was unaware of as a child and cannot condone.)
Peter Pan may never grow up, but other children do, and they need role models to guide them. If I could find so much meaning in a story not even meant to portray the type of person I was, how much more meaning can children these days find in the growing number of books that more closely reflect themselves and their families? And how many such stories remain to be told?