Challenging Stereotypes in 'Peter Pan'

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I was putting my 6-year-old son to bed recently when he excitedly announced that he was going to be in the school play.

“Peter Pan,” he said.

My blood went cold. How could my son be in a play without my knowledge, especially one I dislike so much? It’s not only the sexism of the story that I despise so much, but the racism towards native people. Fearing that he was playing an “Indian,” I asked my son what he would be.

“A merman,” he smiled. “And I have a fancy costume.”

A boy in a merman outfit I could handle, but I really didn’t want him to be in this play at all. I am Native American. Alaskan Native to be more precise. I am Haida. I am Raven moiety, Brown Bear Clan.

My son is proud to be native, but he is continually confused by the ongoing racism and misrepresentation we experience daily. He is beginning to understand stereotypes and how they don’t fit with his view of native people. 

My concern was not only for my son, but also with the rest of the children. They absorb the prejudices that surround them. Adults need to be aware that silence perpetuates biases. This play reinforces stereotypes already abundant in our culture. 

Native Americans are characterized, marginalized, counted in number books (see Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman), depicted with incorrect images, and otherwise represented in hurtful, derogatory ways. Growing up in America, we are bombarded with images, toys, and stereotypes.

Stereotypes surround us and we, as a native culture, become invisible. Only the stereotype remains. Think of the hundreds of images surrounding native people like sports teams, car brands, cigarettes, etc.) What’s missing is the honor for and the context of a culture rich in traditions.

I emailed the school about my concerns. I asked if there were to be props such as tomahawks and feather headdresses. I wondered if the children would use the Hollywood “war cry.” The response was yes to everything.

I asked to see the script. After reading the line when the Indians say to Peter, “You are our Great White Father,” I wanted to burn it. Do we really want to teach our children that native people are subservient to whites?

Although I couldn’t stop the play, I did open some eyes.

The school responded. They added a scene in the beginning to explain that the story was written 100 years ago by J.M. Barrie, who never actually visited America. He wrote a completely fictional story about completely fictional humans. 

The line about the white father was changed to “Great White Feather.”  The headdress and tomahawks were taken out. The children playing Indians wore nondescript brown tunics with the school logo painted on the back, creating a kind of “tribe” of the school. 

My son went on stage as a merman, although we had many conversations about stereotypes. The families enjoyed the production, and while I hope the school tosses out this script, perhaps including more resources will be a good start.

Bliss teaches at Sierra College and lives in California.

Comments

When I was younger I didn’t

Submitted by C on 4 November 2011 - 1:45am.

When I was younger I didn’t understand stereo types. Reading this article my first response was, “wow, she is taking this way too seriously.” Of course this mother makes a valid point, and she’s only doing what she feels is right, I just think she put way too much thought into this. Peter Pan is a classic story, which I think is perfect. I would want my child to play his or her role, just the way it was in the script. It’s another way to learn your history. I guess some parts of me are more traditional than others. I feel we are over run with stereo types, but what society isn’t? 300 years ago mothers didn’t take the time out of their day to make a huge deal about a someone made a script for class. I don’t agree with this at all. Stereo typing is normal to me, and unless there’s a threat to someone’s life or anything to that degree, it should be left alone.

The caucasian mothers of 300

Submitted by Anonymous on 15 October 2014 - 12:00pm.

The caucasian mothers of 300 years ago on this continent were too busy helping strip the First Nations of their ancestral lands and their rights as human beings tp "take the time out of their day to make a huge deal about a someone [making] a script for class." YES it's important to teach about stereotypes.

Stereotyping is not normal

Submitted by Alexandra Craw on 4 May 2014 - 2:22pm.

Stereotyping is not normal and it is a threaten people's lives daily.

Teaching kids about

Submitted by Staica on 3 November 2011 - 6:59pm.

Teaching kids about stereotyping and diversity at such a young age is a great thing to do. There is a lot of controversy about "peter pan" and I think that if it is done the way that this school chose to do it that it could be a good teaching moment for children. Letting them know that it was written so long ago before stereotypes and diversity were a big issues is a good way to help them understand the meaning behind the changes to the play.

I think that sterotypes are

Submitted by randi on 1 November 2011 - 5:19pm.

I think that sterotypes are overly used a lot of the time. Yes the mother has a right to be scared or upset but maybe the other parents felt that way too in some cases. It was very responsible of her to write and call the school to straighten things out. Sterotypes are something that a typical person could be called. But when it gets to the point when people are getting called the N word or gay, fag, lez, and so on it's not okay to show kids it's alright. This may rub off on them and they'll mimic whatever they see or hear. Teaching kids about diversity is a good thing so they can have an array of friends no matter what they may be!

I feel the concearn about

Submitted by Glenda on 1 November 2011 - 3:49pm.

I feel the concearn about racism, and stereotypes that it is precented in the Peter Pan stories, but we need to understand that children are not looking at it in that way, for them is just another good storie. I am not native so I cannot say that i know how you feel, but it was a good thing that you comunicated, and told them how you felt. Sometimes other adults will not see something to be stereotypical or racist until they are told.

I agree with what this author

Submitted by Sierra on 1 November 2011 - 2:41pm.

I agree with what this author is saying. Although I am not of a minority race (by many people’s standards) I do identify with what she is saying and I can see her point. All people are created equal. After all isn’t that a value that this country is based on? Sure it doesn’t always play out this way and we have much to improve on, but I think she is onto something. Stereotypes are dangerous. They are generalizations about a certain group of people and they are not factual. The group that is being stereotyped gets hurt by these generalizations because they know that they do not hold any water. It hurts me to see that younger and younger generations of children are learning these stereotypes. I believe something needs to be done with this problem and I am glad that she took a step as a woman and as a Mother. I think teachers and even parents should be informed and should learn about the stereotypes in modern culture through films, books and other sources of media.

Wow, I am in a Children

Submitted by Learning new things everyday Florida Girl 22 on 25 October 2011 - 10:44pm.

Wow, I am in a Children literature’s class. I am now writing about Peter Pan, studying stereotypes of Peter Pan and you have really opened my eyes, I have not read peter pan since I was little, but I do see your point on they should be updating the material to the modern day. I am white and have never noticed that line before, which makes me a little naive and I agree with you, that the story had some very one sided remarks. Thank you for your post, this is really going to help me with my stereotypes on Peter Pan paper. Also, this helped open my eyes to pay attention to these kind of remarks throughout some of the older classics, I need to be more aware of these types of statements the classics, seeing how I am in collage studying to be an elementary educator. I will also pay more attention to the stories I read to my twin girls.

Hi there! I thought your

Submitted by Sheila Griffin on 16 October 2011 - 5:33pm.

Hi there! I thought your comments were highly interesting and I wanted to tell you that I'm reposting your story on my facebook page, which is shared by many other teachers in my area. I love old literature for its value and agree with sharing those stories with youth, if nothing else, so they can be aware of cultural and historical references.

That said, being from Juneau, I also deeply understand where you're coming from and I think that you handled yourself and your values well. We can still teach old stories but we don't have to make them degrading for our people today.

Thank you for taking the time to post this. I enjoyed reading it.

Fantastic essay. Thank you so

Submitted by Gwen on 15 October 2011 - 5:45pm.

Fantastic essay. Thank you so much for sharing. I found this website while studying for my TESOL class. I'm currently writing a paper about multiculturalism in the classroom. Your essay has given me much to think about. Thank you!