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JM Barrie’s creation Peter Pan has an enduring popularity. Allison McCarthy digs into the sexist and racist history of the play and novel, and how this has been addressed in modern adaptations

In a world rife with contradictions, here’s one that still surprises me: I’m a feminist with a not-so-secret penchant for the many media adaptations of Peter Pan. The first movie I remember seeing in theaters was a revival of the 1953 Walt Disney cartoon Peter Pan. A few years later, when I was old enough to read, my dad gave me an illustrated edition of the book. The book’s spine is now held together with tape, but I doubt I’ll ever give this book away. Until December 2008, however, I hadn’t seen any theatrical productions of Peter Pan.

After a recent trip to London, in which I was fortunate enough to research the history of the original play at V&A Museum archives in South Kensington, I learned first-hand about JM Barrie’s behind-the-scenes work with this play. The show’s first production, performed on 27 December 1904 at Duke of York’s Theatre, was rife with racist stereotypes of indigenous people and sexist stereotypes of female characters such as Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell and Wendy Darling, but the play also spawned a lasting public interest in this fictional character’s adventures. Fortunately, the offensive aspects of Barrie’s story have been addressed in a new generation’s transformation of the story: PJ Hogan’s 2003 hit film Pan advances the story towards an equality-based interpretation of this timeless children’s tale through a more complex, sensitive portrayal of issues related to race and gender.

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