Where are the Grownups?: The Female Peter Pan Syndrome in Film
Peter Pan syndrome refers to one’s inability to grow up, and this term is popularly associated with male characters in film and television. Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, Paul Rudd in This is 40, and Ed Westwick in Gossip Girl all play men who purposely remain in adolescence. For this, they are chastised by their female counterparts to grow up, but what happens when it is the female characters that refuse to grow up? Charlize Theron in Young Adult and Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha both portray young women who are pushing off adulthood for as long as possible. These female characters, Mavis Gary and Frances Halladay, are unsatisfied with their lives and instead of maturing, they revert back to their adolescent ways. These female characters succumb to their selfish, immature desires thinking that by focusing on their self-interests they will find happiness, when they only find themselves more miserable than ever.
In Young Adult, Charlize Theron portrays a character named Mavis Gary. Mavis is a ghostwriter for a popular young adult book series, but the series is ending and she finds out that her high school sweetheart, Buddy, is having a baby. Faced with her career coming to a halt and loneliness, Mavis heads back to her hometown to try and win back the love of her ex-boyfriend. In high school, Mavis was known for being the popular, mean girl and part of that hasn’t changed; now she’s a mean adult, this time with fewer friends. Mavis doesn’t want to grow up because high school was the prime time of her life and growing up means getting further away from when she was happiest, when she was surrounded by friends and in love.
Unlike male characters with Peter Pan syndrome, Mavis’ inability to grow up isn’t portrayed as funny but sad. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s Ben is having the time of his life by acting like a teenager: partying with friends, having no responsibilities, and hooking up with hot girls. Ben’s immaturity is the precise reason Katherine Heigl’s character goes after him in the first place. His refusal to grow up is portrayed as something men should aspire to because look at how much fun he is having. In Gossip Girl, Ed Westwick’s Chuck Bass is a millionaire who lives like he’s inside a rap video as he’s surrounded by fancy cars and gorgeous women instead of bills and stable relationships. These men aren’t portrayed as sad, but as guys you would want to be best friends with. When the adult males of Knocked Up or Gossip Girl do finally grow up, they are fulfilled and happier than before. These men face no consequences for acting like Peter Pan because for them it’s not only acceptable, but expected. Sure, their female counterparts want them to grow up, but these women are perceived as Nagging Nancys; why can’t they just let boys be boys?
This isn’t the case with Mavis. She tried to follow the rules and grow up by getting married, but after her divorce Mavis is bitter about adulthood. Meanwhile some members of her hometown see Mavis as a shining example of a grownup: she lives in Minneapolis, writes successful books, and is good looking. The perceptions and expectations placed on her only make Mavis more unwilling to grow up. For her, being a grownup isn’t defined by good times or good friends; it’s drinking alone, being undervalued at work, and going on bad blind dates. Mavis’ reaction to her depressing adulthood is to re-write her reality because after all, creating fictional worlds is her job.
The dream world of adolescence doesn’t come as easy to Mavis as it does to male characters because she she’s trying to return to it, while Ben and Chuck never left it. She cannot win her ex-boyfriend back because he has grownup and Mavis’ immaturity is not only a turn-0ff, but depressing: he states that he and his friends “feels sorry for you. We all do.” Where the male characters attract women with their wild lifestyles and are seen as carefree, Mavis is looked down upon for lacking direction. Since she’s a female, Mavis should have already moved on from adolescence and settled into adulthood while the men can remain for as long as they like because it’s accepted that males act like boys. The syndrome after all is named after a male character. Wendy, the female, has to grow up but Peter Pan never does, and isn’t expected to.
Mavis is forced to return home and be an adult, yet when she does decide to get her life in order and act like a grownup, she cannot commit. As she heads back to Minneapolis, she proclaims “life, here I come” but her face is pouting with despair because growing up isn’t easy. Growing up means venturing into the unknown and Mavis would rather travel to the past because she knows what to expect. Yet her futile attempts come off as desperate as one feels sorry for her because despite her beliefs, growing up could make Mavis the happiest; Both Ben and Chuck get respect and the girl when they grow up, while Mavis leaves home as the laughingstock and without Buddy.
Greta Gerwig as the titular Frances Ha is also lost. Living in New York City, Frances struggles to pay bills, maintain friendships, and achieve her dream of becoming a dancer. Frances laments “I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet,” indicating that a real person is a grownup. Instead Frances clings to her immaturity as she skips in the streets and pees in subway tunnels. Frances is joyful like a child and blissfully ignores her impending adulthood, but like Mavis, reality quickly sets in when in an exchange with a friend she asks if she looks older than 27. Her friend responds “no. Twenty-seven is old though.” For Frances, growing up means growing old and she desperately wants to lobby for more time.
Not growing up is fine for Frances when she is alone. It is when she’s with others that’s she aware of society’s expectations of her and that acting like a teenager loses the respect of her peers, and makes them worry about her. Frances cannot get a boyfriend because her immaturity deems her, as her male friend states, “undateable.” Yet her male roommates do not have jobs or pay their bills, but they bring home different women every night. It’s not until Frances gets her own place and earns money from pursuing her dream that she is portrayed as dateable. Until then, Frances struggles as she watches her best friend, Sophie, grow up and leave her behind. Frances sees Sophie change before her eyes and she doesn’t want to follow suit. She’s not interested in marriage or an office job; Frances wants to act young because that means she hasn’t hit her peak yet. Like Mavis, she visits a memorable place of her past, her college, to reclaim her happiness. Frances volunteers at the college and lives in the dorm, thinking she will have fun like the good old days, instead she finds herself more alone as other students look at her wearily or worse, as a failure.
Not growing up, for these female characters, isn’t viewed as humorous but as depressing. Mavis and Frances cling to adolescence so they can continue having a good time like their male counterparts. The characters defy the expectations of females to be mature and have their lives in order. But these women fail as the Peter Pan syndrome proves to be a gendered system where only the males receive all its rewards and the females are left with the consequences; the males enjoy the party while the females are given the hangover. By not growing up, these women are lost and unsatisfied with their lives but unsure how to fix them. Since the past is where Mavis and Frances were happy, the characters try to recapture it as the present pushes them towards the future. Perceiving their present lives as bleak, they predict the future will only get bleaker. But by attempting to stay young forever, the characters further derail their happiness and find themselves struggling even more in accepting their situations.
Despite Francis and Mavis seeing their friends happy due to growing up, the women still hold a fear that growing up means growing away from who they are. Maturing means the beginning of a new life for Mavis and Frances, a life that, for them, simultaneously represents the end of their youth. Growing up means becoming parents, becoming responsible and neither Frances or Mavis are ready for this. They’re blind to the fact that growing up means expanding, not throwing away their old selves. No doubt many female, twenty-something viewers could identify with Mavis and Francis’ feelings of being lost. For if our twenties are supposed to be a time to discover ourselves, why do many feel more unsure than ever?
These film representations of women are important as it makes the characters multi-dimensional. Frances and Mavis portray a realistic view of women in their twenties as they discover who they are and who they want to be doesn’t always line up. The women find hope in some situations and misery in others. Neither Young Adult or Frances Ha ends resolved, but rather with a nod towards the realization that growing up isn’t the final destination of adulthood but merely a stop.
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