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.

Charlize Theron in Young Adult
Charlize Theron in Young Adult

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.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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20 Comments

  1. I guess I’ve never really looked at the whole “Peter Pan Syndrome” in this fashion, and it certainly isn’t fair to portray women in this way, while men seem to be having all the fun. It brings to mind the Marilyn Monroe movie “the Misfits,” where nobody, not the men or the women seem to be growing up, nor having a particularly easy time staying an adolescent. Maybe, “Thelma and Louise” come closest to being two women characters that have the time of their life in a “I’m-not-gonna-grow-up-and-be-apart-of-the-adult-status-quo” kind of way, and at least they went out on their own terms. In any case, your article certainly raises some interesting questions, nicely done.

  2. Young Adult was a joke. The film was going SOMEWHERE – then for the last 20 minutes it went to complete nonsense – Sandra’s dialog was from another planet.

    • Taketomb
      0

      I agree. The beginning of the film was promising, the middle looked like it had us in store for some huge, cringe-worthy meltdown, which it did have, but I don’t think Mavis learned anything, really. Or changed. Her ego was bolstered by Patton Oswalt’s obsessive sister, who insists that Mavis is better than Mercury. But I don’t think so. And I’m sure neither does any other viewer.

  3. Tiffani Post
    0

    Kristen Wiig is lovely in Knocked Up. I wish she was in more of the movie. I loved when she said “It just grosses me out…when I know people are pregnant”

    • She is such a talented comedienne and extremely charismatic! I’ve only seen a few of her movies so far but I must see more. I think I’ve found a favourite actress of mine.

  4. Elaina Chastain

    Good analysis! I’ve never considered looking at women who have Peter Pan syndrome. You make some very good points! A male refusing to grow up is hilarious and attractive, yet a woman not wanting to be an adult is sad and irresponsible. Shows that we still have some work to do, huh? 🙂

  5. Sheffield
    0

    I loved Young Adult, thought it was a very good movie. Any other movies like it?

    • BetzLim
      0

      Hmmm…My answer to you would depend on what you are picking up on (the stuff that you like). If you are like me, then I would suggest:

      –“United States of Tara”–a tv show written by Diablo Cody–same writer as YA

      –“Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind”–miserable people, great acting and story. Funnier than YA

      –“Little Children”–Patrick Wilson also stars. Drama. Good atmosphere.

      –“Margot at the Wedding”–very similar to this film, but about a wedding.

      –“Rachel Getting Married”–also, very similar to this movie. IMHO.

      –“Melancholia”–you may find this movie strange, but hey, it’s my wild-card for ya.

      –“Martha Marcy May Marlene”–scarier, indie-thriller, low key, but you may like.

      –“Secretary”–I love.

      –“Home for the Holidays,” and “Pieces of April,”–movies about the holidays, but like this movie

      –“Welcome to the Dollhouse”–oldschool fun.

    • blunt rosen
      0

      as far as the going back home theme, if you are looking for one with a little more comedy and less dark, and oldie but goodie, definitely Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.

    • VERY similar movie from England called “Another Year”. It follows a year in the life of an older, happily married couple and their relationship to various other dysfunctional people. The most time is spent on Mary, who is just like Mavis. Her envy and resentment and bitterness about the happy couple is a focal point, and there’s a similar uncomfortable scene where the selfish, clueless clinger embarrasses herself. It’s slow in plot and more of a character study, but it’s the same type.

      Oh and Blue Jasmine just recently reminded me of Young Adult. Even though Jasmine might take a few more steps to try and be a decent person, in the end, just like Mavis, she’s back at square one.

  6. Although I have not seen either of these films, your thorough analysis was enthralling and well thought out. It is troubling that there are so many examples of male characters prolonging adolescence quite easily while female characters are ostracized and misunderstood for showing the same behaviors and lifestyles. It is an unfair double standard.

  7. CriticalOtaku

    I enjoyed reading your article! I never actually considered the stark differences between film portrayals of men growing up as compared to women, but your argument that such depictions are gendered definitely holds true. One thing I was wondering though was why do you think it is gendered? Or at least, why films often portray men as finding far smoother transitions into adulthood as compared to women?

  8. Critical- their “transition” is smoother because they are not required to transition! To answer your other question, they are gendered because more is expected from women morally; this is made obvious by the double standards. For example when a guy sleeps around he is just being a guy whereas when a woman does it she’s a whore to say the least. In fact that word alone is reserved for women hence the addition of the word “man” in man-whore to make it masculine. And even the word man-whore triggers a sense of laughter and light heartedness! The same cannot be said for the word reserved for women.

  9. Well written!

  10. Siobhan Calafiore

    Great article, I have never thought about the differences in portrayal of women to men who don’t want to grow up, but you make a good point!

  11. But a question remains: what is adulthood? How many people do you know who have a full time job, maybe even a committed relationship — heck, let’s say kids and a church and a condo with an herb garden in the window, but who still seem to struggle with insecurity that that developed in their early teens? I think another way to approach Peter Pan Syndrome, esp. in American women is looking at a society that promotes the inner female experience as being approximately 14 years old. The gendered analysis is then simply the well known trope: in the same way that a woman makes less than man working the same job, a woman gets less from the self America tries to sell her than man gets from the self America sells him.

  12. SparrowDemeter

    The gender differences in the portrayals of characters with the same issues are interesting. It makes me think about how women are expected to mature faster than men, almost as if we have to become mature as quickly as possible to prove that we can take care of ourselves so that we can then take care of others, as in taking up the expected roles of mother and wife

  13. Generally in film it seems that women take on the responsible role, and when they don’t act in a responsible manner it seems to often be portrayed as a form of rebellion or negative mental state.

  14. I think you raised an interesting point, not only on Peter Pan syndrome, but also on the current state of female roles in film. We’ve certainly come a long way since Laura Mulvey first made her arguments in regards to the male gaze. Both of the films that are mentioned, Young Adult and Frances Ha, passes the Bechdel test, which seems to be the preferred method for measuring a films portrayal of female characters. Your very well written piece helps to show that a positive portrayal of women in film is not so black and white.

  15. Sawanna
    0

    A brutal analysis I thought and yet another woman-bashing piece. Any adult who lives to be ‘very old’ will revert to childhood – come full circle. In that respect we are all Peter Pan. Recently, one of the oldest women in the world turned 105. The secret of her longevity, she revealed, was to never marry, never have children, enjoy a drink and live alone – displaying a few Peter Pan-like qualities. The are enough grown-up people in the world to allow the Peter Pans and Petra Pans to have their place. The world won’t stop turning on its axis because some men and women don’t want to grow up. I belong to the generation (baby boomer/Generation X) who lived differently and didn’t grow up. We followed our own desires. We are younger, older. I’ve got no problem with a female Peter Pan, and one reason people do have a problem with it is they read articles like yours and think that you’re the gospel. Long live female Petra Pans.

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