“It’s time to step up,” is what a friend said to me the other day. My silent response in my mind was, “Yes, it is”— but there are many ways to “step up” in regard to one’s behavior. This call to maturity made me think about my own ethics which relishes youthfulness. I always told myself that I’d never become “old,” never become stuck in my ways, never stop seeing the world with a child’s eyes or rose-colored glasses. I believe in “the new” and the possibility of the new, of love, of romance. I didn’t want to become one of those old, jaded lesbians who, because she is anchored to her past experiences, refuses to live life with inspired positivity, with optimism.
Later that night I began to think about the kind of youthfulness that I wanted to carry with me throughout my life. Does an ethic of youthfulness necessarily imply an immaturity — a refusal to “step up”?
And what does growing up mean for people who exist in a subculture that intentionally thwarts heteronormative ideals of maturity? Or, are homos, since we have become so “normalized” or “accepted” by dominant society (we don’t even need our own television programming anymore!), expected to participate in codified rituals of maturation, such as marriage and making babies and working “real” (non-humanities, arts or education related) jobs?
A desire to remain youthful can manifest variously in one’s ethics. Outside myself and my own penchant for dirty jokes and tendency to infuse sexual innuendo into discussion without discrimination, I began to think about how immaturity manifests within the lesbian community. Are there behaviors and/or stylized ways of being (via a self-fashioning) that bespeak or portray immaturity? Does the lesbian harbor a Peter Pan Complex?
The Peter Pan Complex, or “Syndrome” as it is sometimes regarded, is derived from the Latin term puer aeternus, meaning “eternal boy” and inspired by J.M. Barrie’s play about Peter Pan and his adventures in Neverland. Peter Pan, we all know, is the boy who escapes to Neverland because he refuses to “grow up.” Dan Kiley’s 1983 pop-psychology work, The Peter Pan Syndrome, analyzes the mind of the boy who refuses to become a man, whereby he delineates and defines the six symptoms of “PPS”: “irresponsibility, anxiety, loneliness, sex role conflict (crossing into the other gender’s “territory”), narcissism, and chauvinism.” Kiley’s conceptualization of the Peter Pan Syndrome was, as is standard of psychoanalysis, a wholly negative clinical prescription of this type of character. Thus, in Marjorie Garber’s estimation, this Syndrome bespeaks an individual who indulges in acts of “transgression without guilt, pain, penalty [or] conflict.” Peter Pan, she posits in her reading of Pan’s queer history in Vested Interests, “is a kind of Wendy Unbound, a regendered, not-quite-degendered alternative persona who can have adventures, fight pirates, smoke pipes, and cavort with redskins.”
Peter Pan, in this regard, is the “eternal child,” a gender ambiguous person whose “transgressive” actions are done out of “ignorance” or a naivety. It is both a physical youth and a psychological youthfulness that characterizes Peter Pan—and, I think, that characterizes, in today’s cultural imaginary, a particular kind of lesbian.
Because sexuality is not visible, explains Richard Dyer in The Matter of Images, there is a tendency to read it through gender. The “tomboy,” that gender ambiguous female waif, is, when she reaches a particular age, read indiscriminately as lesbian (even though the tomboy may in actuality love peen and identify as “straight”). In the lesbian cultural imaginary (of gender), the tomboy has, in its 21st century machination, appeared most notoriously as the “boi,” as the “Biebian,” and, to a lesser extent, for the more trans identified in our community, the “fag boi.” Freud would classify these lesbians as flagrantly immature girls who refuse to enter into the submissive realm of womanhood; today we just think of these lesbians as a product of the Millennial Generation. There is, to be honest, a Peter Pannish stereotype of these lesbians as live-at-home, trust fund babies who are — because they have time and, frankly, no larger responsibilities — busy at work “reporting” and thereby “crafting” lesbian culture on the interwebs.
But this is just a gross stereotype, to be sure …
Could lesbians, in one broad stroke, especially those lesbians who do not believe in cultural traditions like marriage or norms like making babies, be considered Peter Pans?
Or is it simply the fact that any minority subculture, since it systematically differs from majoritarian culture, will always be read as “immature” or “less than” the dominant (white patriarchal) culture?
Or is it something else, even — something on the level of the person, something within the psyche of the lesbian, that, in a positive valence, cherishes youth and therefore embodies an ethics of optimism, whimsy, and romance? (Capitalist society scoffs at optimism and romance.) Youthfulness is not the same as immaturity, even though the two are more often than not equated.
If to be like Peter Pan, in a non-psychoanalytic interpretation, means an enjoyment of life outside of cultural, gendered norms of what I can and cannot do as “woman,” then sign me up. If to be like Peter Pan means that one interrogates heterodoxy, homogeneity, and “accepted” ways of being, then sign me up again.
But here is where transgression becomes dangerously unethical or “immature”: in one’s abnegation of responsibility, in one’s inability or refusal to accountability. Transgression, yes, but transgression should be informed, or not done out of feigned ignorance. To be in full possession of one’s transgressiveness indicates an enlightened maturity that need not conflict with one’s desired youthfulness. It also signifies that one knows her self intimately. This is a kind of self-knowledge that one can work toward understanding or that one can run from — say, to Neverland. Or Los Angeles.
Dr. Marcie Bianco is now a resident of Brooklyn but is still gloriously unemployed— as only one with a handful of useless degrees could be. She currently serves as the Editorial Director of VelvetPark.