Michael Jackson,
Peter Pan &
‘The Spirit of Youth’ [THREAD]
Yesterday I watched “Peter Pan” for the first time in years. He was Michael Jackson’s favorite Disney character, the one he identified the most with, and by watching it now, as an adult, I hoped to achieve a deeper understanding of Michael’s motivations in his life.
After watching it I came to the conclusion that the association of Michael with Peter Pan, one that he made himself, has been portrayed inaccurately by society. In this thread I will talk about this apparent distortion, and what I believe was his true connection to Peter Pan.
Before we get to the thread, it should be noted that: 1) It only covers the first Peter Pan film; 2) I’m a social scientist, not a trained psychologist or psychotherapist. My thoughts are merely observations on individual and social behavior.
It was in the infamous 2003 Martin Bashir documentary that Michael famously said “I am Peter Pan.” Michael associated the character with “youth, childhood, never growing up, magic, (…) wonderment (...)”, things he had “never grown out of loving.”
Bashir’s highly criticized take on Michael’s life and personality illustrates the public discourse on the issue. When speaking of Neverland, his 2,700-acre ranch in California, Bashir says that it’s “literally paradise to a ten-year-old child, but Michael Jackson is now 44.”
Out of the aspects that Michael mentioned in relation to Peter Pan, Bashir chose to emphasize “never growing up”. While that was an important aspect, there is evidence that points to him having a different interpretation of “never growing up” than Bashir.
Bashir’s perspective can be traced back to a 1983 book called “The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up". In it, the author analyzed young men who he described as narcissists that avoided taking on responsibilities and having real relationships, refusing to grow up.
As we’ve discussed in a previous thread, that is not, by far, Michael’s profile. To the contrary. Michael started working at the age of 5. In his autobiography, “Moonwalk”, he talks about the times he had to perform late at night and then go to school the next morning.
He also recalls being inside the studio at a young age and watching kids play outside. The burden of responsibility, the feeling of having to abstain from doing what one really wants in order to fulfill a commitment, was imposed on him even before he reached his teenage years.
And unfortunately for Michael, childhood does not wait around for when one has the time to enjoy it. Those blissful years of innocence, joy and carelessness go by with the blink of an eye, causing in those that missed it a feeling of wanting to go back in time and stop the clock.
People say that your thirties are the first time you really feel the gap between who you were then and who you are now. You look back to your childhood and miss everything that surrounded you. You miss the magic, the wonder, the fresh eyes eager to explore and enjoy the world.
Michael was on the verge of turning thirty when he bought and moved into his Neverland ranch. He designed it to encapsulate everything that he loved and that he had been unable to enjoy as a child, due to his work, and, as an adult, due to his unprecedented fame.
But Michael's interest in childhood-related things and his love for children, who were a huge source of inspiration to him, had a deeper meaning than it appeared. In the past, he spoke about children’s perspective on life, one that isn't yet molded by social norms of adults.
As an artist and as an individual, Michael was invested in keeping this fresh perspective. This is where we finally circle back to the Peter Pan film.
The film is centered around the Darlings, a London-based family in which all members but the father believe in the existence of Peter Pan. To Mrs Darling, he represents ‘the spirit of youth’, while to the children (Wendy, John and Michael) Peter Pan is a living entity.
Mrs Darling’s take on Peter Pan seemed particularly interesting. While to the children imagination and magic were a part of life (hence their belief in a flesh-and-bone Peter), to her, an adult, he represents an idea, a feeling of youth, when one can dream and believe in magic.
The next scene, in which Peter appears in the children’s room and teaches them to fly (“You think of a wonderful thought...All it takes is faith and trust...And just a little bit of pixie dust”) emphasizes the powers of magic, imagination and positivity in transforming reality.
Peter is shown throughout the film as an usher to a world of wonder, an ageless entity that exists to remind people that anything can be achieved if you only allow yourself to let go and dream.
While I won’t go into the rest of the film, which takes Peter and the children to Neverland (a place where “You’ll never grow up” and “All your happy dreams come true”), because it’s mostly plot-driven and less symbolic, there’s a lot to unpack from these scenes.
My theory is that, while Michael was visibly fixated on childhood and wished he could go back in time to actually live his, his identification with Peter Pan had more to do with maintaining the ‘spirit of youth’ than with literally not growing up.
This makes more sense to me than the simplistic approach that says that his mental development stopped at age ten. After all, he enjoyed aspects of adult life that are out of reach for children, also making an effort to rethink social norms of adulthood that impair imagination.
Michael was not stuck in time, nor did he shy away from responsibility – he lived an adult life from the age of five. He had stable relationships, was a savvy business man and a highly accomplished professional, on which many people depended.
In the final scene of Peter Pan, the Darlings come home to find their children excitedly talking about their adventures in Neverland. The father, the ultimate pragmatic, looks outside the window and sees a pirate ship floating in the sky. He becomes a believer.
To those interested, here are the links to my other threads about MJ:
The viewer is left with a lingering question, one that certainly crossed Michael’s mind: what great adventures could we live if only we allowed ourselves to dream and have faith? //

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