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The Discourse

We Don’t Talk Enough About: Kirsten Dunst Saying the Name ‘Peter’

What is it about this face that compels Hollywood screenwriters to write 'Peter' over and over and over again?

Sony Pictures

A few months ago, I was on a run while listening to a podcast in which they mentioned the then-up-and-coming and now-behemoth Spider-Man: No Way Home. The discussion caused the name “Peter Parker” to get lodged into my brain, which is a thing that happens a lot when I’m running and listening to stuff. I’ll be trotting along and then every step will be “Watermelon” (trot) “Sugar” (trot) or “Jeremy” (trot) “Sisto” (trot), even after the people in my ears have long since moved on. Anyway, that day it was “Peter” (trot) “Parker” (trot).

Then I started thinking about actor Kirsten Dunst, as one does, and her saying “Peter” (trot) “Parker” (trot) in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies. That led me to a funny realization, which is that one of the most iconic Kirsten Dunst screen moments (for me and me alone) involves her saying “Peter” in 1995’s Jumanji, a movie I’ve seen roughly 500 times. The moment is largely insignificant in the film, but it sneakily and permanently crept its way into my malleable child mind many years ago and has remained there ever since. It comes after the Dunst character’s little brother (Peter!!) tricks Robin Williams’ character into playing the titular Jumanji game with them using some crafty reverse psychology. Afterward, Dunst’s character says to him (Peter), “Peter, that was very cool.” The way she says it is essentially part of my DNA at this point. You can watch it here

Anyway, I tucked this quiet realization into the recesses of my mind where it sat comfortably dormant until a few weeks ago, when I watched Dunst’s most recent film, The Power of the Dog. I’m sure you can see where this is going. In the film, Dunst’s son (and main character, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is named PETER (Peter!) and she says “Peter” several times—a surprising and rich contribution to my mind’s catalog of Kirsten Dunst saying the word “Peter.”  

Two is a coincidence and three’s a trend, but reader, it doesn’t stop there. I remembered soon after watching The Power of the Dog that Dunst’s costar in Wimbledon, Paul Bettany, plays a character named Peter! Naturally, she says “Peter” a lot in that movie. At this point, I took my growing obsession to Google where I was blessed to find a whole dang video called, “How Many Times Does Kirsten Dunst Say ‘Peter’ In Movies?” 

This, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the only thing on the whole internet tracking this phenomena, which the narrator rightly calls “A very specific coincidence called ‘Peter.’” It is a deep, deep dive, and includes way more connections between Dunst and the name Peter than I would personally deem noteworthy. That said, if you have 17 minutes and have made it this far in this blog, consider clicking. Highlights include every time Kiki says “Peter” in Jumanji, the Spider-Man movies, and Wimbledon. What a thrill! 

If you don’t have 17 minutes, here is the gist with some updated additions, as the video is now two-plus years old: Kirsten Dunst has 86 acting credits on IMDB and of those credits, a notable number of those projects include characters named Peter, from The Bonfire of the Vanities to ER to The Virgin Suicides to Deeply (that one is technically “Peat”) to Get Over It. Not only that, this woman has said the word “Peter” on screen over 50 times. That’s a lot of Peters for one little woman (unfortunately there are no characters in the iconic 1994 film Little Women named Peter). 

So what gives?? Is Peter simply a common character name like Jack, Sarah, or “Doctor”? Is it just a common name in general? Well, yes, and yes, and no. I found one site that semi-scientifically determined that Peter is indeed among the most common names in movies and according to the U.S. Social Security Administration, the name Peter ranks 214 in popularity among boys as of 2020, though overall, it has been in a state of steady decline since its peak popularity in the 1940s and 50s. It stands to reason that many of the people writing the screenplays of Dunst’s earlier works would be a product of that era, but it’s still a notable phenomenon for a single actress to be so deeply tied to one man’s name, right? What is it about her, or the projects she’s drawn to, that would result in such a weird case of serendipity?? 

In my dream of dreams, someday, somewhere, someone will ask Dunst about this. Ask if she’s noticed, ask if she cares, ask if she has any theories about how all of this Peter business came to be. In the meantime, I’ve developed my own story. It goes like this: Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown (another film that sadly has no Peter) is one of the, if not the, foundational examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The term’s inventor, critic Nathan Rabin, wrote that the character of the MPDG “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Maybe, just maybe, the uber Manic Pixie Dream Girl is manifesting too. A shapeshifting creative counterpoint. Her own fever dream personified. He’s steadfast, ever-present, singular, but shapeshifting. He’s Peter.