March 14, 2014

Redeeming Tiger Lily in Pan

While some people slammed the whitewashing of Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan movie, others took a broader view of the racial issues:

If Joe Wright’s ‘Pan’ Wants to Be “Multi-Racial,” Why Cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily?

By Kate Erbland“Wright is planning to create a world that very international and multi-racial, effectively challenging audiences’ preconceived notions of Neverland and reimagining the environment.” “Rooney Mara is in negotiations to play Tiger Lily.”

Do these two statements seem at odds with each other? The Wrap reported both--in the same story!--yesterday, as part of a casting bit that passes along word that Mara is reportedly in negotiations to take on the role of Tiger Lily in one of the many Peter Pan “reimaginings” flying around Hollywood. Director Joe Wright has steadily been lining up other interested talents for his Pan, and while there is a touch of international appeal here (one of them is Australian!), it certainly seems out of touch and frankly incorrect to tout that a film that seems poised to star Mara, Hugh Jackman, and Garrett Hedlund is somehow “multi-racial.”
Rooney Mara Cast As Tiger Lily, Wariness Ensues

By Lexi NisitaWarner Bros. appears to have anticipated this controversy—and rightly so. According to Variety, "The world being created is multi-racial/international—and a very different character than previously imagined." That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem. In fact, it sounds nice! In order to make the Peter Pan story into something progressive and relatable instead of an outdated, racist mess, you'd basically have to rewrite the entire thing. Re-imagining that world in a way that doesn't treat Native American characters like mythical creatures and preserving the core of the story while casting in a modern, colorblind way (à la Shonda Rhimes, perhaps) would restore a lot of our faith in Hollywood. It might work, but we're putting an emphasis on the might, because this is dangerous territory and it could also go very, very wrong. Re-imagining a story to remove unfortunate racial stereotypes is a worthwhile endeavor, but re-imagining a Native American character as a white character is not a step in the right direction, unless it's coupled by a lot of bold choices in the opposite direction. Almost everyone in mainstream cinema is already conceived of as white, to begin, that's not a very imaginative way of doing anything, is it?

First, there's the issue that Native American people are hugely underrepresented in Hollywood as actors (and as characters). In a perfect world, people of a variety of different races would be cast in a variety of different roles—roles that aren't defined by the character's racial identity. But, that's not the world we live in. Instead, many non-white actors and actresses only get leading roles in movies that specifically deal with racial themes or require a specific ethnicity to be represented, for some reason. So, it only aggravates the problem when even for those roles, white actors are cast.
Rooney Mara’s Casting Isn’t the Only Problem With ‘Peter Pan’s’ Native American Character, Tiger Lily

By Tyler CoatesWhat’s astounding, of course, is that the outrage is about a white woman playing the character Tiger Lily rather than the fact that Tiger Lily is part of the new script at all. The character is not a particularly sensitive or sophisticated representation of a Native American woman; after all, the idea of a Scottish author adding a tribe of indigenous Americans to his fairy-tale land is a little uncomfortable, no? Especially given that Barrie’s name for the group is the Piccanniny Tribe. From their earliest appearance in Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the Picanniny Tribe was depicted in typical stereotypical fashion: wearing pelts and feathers in their hair, communicating in guttural grunts. Disney’s popular animated film version was not better; while Tiger Lily herself is visibly Native American, she doesn’t utter a line of dialogue. And let’s not forget the 1954 Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, which featured a Nordic Tiger Lily and the song “Ugg-a-Wug.”

Many other modern Peter Pan retellings, from Steven Spielberg’s Hook to Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Peter and the Starcatchers series (and the subsequent Tony-winning play based upon the first book), have removed the Native American elements entirely, which is all probably for the best. It’s not that Native Americans don’t deserve to be depicted in the story; the question is: why have the Indians, representative of the English fascination with Native Americans, remained in the various adaptations of Peter Pan throughout the years in the first place?

The point is, the whitewashing of Tiger Lily and the Native American tribe is nothing new; if anything, it has its roots in J. M. Barrie’s own vision for the Peter Pan story. The Indians are the other, a fantasy-land version of a real, diverse group of individuals. That they have been depicted with such ruthless stereotypes is an unfortunate truth born out of the unsophisticated mindset of the time in which these characters were created.

If Pan does anything right, it’ll strike the notion that Tiger Lily is an Indian princess at all. Sure, if her “tribe” is in fact indigenous to Neverland, it would have been nice to see an actor of color play the part. But that the post-Victorian concept of Native Americans is still so deeply intertwined with Neverland’s indigenous peoples is an issue; if Pan does its job well as a reimagination of this classic story and its characters, it’ll treat Tiger Lily as a literary figure with more respect than previous films, theater productions, and books. After all, in this new, imaginative vision of Neverland—a fictional place, after all—all bets are off, and Joe Wright and his team could potentially improve upon over a hundred years of negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples.
Comment:  Until Pan casts its first person of color in a major role, the "multiracial" claim is a joke. Indeed, it may be an outright lie intended to ward off criticism.

I tend to agree with these critics. It's not enough to say Tiger Lily is Native, so she should remain Native. You have to consider the whole context: namely, Peter, Wendy, and the boys as white saviors and the Indians as primitive savages. No matter who plays Tiger Lily, these problems will remain.

I tweeted some thoughts on these issues:

New "Peter Pan" to be set in WW II era. So the Indians will be soldiers, factory workers, etc. in Western clothes?

Good writing could redeem the Lone Ranger's Tonto. The savage Indians of Neverland are irredeemable. They should be changed or eliminated.

Make the savages a band of pirates, cavemen, Greeks, or whatever. If no leathers and feathers, they won't "read" as Indians.

Indians aren't essential to story. A white or Native woman could lead generic tribesmen. But if they're Native, cast Natives.

Heck, turn Peter Pan's "Indians" into a multicultural band of hipsters a la Coachella. Then cast a Native actress as the tribe's leader.

No matter who plays Tiger Lily, Neverland's Indians = primitive people of the past. Literally fantasy figures divorced from tribal reality.

Tiger Lily vs. Tonto

Casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily has obvious has parallels with casting Johnny Depp as Tonto. But there are key differences:

  • The Lone Ranger is a reality-based story. Peter Pan is a fantasy.

  • You can argue that Westerns featuring traditional Indians don't help today's Native people. They reinforce rather than dispel the age-old stereotypes of Indians as primitive people of the past. Americans are already inundated with images of Indians as chiefs and warriors; they don't need any more.

    But if you're making a Western for whatever reason, traditional Indians are appropriate. They belong in such a story. Leaving them out is arguably worse than putting them in.

    In contrast, Peter Pan's Neverland adventures first appeared in 1904, in a story set in that era. Indians then were adopting Western clothes and lifestyles. They were no longer warriors in buckskins hunting animals and enemies.

    You could argue for including 20th-century Indians in a 20th-century Peter Pan. But no one has done that before, or is proposing that here. Inevitably, any Indians in Peter Pan will be fantasy figures like the story's mermaids, fairies, and pirates.

  • The Lone Ranger's "faithful Indian companion" is integral to the story. The Indians in Peter Pan aren't.

  • Without Tonto, the Ranger is just another gun-slinging lawman. His partnership with Tonto is arguably his defining trait.

    In contrast, J.M. Barrie wanted any old band of brutes to add exotic "color." As the "Piccaninny" name indicates, he didn't care whether they were African or Native American.

    Their role in the story is minor and can easily be omitted. Indeed, creators have done versions of Peter Pan without the Indians, which proves they're unnecessary.

    In short, hanging on to these stereotypical savages would be a mistake. Unless Tiger Lily is a sophisticated Native woman without a savage tribe, I don't see a good way to redeem her.

    For more on the subject, see Tiger Lily in Peter Pan: An Allegory of Anglo-Indian Relations.

    Below:  Carsen Grey (Haida) as Tiger Lily.

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