December 08, 2014

Native stereotypes in Peter Pan Live!

Let's turn from the overall production of Peter Pan Live! to its Native aspects. First, the problems in the source material:

What's up, Tiger Lily? Peter Pan and the Native American stereotype that has certainly grown old

NBC featured an actress of Cherokee descent, but some say Rooney Mara’s forthcoming film turn will merely be ‘redface’. Is there any way to redeem JM Barrie’s most dated character?

By Alan Yuhas
In the 1904 play and 1911 novel that brought Peter Pan to fame, Barrie calls Tiger Lily a princess of a “Piccaninny tribe.” She has all the trappings we now recognize from the worst sort of Native American stereotype. Tiger Lily puts her ear to the earth, breaks out a peace pipe, and speaks with her cohorts in guttural gibberish. Most uncomfortably, Barrie is not only prolific with the word “redskin” but also has Tiger Lily rapturously declare Peter “the Great White Father,” after he saves her life.

There is, however, “something about Peter that captivated everyone and let Barrie get away with a lot,” said Anne Hiebert Alton, a professor at Central Michigan University and the editor of a scholarly edition of Peter Pan. From Barrie’s perspective, she said, the world divided easily between the British and everyone else.

“He’s not being consciously racist,” she said. “But we still can’t let him off the hook.”

Barrie’s works do stink of their era. He turns Tiger Lily into a hero but makes sure she is subservient to Peter; he treats her tribe as better than the true enemy (pirates, adults) but not nearly as important as the heroes (boys, kids, not girls). Alton also pointed out that Barrie died in 1937–long before anyone thought to take issue with his portrayal of Native Americans.

The production tried to fix the problems:

Ugg-A-Wha? Updating Stereotypes in ‘Peter Pan’

By Jeremy EgnerAll of which put the casting of Tiger Lily and a reworking of the song “Ugg-A-Wugg” near the top of the list of things NBC’s new “Peter Pan Live!,” which debuts at 8 p.m. Thursday Eastern time, had to get right.

“Tiger Lily needed to be Native American—that’s how Barrie conceived the role,” said Neil Meron, an executive producer. But the treatment can’t be “insulting to the Native American community,” he said.

Enter Alanna Saunders, 22, who graduated from the University of Miami in May and had lived in New York for roughly two weeks before she saw a flyer seeking Native American actors to audition for Tiger Lily. Ms. Saunders, a descendant of the Cherokee Nation, won the part and is thus starting her professional career on a live network extravaganza before an audience of millions, sharing the stage with the likes of Christopher Walken (as Captain Hook).

“It feels so ridiculous that I got this opportunity,” she said from the set last week.

Ms. Saunders brought no expectations to the production, she said, mostly because she had so little experience to draw upon. But she was curious about how “Peter Pan Live!” was going to handle one of the musical’s most famous numbers.

“I was thinking, ‘There’s no way they can do “Ugg-A-Wugg,”’” she said. “Because the lyrics are gibberish, and they’re pretty offensive in terms of trying to be any sort of authentic Native American reference.”

The song is a duet between Tiger Lily and Peter Pan, in which the islanders and Peter’s Lost Boys form an alliance against Captain Hook. To refresh it for modern sensibilities, the songwriter Amanda Green, the daughter of an original “Peter Pan” lyricist, Adolph Green, and David Chase, the production’s music director, worked with Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, an Emmy-winning composer and member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. The nonsense lyrics were replaced with nursery rhymes and the rhythms were shifted to make the song less stereotypical and more authentically Native American. (Mr. Tate discussed the process in more detail in recent interviews.)
Natives still criticize production

From Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature blog:

"True Blood Brothers" in NBC's production of Peter PanThe take away? Lot of stereotyping:

Indians with crossed arms: check
Scantily clad Indians: check
Playing drum with hands: check
Kids playing Indian: check
Hollywood Indian music: check
Overrepresentation of men: check

So--a question.

"O-a-hey" is supposed to be a Wyandotte word. Does that make this all better? No. Not at all.

#NotYourTigerLily: Nine Months Later and They Still Don’t Get the Point

By Johnnie JaeHaving seen the production, I cannot even begin to understand how anyone could think that this gross misappropriation of our indigenous identities and culture is a step forward in diminishing harmful and racist stereotypes. It’s still the same disappointing, exploitative and racist characterization of indigenous women and people that it has always been. What’s really disheartening is that they took the same approach that Warner Bros. has decided to take with their feature film, Pan.

“They created a non-Native “tribe” that faux-headdress-loving Coachella fans would be proud of, while simultaneously engaging in an activity mainstream society is adept at—silencing Native peoples,” says Tara Houska of Not Your Mascots. “There are plenty of Native actors and actresses to fill Native roles, and plenty of Native writers to consult. If Hollywood feels the need to bring back a character entirely based on racist stereotypes, one would think the smartest approach would be involving Natives as much as possible in the character’s re-imagination.”

Let’s be honest. Peter Pan is one of the most racist and misogynistic literary classics and so are the cartoons, plays and films inspired by the novel. The world of Peter Pan is fiction, but the harm done through the blatantly racist treatment and portrayal of Indigenous people in the story is our reality.

I asked Not Your Mascots’ Maggie Hundley why it was important to discuss the issues with Tiger Lily and her Tribe in the Neverland Universe and she replied:

“Unfortunately, as a kid, I bought into the Indian ‘maiden’ and ‘princess’ caricatures that I saw in movies and cartoons and used them to judge myself. Things need to change. By calling out the degrading and exploitative character of Tiger Lily in Peter Pan movies and plays, we are challenging institutionalized stereotyping of indigenous girls and women in entertainment. It is important to call out these mockeries and create a new narrative to replace the false ones that are force-fed to us by major companies such as Warner Brothers and NBC.”
While Johnnie Jae wanted Native creators to fix the Native portrayals, Adrienne Keene suggested another approach:

Keene: Why 'Fix' Tiger Lily? Why Can't We Just Let Her Go?

By Dr. Adrienne KeeneThose who may have followed my writings on Tonto and Disney’s 2013 Lone Ranger film might see this as a marked switch from my attitude at the beginning of that journey. I argued, very strongly, that Disney should have cast a Native in the role of Tonto, that Comanche advisors and other Native peoples should have been involved much earlier in the process to shape and develop portrayals of Native peoples on the screen.

After watching that long saga unfold, I have a different opinion. I don’t want Native peoples to be forced into a role of trying to put band-aids on a gaping wound of racism. I want Hollywood to stop resurrecting these racist characters.

Think of the world created by the story of Peter Pan. Neverland is inhabited by mermaids, pirates*, fairies…and Indians. Fantasy creatures, meant to show how different Neverland is than the world the Darling children inhabit. The problem is, Native peoples aren’t fantasy creatures, nor are we something of the past, like pirates. We’re real, contemporary human beings. We don’t all live in tipis and smoke peace pipes and say things like “squ*w gettum firewood.”

So my advice the next time that a high school wants to put on Peter Pan or the next studio wants to make another remake: Cut the “Indians” out. Completely. Be creative. Find some other fantasy creature to replace them with. My colleagues last night came up with the idea of space aliens, which I kinda love. A completely fictional “other,” allowing for full creativity. Make up some shiny silver blobs for them to live in. Make up a language. Wrap them in foil or something. Just don’t call them Indians.
Comment:  For more on Peter Pan, see Peter Pan Live! Reviewed and A 21st-Century Peter Pan and Peter Pan's Racist History.

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