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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan perpetuates stereotypes, underrepresentation of Native Americans

On March 12, Variety.com announced that actress Rooney Mara has been cast as Tiger Lily from the Peter Pan story in Joe Wright’s retelling called Pan set by Warner Bros. to come out July 2015.

                The trouble is that Tiger Lily is explicitly stated in the novel and play as being a Native American. Rooney Mara is clearly white and pale-skinned. As far as sources such as Flavorwire, Imdb, and Entertainment Weekly can tell, there has been no change to Tiger Lily’s identity as Native American.

                This issue has two major parts to it: the blatant whitewashing of a role clearly intended for a Native American woman and the inclusion of a Tiger Lily at all in this retelling considering her racist portrayal in the original story.

The inappropriate casting decision

                The problem is relatively simple: a white woman should not be cast in a role for a character who is stated as specifically Native American in the source material. It is just as inappropriate if Channing Tatum played Malcolm X or if Selena Gomez played Mulan.

                Certainly, ignorant “equality”-minded internet folk will attempt inaccurate comparisons of the backlash of this issue to Michael B. Jordan’s casting as the Human Torch or Quvenzhané Wallis’ casting as Annie in other upcoming films crying, “Why is it okay for black actors to take white roles if a white person can’t take a Native American role? That’s racist!”

What this fails to acknowledge is that stories such as Annie’s are universal, yet that of a Native American is not. Annie’s race plays no part in her story.   On the other hand, in Tiger Lily’s case her racial identity is core to her character’s role in the story. Most Peter Pan adaptations consider her an important character for her extensive knowledge of Neverland, having been exposed to her tribe’s deep history with the island. She is unique to Neverland and her personality traits such as her bravery and pride also stem from her association with her, albeit stereotypical, tribe.

                Furthermore, Mara does not display the physical characteristics remotely related to those of a Native American. This provides a disturbing opportunity for the usage of redface, or makeup to represent a Native American based on a stereotyped caricature.  It will also allow for the perpetuation of harmful, one-dimensional stereotypes of a large, diverse group of people.

                Mara’s signing on for this role shuts out the opportunity for a relatively unknown Native American actress to gain exposure in Hollywood, opportunities that are very scarce for such a marginalized community in show business. Whitewashing Tiger Lily’s character means that Native Americans are further erased from society’s consciousness. Native Americans are vastly underrepresented in today’s American society, and seeing a white person onscreen where a Native American should be affirms to viewers everywhere that they are unimportant and even nonexistent.
The problem with Tiger Lily

                The original Peter Pan was written by J.M. Barrie in 1902 as a tale of innocence and adventure. However, the author’s worldview was extremely Eurocentric and thus Tiger Lily represented English fascination with Native Americans. As a result, the author’s depiction of Native Americans was limited, flawed, and ultimately racist in nature. The author wrote them into the story as a fantastical version of a real, large group of people. This carried over into even Disney’s 1953 film adaptation in which Tiger Lily’s people were referred to as “redskins” consistently. Tiger Lily has no spoken lines except for an attempt to say “Help!” while her father and his tribesmen speak primarily in guttural grunts. This conveys the voicelessness of Native Americans and the erasure of their collective identity.

                A further common misconception of Native Americans is that of the “Indian princess.” In the play she is described as follows:

               The concept of an "Indian princess" was the projection of European explorers' social structures onto the Native Americans they encountered. There is no such thing as an Indian princess. The fact that this aspect is still embedded into Mara’s role strongly suggests this racist stereotype will be perpetuated in this role.

                Adaptations such as Hook and Peter and the Starcatchers tactfully chose not to include Tiger Lily at all, recognizing the controversy of her depiction in earlier retellings. Indeed, neither she nor the Chieftain made an appearance in the sequel of Disney’s film version. It would have been wise for Pan to follow suit.

                This is why Mara as Tiger Lily is problematic. Not only is a white woman set to play a Native American’s role, but a white woman is set to play a Native American woman’s role that has been historically racist in nature.

                The filmmakers have an opportunity to follow through with their “multicultural” retelling, which admittedly has not been off to a good start with Hugh Jackman (white actor) as Blackbeard and Garret Hedlund (white) as Hook. If Mara is playing Tiger Lily, her backstory should be changed to fit that of a white individual rather than that of a Native American in order to avoid inappropriate redface. Revamping Tiger Lily’s story as one that better correlates with the more sensitive and politically correct ideals of modern society would be intriguing and make for a much more compelling film. It would also undoubtedly be a very constructive way for the filmmakers to distance themselves from the source material in the way they seem to intend. For now, as further developments in casting and production are announced, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for a Latino Peter and an Asian Tinkerbell.