Entertainment

03.20.14

Is Rooney Mara Too White For Tiger Lily? Peter Pan’s History of Racism

Warner Brothers’ Peter Pan origin story, Pan, has cast Rooney Mara to play Tiger Lily, a Native American. This isn’t the first time Neverland’s been a bit racist.

Because Hollywood truly is a mystical Neverland, where studio executives Neverlearn and Neverevolve, Warner Brothers’ upcoming Peter Pan origin story, Pan, has cast the gorgeous, talented, and whiter than a bleached ghost Rooney Mara to play the part of Tiger Lily, a Native American.

Suffice it to say that, in response, no one’s thinking happy thoughts.

A petition has already launched pleading Warner Brothers to stop casting white actors to play people of color. “The casting choice is particularly shameful for a children’s movie,” the petition states. “Telling children their role models must be all white is unacceptable.” The petition also points out that 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and Blue Is the Warmest Color breakout Adèle Exarchopoulos were considered for the role, only increasing the co-signers’ outrage that a white actress was cast to portray the Native American character instead.

Now, not to lend credence to petition protesting a casting decision—ridiculous petitions have been launched in response to everything under the sun, including 50 Shades of Grey castings, after all—but there is something to examine here. Namely, how Hollywood could be so obtuse.  

Listen, today’s world is basically an actor’s waking nightmare. The crushing, psychosis-inducing “too this” and “too that” criticism and feedback they hear just from the soulless bodies within in the walls of casting office comes from a peanut gallery the size of the world wide web.

Sometimes that’s not the best thing. Don’t we all look stupid now whining about Jennifer Lawrence being cast in The Hunger Games, considering she’s since proven to be the magic kindling that makes the girl on fire burn so bright? But sometimes it’s an important development, like when a chorus of backlash alerts Disney to the fact that casting Johnny Depp to play Tonto in last year’s The Lone Ranger is horribly offensive and maybe they shouldn’t make such a boneheaded decision ever again.

But how quickly we forget. And not just about the Depp as Tonto debacle, either (hell, the freaking Oscars gave Redface: The Movie its seal of approval with a nod this year for Best Makeup). The entire history of Peter Pan adaptations’ insensitivity towards Native American and the outrage it has stirred over the years, apparently, has been forgotten. Because anyone with a semblance of self-awareness could have predicted that casting Mara as Tiger Lily would have brought those controversies back to life faster than some vigorous clapping revives Tinker Bell.

The freaking Oscars gave Redface: The Movie its seal of approval with a nod this year for Best Makeup.

To be fair, J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play’s description and portrayal of Tiger Lily provided the framework that defined how Native Americans would be depicted in future adaptations: she was characterized as an Indian princess living in Neverland and drawn with a feather in hair and a fringed costume.

Then came the 1953 Disney movie, in which Tiger Lily’s father is literally colored in redface. Now, let’s all take a trip down memory lane to our childhood’s indoctrinated racism, and watch this clip from the cherished animated film, “What Makes the Red Man Red?”

Video screenshot

Have you stopped cringing?

But we’re not done with today’s “Wait, Was I a Racist Child?” soul searching. Next up is the Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, which was filmed live for NBC in 1955, 1956, 1960 and which lived on in posterity on the VHS that my siblings and I watched until it literally burnt out growing up. It starred Mary Martin as Peter and had this energetic show-stopping number. It was called “Ugg-a-Wugg.” Tiger Lily led this song-and-dance. Tiger Lily was played by Sondra Lee, a spunky little blonde white girl.

My god was this thing offensive:

Video screenshot

As the years passed, we’ve mercifully become wise to the fact that these depictions were, you know, incredibly racist. The 2003 film Peter Pan cast Haida-descendant Carsen Gray in the role, while Syfy’s miniseries starred Q’orianka Kilcher as Tiger Lily. NBC will apply the same treatment to the Peter Pan musical this year that it did last year to the Sound of Music starring Carrie Underwood. Who’s as excited as I am to see how they navigate the treacherous “Ugg-a-Wugg” waters?

One would hope that they’ll nix the whole racist song, but then again, one also hoped that after Johnny Depp offended millions with his portrayal of Tonto, we would never be in this “Is Rooney Mara Too White to Play Tiger Lily in Pan?” situation in the first place.

It’s important to note that we know next to nothing about Joe Wright and Jason Fuchs’s Pan. We know that Hugh Jackman will play Blackbeard, Garrett Hedlund, will play Hook, child star Levi Miller will play Peter Pan, and Rooney Mara will play Tiger Lily. Who knows what conception they have planned for Tiger Lily, or if she’s even meant to be indigenous at all? One would assume that, whatever characterization they have planned for the role, Mara nailed her audition, especially considering her tough competition.

But this backlash? We also know that it would’ve been expected when you cast a white actress as a character that’s ingrained in our minds as a Native American and that, given the messy history Hollywood has of portraying that character, the decision to do so would ruffle more than a few feathers.

We choose to believe that this reaction is all premature, overblown handwringing over what will end up being the perfect casting choice. But this is Hollywood we’re talking about. So maybe believing that is as ridiculous as believing in fairies.