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When Variety broke the news yesterday that Rooney Mara had been cast in the role of Tiger Lily in an upcoming "Peter Pan" revamp titled "Pan," the backlash was swift and fierce. “Great to see Hollywood so thoughtfully responding to criticism that it woefully under- and misrepresents indigenous people!” snarled Jezebel. Referring to the controversial "Lone Ranger," Entertainment Weekly wrote that in the wake of Johnny Depp’s Tonto, “With Mara’s casting, it feels like a giant step backwards. Both could have been great opportunities to cast working Native American actors.”
Twitter also lit up with angry and disappointed tweets like:
Possibly to deflect the inevitable criticism, a representative of Disney told Variety, “The world being created is multi-racial/international—and a very different character than previously imagined.” And went on to say, “The studio took on an exhaustive search in finding the right girl to play Lily looking at other actresses such as Lupita Nyonog’o and "Blue is the Warmest Color’s" Adele Exarchopoulos before going out to Mara for the role.”
Although there have been a few bright spots such as "Smoke Signals," "Skins," and "The Last of The Mohicans," it’s true that Hollywood has a shameful history when it comes it’s treatment Native American culture and casting of indigenous people—which in turn has influenced real world prejudice and ignorance. “The image of the American Indian, more than any other ethnic group has been shaped by films,” writes the Smithsonian’s Wilcomb E. Washburn in the book 'Hollywood Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film,' wherein he describes that depiction as one teeming with cruelty, savagery, and exoticism.
But, the case of Mara as Tiger Lily isn’t the slam-dunk controversy that's being portrayed. For one thing, Peter Pan’s “Indian Princess” is a imaginary character not a real person, and for another, neither the original book nor the animated movie were exactly beacons of political correctness to be emulated to a tee. As the news network Indian Country Today points out, “In J.M. Barrie's original play (but not the movie), they are said to be of the ‘Pickaninny Tribe,’ which adds an anti-African American slur to the anti-Native ‘redskin’ caricature. It's a blurring that suggests Barrie didn't really care whether he was writing about Indians, or Africans, or African Indians or Indian Africans — he simply wanted a handy caricature and exotic other that might show up in the dreams of white English kids circa 1904.” As for the film, Tiger Lily’s tribe is depicted as a group of violent savages who speak in pidgin English and sing the offensive song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” Yes, there is a need for more opportunities for Native American actors, but would casting one in a racially dicey role actually redress anything? In a 2007 Platinum Edition DVD, Marc Davis, one of the original supervising animators said, “I’m not sure we would have done the Indians if we were making this film now. And if we had, we wouldn’t do them the way we did back then.”
The larger issue is what do you do with a work of art that doesn’t live up to today’s principles of diversity and inclusion? Most of us were introduced to "Peter Pan" as children and that’s why we’re both so attached to it and still a little blind to the racially insensitive characters like Tiger Lily and her tribe of “savages.” People love her, hence the outcry — she was the was the cool one you wanted to be playing dress up, not goody two shoes Wendy or manipulative, disloyal Tinker Bell. But back then, nobody bothered to explain the nuances of the book or film, why "Peter Pan" is mostly brilliant, but seriously compromised. Who knows if the Disney reboot will succeed in its reimagining of the story, to me its not clear that sidestepping the issue of the "Indians" altogether is any worse than re-writing the story to make them seem more acceptable by contemporary standards. Isn’t that ‘whitewashing’ as well? You can get your Tiger Lily fix by re-reading "Peter Pan" or watching the 1953 movie, and, if a kid is around, use the opportunity for a little lesson in colonialism, racism, and the nuances of art, literature, and history.