Rooney Mara as 'Peter Pan's' Tiger Lily: A look at the controversy

Rooney-Mara.jpg

Image Credit: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Princess Tiger Lily is not a real person. Tiger Lily lives in Neverland (also not real).

Tiger Lily is also Native American.

So, when news broke that Patrician-featured actress Rooney Mara would be playing the character in Joe Wright’s live-action Peter Pan re-telling, Pan, the whitewashing accusations started to fly (particularly in our comments section).

Out of all of Hollywood’s sins, their egregious history of offensive portraits of Native Americans on film is one of the more shameful — a sore spot that is only exaggerated when caucasian actors continue to be cast in these roles. It’s not surprising that people are getting riled up about the news. From Johnny Depp’s Tonto to Michelle Williams’ controversial magazine cover, the portrayal of Native Americans in the media is always going to be a hot-button issue. But, it’s possibly more complex in Pan’s case because Tiger Lily is fundamentally problematic, and no casting is going to make up for that.

Shall we dig in?

Peter Pan has always had a dizzyingly complicated history with race. In J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play and subsequent novel, Tiger Lily is referred to as an Indian princess who belongs to a tribe who resides in Neverland, and thanks to Oliver Herford’s 1907 illustration showing a long feather in her hair and fringed wears, her look was defined for the foreseeable future. Things just devolved from there. From the 1953 Disney movie where Tiger Lily’s father is literally in red face to the Mary Martin version featuring a similarly regressive Sondra Lee in the role, while they may have been played as “good fun,” the representations were ultimately insidious. Oh, and then there’s “What Makes A Red Man Red?”

The rest of the industry operated with the same callousness, and, for brevity’s sake we’ll callously generalize. In early and mid-century films, representations of Native Americans were laden with stereotypes and also, typically called on white actors to play those characters. Revisionist Westerns of the mid-60s and 70s started to address the “savage” problem, and, since Dances with Wolves it seemed that Hollywood was possibly, finally getting it right.

Recent takes on Peter Pan have appeared outwardly conscious of their past offenses, too. 2003′s Peter Pan cast Haida-descendant Carsen Gray in the role. The Neverland miniseries used The New World’s Q’orianka Kilcher. They nixed that “Ugg A Wugg” song, too.

And then Johnny Depp’s Tonto happened. Now, with Mara’s casting, it feels like a giant step backwards. Both could have been great opportunities to cast working Native American actors.

However, we also know very, very little about Joe Wright and Jason Fuchs’ Pan. Tiger Lily might not be indigenous. Perhaps she was kidnapped from some Anglo locale as a child, much like Peter, adopted by this Neverland tribe and raised as a princess. Perhaps indigenous means something else in Neverland. Maybe all the tribal members are caucasian in Wright’s movie. It’s a fantasy, after all! Or, maybe Wright’s take will be the one to make up for the offensive origins of Tiger Lily.

Also, casting isn’t finished and reports are emphasizing that the film will be very “international” on the whole. It’s an admirable goal, certainly, but until we see some more proof, the backlash will likely continue.

So, PopWatchers, what do you think? Would casting a Native American have been a critic-proof move? Are you willing to accept Mara in the role? Is it possible that there could be some explanation in the movie? Talk to us in the comments!

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