There are few characters so beloved by children and Hollywood executives alike as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The character, who showed up in many of Barrie’s plays and novels, has been reimagined countless times in other plays, books, and films. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that we’re getting yet another take on Peter Pan, this time with yet another “origin” story, titled Pan. Directed by Joe Wright, the film will star Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard and Garrett Hedlund as Hook, although the titular character has yet to be cast. But the most controversial casting so far has been Rooney Mara as “Indian princess” Tiger Lily, which has caused outrage among critics who have accused the film of “whitewashing” one of the few Native American characters in the literary canon.
Variety broke the casting news yesterday, offering details of Pan‘s plot:
The film will be a new take on the classic story. It is set during World War II and follows an orphan named Peter who is kidnapped by pirates and brought to Neverland, where he discovers he’s destined to save the land from the pirate Blackbeard.
The world being created is multi-racial/international – and a very different character than previously imagined.
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” thesp Adele Exarchopoulos before going out to Mara for the role.
Blogs have already gone on the offensive, with Callie Beusman of Jezebel writing, “Great to see Hollywood so thoughtfully responding to criticism that it woefully under- and misrepresents indigenous people!” At A.V. Club, Caroline Siede speculates that the character of Peter Pan could be played by a non-white actor: “Given that Jackman, Hedlund, and Mara are all white, that could be a hint that Peter Pan himself will be played by an actor of color — the role has yet to be cast, but the production is reportedly looking for a boy between 10 and 12 years old — or it could merely be an attempt to stem a backlash against whitewashing one of the few canon Native American characters in mainstream pop culture.”
What’s astounding, of course, is that the outrage is about a white woman playing the character Tiger Lily rather than the fact that Tiger Lily is part of the new script at all. The character is not a particularly sensitive or sophisticated representation of a Native American woman; after all, the idea of a Scottish author adding a tribe of indigenous Americans to his fairy-tale land is a little uncomfortable, no? Especially given that Barrie’s name for the group is the Piccanniny Tribe. From their earliest appearance in Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the Picanniny Tribe was depicted in typical stereotypical fashion: wearing pelts and feathers in their hair, communicating in guttural grunts. Disney’s popular animated film version was not better; while Tiger Lily herself is visibly Native American, she doesn’t utter a line of dialogue. And let’s not forget the 1954 Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, which featured a Nordic Tiger Lily and the song “Ugg-a-Wug”:
Many other modern Peter Pan retellings, from Steven Spielberg’s Hook to Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Peter and the Starcatchers series (and the subsequant Tony-winning play based upon the first book), have removed the Native American elements entirely, which is all probably for the best. It’s not that Native Americans don’t deserve to be depicted in the story; the question is: why have the Indians, representative of the English fascination with Native Americans, remained in the various adaptations of Peter Pan throughout the years in the first place?
The point is, the whitewashing of Tiger Lily and the Native American tribe is nothing new; if anything, it has its roots in J. M. Barrie’s own vision for the Peter Pan story. The Indians are the other, a fantasy-land version of a real, diverse group of individuals. That they have been depicted with such ruthless stereotypes is an unfortunate truth born out of the unsophisticated mindset of the time in which these characters were created.
If Pan does anything right, it’ll strike the notion that Tiger Lily is an Indian princess at all. Sure, if her “tribe” is in fact indigenous to Neverland, it would have been nice to see an actor of color play the part. But that the post-Victorian concept of Native Americans is still so deeply intertwined with Neverland’s indigenous peoples is an issue; if Pan does its job well as a reimagination of this classic story and its characters, it’ll treat Tiger Lily as a literary figure with more respect than previous films, theater productions, and books. After all, in this new, imaginative vision of Neverland — a fictional place, after all — all bets are off, and Joe Wright and his team could potentially improve upon over a hundred years of negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples.