Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily Could Not Be Less Native. That’s a Problem.
Indian Country Today
A poster and movie trailer for Pan, the Peter Pan prequel planned for a summer 2015 release, is giving the public a first glimpse of actress Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American character in J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play. The visuals have reignited the controversy that broke out in March over the casting of Mara, a non-Native actress, in the role. Reporting on the choice touted the film’s “multi-racial” world and “a very different [Tigerlily] than was originally imagined.”
But there was concern and even outrage over Mara’s casting. An online petition was started to urge Warner Brothers to “Stop casting white actors to play people of color!” On Twitter and other social media, many people voiced disappointment in Mara for accepting the role.
In our our earlier coverage of this issue, we saw two possible explanations of the casting choice. One was simply the old Hollywood practice of casting white actors as Indians—the traditions of “whitewashing” (casting well-known white actors in Native roles to ensure ticket sales) and “redface” (white actors playing Indians, often by invoking common stereotypes) that have been common from the silent-film era up through Johnny Depp’s Tonto in 2013. We entertained another explanation, though: that the filmmakers, concerned by the racist portrayal of Natives in Peter Pan—and it’s really bad, particularly in the 1953 Disney film—were trying to avoid repeating it. After all, many ICTMN readers have commented that the character of Tiger Lily is an inherently racist creation, and that Mara might as well take it because no self-respecting Native actress should have to reinforce the stereotype for the sake of a blockbuster credit.
The image seems to suggest Mara’s Tiger Lily is not Native. Aside from the actress’s own physical appearance, there’s a touch of tartan in her costume; Tiger Lily is the daughter of the Chief in the original story, but it looks to us like this Tiger Lily’s dad might be less of an Indian chief and more of a Scottish or Irish chieftain. There is a big, big problem with this reading, though.
The Chief in Pan is played by Jack Charles, a famous Australian Aboriginal actor. Here’s what he looks like:
The choice to cast Charles as the Chief supports the worst-case scenario theories about this whole mess. Charles clearly signifies that the tribe in the film (originally the “Pickaninny Tribe” in J.M. Barrie’s play and book, let’s not forget) is non-European in nature. How or why does he have this white, Irish-looking daughter? It’s hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that the filmmakers feel people of color are good for supporting roles, but a lead actress must be white. If the filmmakers wanted to avoid the racist attitudes behind the Tiger Lily and Chief characters, and cast a white actress to create a new, stereotype-free Tiger Lily, why is her father the Chief so iconically ethnic? If Tiger Lily’s ethnicity doesn’t matter, then go ahead and cast Rooney Mara, and give the character a dad who looks like he could have fathered her, given what we know about genetics. Casting a white actress as Tiger Lily to sell tickets but an Indigenous Australian as the Chief to keep the racial other-ness in the original story just isn’t right. Rather than an attempt to rehabilitate a problematic character, it is what concerned petitioners originally feared: simple and unsubtle whitewashing, based on the belief that the film would not succeed with a Native actress in a Native role.
And yes, we’re braced for the “revelation” of the plot twist that Mara’s Tiger Lily came to Neverland from England before Peter did, and was adopted by the Chief. We can see that one coming a mile away. That doesn’t negate the cynical nature of Mara’s casting, just shows the filmmakers felt they had write an explanation into the storyline.
Here’s the trailer: