Non-Native actress Rooney Mara, most famous for her edgy portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has been cast as Tiger Lily in the forthcoming Pan, a live-action prequel to the story of Peter Pan told most memorably in a 1953 animated Disney film. Concerned Natives and culture-watchers of many ethnicities are decrying the choice as yet another redface travesty, much like Johnny Depp's Tonto in the 2013 film The Lone Ranger.
The 1953 film, adapted from Scottish author J.M. Barrie's 1904 play and 1911 novel, has always been a source of aggravation for many Native Americans for its depiction of a "redskin" tribe, complete with "injuns" who speak in pidgin and say "how" and "ugh."
Casting a white actress as an Indian princess in a story that was far from racially sensitive to begin with — this really does sound like Johnny Depp's Tonto again, doesn't it? — was hailed as a stupid move all over the blogosphere and Twitter. "Great to see Hollywood so thoughtfully responding to criticism that it woefully under- and misrepresents indigenous people!" writes Callie Beusman at Jezebel.
Jacqueline Keeler — @jfkeeler — one of the #NotYourTonto organizers, tweeted, "Rooney Mara cast as Tiger Lily in a Peter Pan remake? WT-? Why won't they stop! I need a rest!" Tweeter @fozmeadows wrote "Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily? Right. Because NOBODY IN HOLLYWOOD has Q'orianka Kilcher's contact details. *headdesk*"
While casting a white actress as an Indian character is a familiar kind of disappointing, some folks who are trying to read the tea leaves are seeing something else — a revamped Tiger Lily who isn't Native American at all. This would be a departure from J.M. Barrie's source material, but maybe not such a radical one. Peter Pan's Indians, after all, do not live on Turtle Island, they live in "Neverland," and there is no real reason why they are Indians. And 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.
Details from an article about the casting at Variety.com hint that Pan's casting department may be counting on this reasoning as a get-out-of-racism-jail-free card. "The world being created [for Pan] is multi-racial/international – and [Tiger Lily is] a very different character than previously imagined," says the report. Other actresses up for the role included Adele Exarchopoulos, who is French with some Greek heritage, and Lupita Nyong'o, who was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents.
"Re-imagining a story to remove unfortunate racial stereotypes is a worthwhile endeavor," writes Lexi Nisita at Refinery 29, "but re-imagining a Native American character as a white character is not a step in the right direction, unless it's coupled by a lot of bold choices in the opposite direction."
Which is the case — is Mara's casting an example of an actor putting on redface, or a Native character being whitewashed?
Rebecca Pahle of The Mary Sue explained that neither tactic solves the problem. "Tiger Lily being a problematic character isn’t an excuse to cast a non-Native American actress. Rather, it’s the same as it was with The Lone Ranger: The key to bringing a racial caricature forward to the modern day isn't to disregard that person’s race but to change the character so they’re not a racial caricature. Jesus Christ. It’s not that hard. There’s something to be said for 'loyalty to source material,' but early 1900s racism is not one of the things you need to keep."