On Thursday night, NBC aired their Peter Pan Live! event, a highly publicized three-hour-plus live performance starring Allison Williams as a weirdly sexualized little boy who doesn’t want to grow up. Tucked among the many press releases for the event was the information that the role of Tiger Lily would be played by Alanna Saunders, who is a “descendant of members of the Cherokee Nation.” OK.
Additionally, the show promised us they changed the offensive “Ugg-a-wug” song to something culturally “authentic” and appropriate. They even hired a Native composer, Chickasaw Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, to consult on the “improved” Ugg-a-wug, causing National Museum of the American Indian director Kevin Gover to praise the production for being, “closer to our heritage, our culture and portrays a deeper sensitivity and helps diminish the many stereotypes surrounding Native Americans.”
I’m going to hope that he said all that before he saw the costume or the number. Beacause the costume. Oh the costume. Vegas showgirl-meets-Halloween-pocahottie-flapper.
So much for “authenticity.”
Before we move on, have you seen videos of the “classic” Ugg-a-Wug song? I spent far too long last night torturing myself and watching Ugg-a-Wug videos on Youtube, many from 2014, of (mostly suburban, white) kids dressed up in the worst “Indian” costumes, feathers, and facepaint imaginable, war-whooping, singing nonsense words and making “how” signs with their hands. Just take a gander.
Also important to note: Original lyrics of the song, which most schools seem to change in the videos, but not all, were “…And I will come and save the brave noble redsk*n.” NBC “improved” that to “warrior.” Overall, super honoring, right?
Gawker has the video of the new NBC Ugg-a-Wug, so head over and take a look. Maybe we don’t have war whooping the dreaded double drumbeat, and “redsk*n,” but we’ve still got a nice stereotype stew of loincloths, painted faces, bare chests, breastplates, feathers,and what, to any audience member who hadn’t read about the lyric change, still sounds like nonsense words.
Simultaneously with this mess on TV airing to millions, we have Rooney Mara cast as Tiger Lily in the upcoming remake of Peter Pan by Warner Brothers studios. Variety assured us that the new film was set in an “international/ multicultural” world, so the casting of white Mara for the role was ok. Though the first trailer came out, and it appears “multicultural” is every shade of the white rainbow. There was even a petition, signed by nearly 70,000 people, to get the studio to hire a Native actress. They didn’t reconsider.
But why do we keep trying to “fix” or “improve” Tiger Lily and the portrayals of Indians in Peter Pan? This is a deeply racist book/play/film, and having a Native person play Tiger Lily or striving for some form of “authenticity” (“authentic” to what? What tribe is Indigenous to Never Neverland?) is not going to help anything.
Smithsonian Magazine has a long feature about the racist origins of the original Peter Pan’s “Picaninny Tribe,” and anyone who has seen any version of the movie or live play knows that the portrayals of Natives are abhorrent. They are the most stereotypical, racist portrayals of anything still alive in popular culture. I mean, the Disney version has a song called “What makes the red man red” for goodness sake.
We need to let it go, and fight to cut the Native peoples out entirely.
Those who may have followed my writings on Tonto and Disney’s 2013 Lone Ranger film might see this as a marked switch from my attitude at the beginning of that journey. I argued, very strongly, that Disney should have cast a Native in the role of Tonto, that Comanche advisors and other Native peoples should have been involved much earlier in the process to shape and develop portrayals of Native peoples on the screen.
After watching that long saga unfold, I have a different opinion. I don’t want Native peoples to be forced into a role of trying to put band-aids on a gaping wound of racism. I want Hollywood to stop resurrecting these racist characters.
Think of the world created by the story of Peter Pan. Neverland is inhabited by mermaids, pirates*, fairies…and Indians. Fantasy creatures, meant to show how different Neverland is than the world the Darling children inhabit. The problem is, Native peoples aren’t fantasy creatures, nor are we something of the past, like pirates. We’re real, contemporary human beings. We don’t all live in tipis and smoke peace pipes and say things like “squ*w gettum firewood.”
So my advice the next time that a high school wants to put on Peter Pan or the next studio wants to make another remake: Cut the “Indians” out. Completely. Be creative. Find some other fantasy creature to replace them with. My colleagues last night came up with the idea of space aliens, which I kinda love. A completely fictional “other,” allowing for full creativity. Make up some shiny silver blobs for them to live in. Make up a language. Wrap them in foil or something. Just don’t call them Indians.
It’s not like adjusting media to fit modern social norms is rare—there are a bunch of old movies that I can think of where the original play/movie contained a minstrel song/dance number (i.e. blackface), which they now tastefully work around in TV screenings and stage shows. Holiday Inn, Once Upon a Mattress, Babes on Broadway…those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
To me, continually asking us to “fix” these portrayals feels patronizing—hey Natives, we know you have zero representation of any kind on TV, but rather than working with you to create some contemporary awesome programming, we’re gonna let you come consult with us and try and make something hugely offensive only slightly offensive. Sound good? Fabulous. My buddy, artist Gregg Deal, agrees with me:
I understand the argument for fighting for inclusion and change within the system. And I still support that. I would much rather have Native folks involved than not, but there needs to be a line. I’d honestly rather we were invisible or nonexistent rather than grossly misrepresented, or represented as a fantasy creature in the same camp as mermaids and fairies.
Because even if we “fix” Tiger Lily, if we somehow make her costume “authentic,” have her played by a culturally-connected Native woman who knows what is appropriate and what is not, remove the most deeply offensive parts of the play (no “ugg a wug or what makes the red man red”), give her character some more agency (no damsel in distress must be rescued Indian), remove the “Indian Princess” label…what are we left with?
An “authentic” Indian talking to a fairies and mermaids while white kids crow like birds and fly around the room sprinkled with fairy dust. I don’t know about you, but that’s not an image I want millions of Americans to associate with our contemporary communities.
Something else to note: Pirates might not be a fantasy, but there’s not exactly a marginalized race of bearded pirates facing daily racism and ongoing colonialism. And you can choose to be a pirate. It’s a profession. Can’t choose to be an Indian. I also can’t believe I have to write this, but I’ve been around the Internet long enough to know better.