American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
So I tweeted a thing about Peter Pan recently, and much to my surprise, the tweet sort of took on a life of its own. Specifically, my tweet took issue with the casting of Rooney Mara as the Native American princess character Tiger Lily in "Pan," the upcoming Warner Brothers live-action "Peter Pan" prequel, reboot, and/or reimagination. Here’s the tweet in question:
Just for kicks, I’d decided to place images of Mara’s Tiger Lily and the 1953 animated film’s version side-by-side. I added my one-sentence commentary, fired off the tweet...and promptly forgot about it, as I tend do with most of my tweets.
But there must've been something about those juxtaposed images that struck a chord with people, because it started coming back to me, again and again, in the form of retweets and favorites on Twitter. Before I knew it, there were over 2,700 retweets and almost 1,800 “faves” (as the cool kids call them) in less than 48 hours. And that’s not including tons of manual retweets, which are pretty much impossible to accurately track. But as I sat in front of my computer each day, the retweets and faves kept coming, streaming down my TweetDeck “Notifications” column like lines of code from "The Matrix."
On a whim, I started checking the profiles of some of the retweeters to see where they lived. How far had I reached? Where in the world had this errant thought of mine ended up? I discovered that the tweet had bounced all over the U.S. and Canada. And Germany. Finland. England. Canada. Ecuador. Romania. Gdansk. The Philippines. France. Sweden. South Korea. This was an admittedly unscientific approach to determining exactly where the tweet had traveled, but there was no doubt that it managed to circle the globe pretty damn fast.
To mix Disney metaphors, I’d tumbled down the rabbit hole.
Many of the retweets included one-word comments like “Noooooo!” and “WTF?” and “Whyyyy?,” along with the occasional “Welp,” which, to me, signaled a sort of weary indifference to the whole issue of whitewashing (or “racebending,” as it’s increasingly being called). Hollywood gonna Hollywood, those folks seemed to be saying. And I understood that.
But mixed in with those responses, I got a handful of tweets from people who weren’t so sympathetic to whatever it was they thought I was trying to say. Here are a few examples:
REPLY #1: Something’s a bit weirder when there are “Native Americans” in NeverLand. It's not an issue.
And that’s where I really started paying attention.
It’s “weird” to have Native Americans in NeverLand? Okay. Let’s follow the logic: this person has no trouble accepting a magical world where children can fly, dogs can spell, fairies and mermaids exist, and everything revolves around a pointy-eared kid who wrestles with his own shadow before sewing it back onto his feet, but drop a few Native American characters into the mix, and suddenly it’s a bridge too far? That’s the implausible part? I just can’t. I literally cannot.
Anyway. Moving on. There was also what I like to call the “I want my country back” tweet (sic):
REPLY #2: yah just like something is wrong with the new captain America.
Don’t get me started on this one. What’s the similarity here? That Captain America and the original Tiger Lily are both drawn characters? Because other than that, this comparison collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. Without detouring too far into comic book nerdism, suffice it to say that in the Marvel Comics universe, a white guy once wore the Captain America costume, and currently a black guy wears it. Period. That’s two different characters, and an entire storyline was built around this change. They didn’t just arbitrarily swap one race for another and sell it to us as the same person. So my esteemed panel of judges (okay, it’s just me) declared this rebuttal a swing and a miss. Objection overruled.
And naturally, one cannot venture into territory of this nature without being accused of “crying racism.”
REPLY #3: seems like no matter how Tiger Lily is portrayed people are going to cry racism.
Oh. Wow. I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing. So I checked my cheeks—nope, no tears. No crying of any kind, in fact. So this wholesale dismissal of the topic at hand is ridiculous on its face.
Lastly, someone suggested that we not even “go there.”
REPLY #4: #TigerLily & the Indians as written = crass caricature by an Englishman. Maybe not going there is the right call. #Pan
If I understand this one correctly, the way to properly correct the “crass caricature” of the animated Peter Pan is to, well...cast a white actress. Simply erase the presence of Native Americans altogether, and bam—problem solved. Why didn't anybody think of this before? After all, this baby isn’t just gonna throw itself out with all that damn bathwater.
That last tweet reminded me of Entertainment Weekly’s take on the whole situation. Back in March of 2014, EW columnist Lindsey Bahr said of the Rooney Mara casting in "Pan," and of whitewashing in general, “the portrayal of Native Americans in the media is always going to be a hot-button issue.” Wait, what? Why “always”? It only continues to be a “hot-button issue” because of Hollywood’s embarrassing portrayal of Native Americans, its tendency to cast white actors in the roles, and its shockingly tone-deaf response to any criticism of same.
I’m simply not willing to accept such a defeatist attitude. It doesn’t have to be this way. Give audiences a cool, three-dimensional Native American character, and suddenly there’s no hot button to contend with. To say that this will “always” be an issue is to tacitly admit that you have no real problem with the status quo and are frankly pretty uninterested in seeing it fixed.
As a sidebar, 2003’s live-action "Peter Pan" cast Carsen Grey, an actress of Native American descent, in the Tiger Lily role. She even spoke Iroquois in the film. Any controversy there? None that I can recall. So it’s very much possible to get this right.
And then there’s the other side of the racebending coin, represented by people who believe that the recent castings of Idris Elba as Heimdall in Marvel’s "Thor" films, Lucy Liu as "Elementary"’s Watson, Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx in this year’s "Annie," and Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot have leveled the playing field and rendered the whole issue dead. You’ll often find proponents of this belief embroiled in internet debates like this one:
Person A: Everybody needs to stop complaining! I can list five or six examples of traditionally-white characters being portrayed by non-white actors!
Person B: Cool story bro. I can list a hundred years’ worth of traditionally non-white characters being portrayed by white actors.
Person A: Well…I guess we’ll just have to call it even.
With all this in mind, I figured it’d be unfair to write about Tiger Lily without first going back and rewatching the 1953 version of "Peter Pan," which I hadn’t seen since childhood. So I did. And two things immediately jumped out at me:
First, the animation is simply outstanding. It holds up amazingly well, and Walt Disney’s genius as both a filmmaker and businessman can’t be disputed.
Second, the film is undeniably, embarrassingly racist.
Let’s start with the fact that Tiger Lily belongs to the “Piccaninny” tribe. Yep, you read that right. That name comes directly from the original 1911 Peter Pan novel, written by J.M. Barrie, but Disney decided to keep it in what’s become a globally-recognized staple of his enduring legacy (the genius giveth, and the genius taketh away). John Darling informs his siblings early in the film, “Remember, the Indian is cunning, but not intelligent.” After Peter Pan rescues Tiger Lily from Captain Hook, the tribe treats everyone to a horrific song called “What Makes the Red Man Red,” which is so cringe-worthy, it’s almost unwatchable. Even Wendy, ostensibly the story’s most level-headed character, calls them “savages.” And then there’s Tiger Lily herself, who only speaks a single word (“Help…” as she’s drowning) in the entire film. She even remains completely silent during the song and dance celebrating her rescue.
So yeah…for all its eye-popping animation wizardry, the film’s a bit of a mess. In hindsight, I’m amazed that it’s managed to enjoy such impressive staying power. But I came away from my "Peter Pan" viewing even more convinced that the solution to this ongoing “How do you solve a problem like Tiger Lily?” question is not to be found in conveniently eradicating the character’s Native American origins. That’s just plain lazy.
All of which brings me back to that pesky tweet of mine, which has sailed past 3,300 retweets as of this writing. To be clear, I attribute that degree of signal boosting to the ongoing appeal of the Disney film, and the personal attachment people feel towards the version Tiger Lily to whom they were most likely introduced as children. I’m not foolish enough to believe that my tweet tapped into some wildly original thought or blew the lid off a hot new story.
I’m annoyed by the whitewashing of Tiger Lily, but my intent wasn’t to turn anyone against the film. I have no doubt that it’ll do quite well at the box office…it’s Peter Pan, after all. But the reactions to my tweet quickly became far more interesting to me than any issues I might have with the casting itself. People don’t seem to like being reminded that whitewashing is a thing. But not only is it a time-honored Hollywood tradition, it’s one that’s showing no signs of going away anytime soon. Maybe that’s what the first words spoken in Disney’s "Peter Pan" were trying to tell us six decades ago: this has all happened before, and it’ll all happen again.
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