Miriam Schacht: Guest Author
When I first heard about the casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, the Indian princess, in the new Warner Bros. version of Peter Pan, I reacted in much the same way as lots of other people: Great, Hollywood cast yet another white person as an Indian. Casting white actors to play people of color is nothing new–from Birth of a Nation (1915) through Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to Twilight (2008) and How I Met Your Mother (2014), it has a long and storied Hollywood history. What’s new is the controversy, or rather, that the controversy is actually getting enough attention to force the powers that be to respond. For the most part the response has been defensive and/or denialist – ooh hey! Taylor Lautner is really Native, just like Johnny Depp (who, in response to the controversy surrounding his casting in The Lone Ranger, publicized his intent to buy the Black Hills back for Native people…odd how we never heard any more about that after the news cycle ended)! But at least the issue is starting to hit the broader cultural radar now, and studios are realizing that if they choose to use white actors in roles written for people of color, they will need deal with criticism and protests.
But the thing is, it’s not just about putting white actors in redface (or yellowface, blackface, etc); it’s also about how these roles are written. Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is nothing more than an offensive accumulation of stereotypes about Asian Americans. Casting an Asian American actor would not have changed the underlying racism, something we’re reminded of when we cringe at Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (1984). Gedde Watanabe, the actor who played “the Donger,” saw the role as his big break, but now has mixed feelings at best about the role, which continues to define him whether he wants it to or not. (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about the value of visibility even when it’s as a stereotype, but we’re not having that discussion here today.)
Image from Blue Corn Comics’ post on the Harm of Native Stereotyping
Clearly, actors of color are often asked to make tough choices. John Leguizamo (whose one-man shows are brilliant and incisive and if you haven’t seen one, stop right now and go watch) talks about his early days auditioning in Hollywood: “It’d be me and all the same dudes — Benicio Del Toro, Benjamin Bratt, Esai Morales and Jimmy Smits. And you’d go out there and [the roles were] all gang leaders, drug dealers, janitors, murderers. And you’re like, ‘All these roles? Really? Don’t we contribute more?’ I mean, I went to college, man. I’m an educated human being, and I know a lot of hyper-educated Latin people.” Rita Moreno talks about how awful it felt to play a Puerto Rican stereotype in West Side Story (for which she won an Oscar). “We had to wear all one-color makeup, almost the color of mud — and it felt like it. We all had to have accents — many of us who were Hispanic did not have them. I asked the makeup artist, ‘Why do we have to be one color? Because Hispanics are many different colors.'”
Rita Moreno in West Side Story.
Image from Tulsa World article on Rita Moreno receiving the SAG lifetime achievement award
Faced with a choice between acting the stereotypes or not acting at all (and let’s remember that it’s an economic choice as much as an ideological one), people of color in Hollywood often end up playing roles that rely on or reinforce stereotypes. And that has very real repercussions, including personal ones. For actors who recognize the racism, it means thousands of microaggressions and the sense that you might even be contributing to the problem. In another interview, Rita Moreno says, “Any character who had dark skin, I got all those parts. I could play a Polynesian, East Indian princess, whatever… The characters all sounded the same, because I had no idea how these nationalities sounded, but nobody else did either. It dismayed me, I began to feel demeaned, that my dignity was on the line. The roles were so embarrassing. But I had to make a living and I had to be an actress.”
For actors who don’t recognize the racism, things are easier, though I suspect that, especially when they are faced with criticism, there is still a psychic cost. (For example, Saginaw Grant tried to bully a Native blogger who’d been critical of the Johnny-Depp-in-redface atrocity that is The Lone Ranger, which Grant was in.)
And the thing is that there’s absolutely no way that Tiger Lily isn’t going to end up being racist. She is some white guy’s version of Indianness–what Gerald Vizenor would call an italicized uncapitalized indian, a stereotype disconnected from Native realities, a product only of colonialist ideology. Tiger Lily is the very embodiment of redface. And unlike some other, similar characters (I think you could do interesting things with Tonto), I don’t think there’s any way to make her anything but racist.
Sondra Lee as Tiger Lily (along with Mary Martin as Peter Pan) from a 1960 musical version of the play.
Image from an article that is dismayed by a decision to take the Indians out of a version of Peter Pan, and which misses the point entirely.
See, the Peter Pan Indians are the product of a time when Indians were generally seen as equivalent to children. The early 1900s (the original play was written in 1904) are when summer camps started in earnest with Indian themes, and Ernest Thompson Seton codified the notion when he established the Woodcraft Indians (he was also a founding member of the Boy Scouts of America). If you want more background on this, I highly recommend the very readable and fascinating Playing Indian by Philip Deloria (Vine Jr.’s son, and a brilliant historian in his own right). That book has a whole chapter on the way Indianness came to be represented in the summer camp and scouting movements, but it boils down to two basic notions. One is that, as Seton put it, “the Red Man is the apostle of outdoor life” (Deloria 96), and the other is that in the popular imagination, while society at large progressed into modernity, the Indian remained primitive and natural.
Ernest Thompson Seton, a white dude who liked his scouts to call him “Black Wolf” when he was playing Indian, and who “told us wonderful stories about the Indians,” said Clark [a former camper], “We were just entranced by his talking . . . He spoke of the Indians as outstanding individuals; people who . . . just devoted their life to outdoors . . . to one another.”
Image and quote from an article about the history of the Greenwich Scouts, which were founded by Seton.
I bring up Seton because, in the edition of Peter Pan that I’m looking at (published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1956), there’s a foreword by Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in which he mentions learning from Seton how to make a fire (“Mr. Seton-Thompson [sic] taught us in, surely an odd place, the Reform Club” (xx)). So just in case it isn’t obvious from the play itself (and it is), Barrie was influenced by the ideas of Seton and his contemporaries who saw Indians as the perfect pre-modern primitive foils to their own sophisticated, urban, and modern existence.
Seton explaining “Indian lore” to white boys dressed as “Indians,” that is, their notion of what noble savages looked like; any resemblance to actual Native Americans is coincidental and unlikely.
Image from the same article as above.
The play’s the thing, though, so let’s get to that. In case you didn’t know, the tribe of Indians that lives in Neverland is called–wait for it—the Piccaninnies. Yep, good ol’ J.M. Barrie named his offensive Indians after an offensive term for African American children. Aside from offending you, that should also give you a clue as to the Peter Pan Indians’ state of being: they are, essentially, children. That, too, is in keeping with the times; politically, Native people were considered wards of the government, while culturally, Indian society was described as being in the “childlike” phase of evolution. Deloria refers to an influential writer, Stanley Hall, who “linked the stages of childhood development with the progressive evolution of human society from savagery to civilization” (106-107). Indians, of course, like children, were close to savagery. (This theory was another reason Seton wanted children to “play Indian,” as Hall also believed that children had to experience each evolutionary phase fully in order to develop into functional adults.) This notion fits the play wonderfully, of course, since it means that Indian society per se is a symbol of not growing up.
Disney’s Peter Pan (1953). For an extra dose of racism, check out the song “What Makes the Red Man Red,” which students tell me has been cut from newer DVD editions.
Image from a Daily Mail article on the casting controversy.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the main function of the male Indians in Peter Pan is to defend and then die for Pan, whom they call the “Great White Father” (103; I think I sprained my eyes I was rolling them so hard). The pirates attack at night, which breaks “the two laws of Indian warfare, that the redskins should attack first, and that it should be at dawn” (114). Though they are killed by the pirates’ swords, the Indians’ doom is ultimately of their own making: “If the braves would rise quickly they might still have time to scalp, but this they are forbidden to do by the traditions of their race, for it is written that they must never express surprise in the presence of the paleface… Thus perish the flower of the Piccaninnies” (115).
Hm. Sounds familiar.
Image from wikimedia commons.
Tiger Lily, meanwhile, plays an equally peripheral role. When we see her, she has been kidnapped by the pirates and is about to meet her death–”stoically,” of course (81). Pan rescues her, and we meet her again briefly when the Indians greet Pan, so that she can praise his bravery. (Her few lines are marked by broken English and, bizarrely, by a faux-Asian accent as she pronounces “very” as “velly.”) After the pirate attack, she, the warrior Great Big Little Panther (uh…yeah…), and “a remnant of the tribe” escape, and that is the last we see of them.
Tiger Lily (hair-dyed and spray-tanned actress Heidi Buehler) in a production that also does a twist on the weird Asian stereotype thing by inexplicably having her do a Bollywood dance number (?!?).
Image from a review of that production.
Here you have the fundamental problem with Tiger Lily and the rest of the Indians in Peter Pan: They are racist stereotypes and caricatures. And given their function in the play–especially on a symbolic level, where they represent a society that never grows up–there is absolutely no way for the “Piccaninnies” not to be racist. The only versions of Peter Pan I’ve seen that don’t make me cringe are the few that just leave the Indians out of the picture entirely (as the show Once Upon a Time did in its recent Neverland story arc). They’re caricatures, and their role in the story is so intimately and necessarily connected to racist ideas about the childlike and savage nature of Indians that they simply cannot be rewritten and redeemed.
So ultimately I think it’s fine, probably even good, that the part didn’t go to a Native actress, because Tiger Lily isn’t a Native woman; she’s a colonial caricature. Redface suits her best.
A Little About Miriam Schacht. Miriam is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her special interests include Native American and international Indigenous literatures, post-colonial literature and theory, and queer and two-spirit literatures. As a teacher, her courses are demanding but always filled to capacity and receive rave reviews. As the faculty advisor for the Inter Tribal Student Organization, she plays a crucial role in supporting Native American students and educating the broader university community about contemporary challenges for tribes and Native American peoples. And as a scholar (Ph.D. in English, University of Texas at Austin), she devotes her skills as a critical thinker and creative writer to address oppression. We are honored that she chose to post her essay “Tiger Lily and Redface” on Voices from the Margins.