I love Peter Pan. Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t enjoy a story about a bunch of kids finding themselves in a magical land and learning awesome new things, like how to fly? I especially love Hook, which takes place years after the original story and features a much older Peter relearning what it’s like to be imaginative again, and how to be a better father. So when I heard that Pan, a prequel to a magical tale I adore so much, was being made, naturally I was giddy with excitement.
Unfortunately, I think I might have gotten my hopes higher than I should. Almost immediately, the internet banded together to criticize the movie’s casting choices, specifically that white actress Rooney Mara is playing the Native American princess, Tiger Lily.
Oh, God, why? Why is this happening?
Sadly, I actually think this still looks like a good movie. I just don’t think I would ever be able to bring myself to watch it because of the casting decision.
Pan takes place when Peter first makes it to Neverland. There, he meets all of our favorite characters, like Hook and Tiger Lily, plus a few others, such as the evil Blackbeard. From what I can see in the trailer, the movie seems fun and uplifting, bright and colorful. It’s also got a couple actors I really like. On top of that, I’m a sucker for stories about two enemies becoming friends, or two friends becoming enemies, and Pan looks to do the latter. This takes place before Peter cut off Hook’s hand, back when the two of them got along and trusted each other. Hook seems like a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, but eventually we know he’s going to become an evil pirate with a vendetta again Peter and other children. So Pan is presenting us with another perspective on both these characters that we’ve never seen before.
Altogether, I have high hopes that Pan will be fun and creative by taking the characters places they haven’t been before. It’s a little unfortunate that all the internet can talk about when it comes to this movie is the race issue, but that’s for a really good reason. As I said earlier, even I cannot get around the fact that Tiger Lily has been whitewashed, and I’ll more than likely avoid this movie as a result.
Considering all the flak big-budget movies have been getting recently for whitewashing, you would think Warner Bros. would want to avoid a controversy by, I don’t know, not casting a white person as a Native American. Of course, there might be a reason why they made this decision, but it’s probably not a very good one. The original incarnation of Princess Tiger Lily wasn’t that great of a character—and who can forget the Disney version of Peter Pan, where she and all the other Native Americans sang a song called “What Makes the Red Man Red?” All in all, it was pretty awful, and it’s certainly not something I’d let my children watch if I had any. Thankfully, nowadays, I’m quite certain that Warner Bros. knows not to do something so obviously racist as having Rooney Mara sing a song about “red men turning red”, but her role in the film doesn’t look all that different from other versions.
I suppose it’s arguable that the decision to cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily came about because Tiger Lily herself is rather racist, and putting an actual Native American into that role would be awful representation. Unfortunately, by doing this, if that was even their intention, the studio just made the situation so much worse. The solution to fixing a racist character isn’t to whitewash that character and call it a day. Minority groups are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, and actors of color are passed over for white actors all the time. Katniss was whitewashed, Pietro and Wanda were whitewashed, and let’s not mention the atrocity that was The Last Airbender movie. Then there’s the recent Exodus movie, and who can forget The Lone Ranger, another movie that featured a white person in a Native American role? How hard would it have been really to cast a Native American as Tiger Lily and then rework her role to not be so stereotyped? Well, evidently, not very. A Native American actress did audition for the role, and she was passed over. And as for the problematic racist themes in Tiger Lily’s original design, other versions, like Peter Pan Live, have actively sought out Native Americans for the role while simultaneously working with them to remove said offensive material. If only a big budget movie could do the same.
Instead, we’re stuck with Rooney Mara in a blatant example of cultural appropriation. It’s so bad, they might as well have just put her in redface while they were at it. So now I’m torn: I really want to watch this movie, but I don’t know if I can bring myself to support it financially. At the very least, I probably won’t see it while it’s in theaters, but on the off chance that I do, I’ll be sure to let you know what I think about it.