Today the cast for Joe Wright's next film, an origin story for Peter Pan simply called Pan, was announced. Such casting news generally would not be notable save for one thing: Rooney Mara was cast as the character of Tiger Lily, a character portrayed as Native American in J. M. Barrie's original works and all derivative works. As might be expected, the casting of Rooney Mara as a Native American character has resulted in a good deal of controversy. Already the hashtag #NotYourTigerLily has appeared on Twitter.
It should come as no surprise that people would be upset that the European American Rooney Mara has been cast as a Native American. After all, historically the film industry has not been kind to Native Americans. Over the years Native Americans on film have been portrayed as little more than stereotypes, from violent primitives to noble savages to drunken "Injuns". Worse yet, more often than not Native American characters were played by actors who were not Native Americans. From the Silent Era well into the Sixties it was not unusual for actors of European or Asian descent to play Natives. For many people (myself included), casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily seems nothing short of a revival of the practice of performing in redface.
Of course, matters are probably not helped by the fact that Tiger Lily has always been a problematic character at best. In J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up and the novel Peter and Wendy Tiger Lily is something of a stereotype, even described as an "Indian princess". Even Oliver Herford's illustration of Tiger Lily from 1907 was stereotypical in nature. Tiger Lily is dressed as a stereotypical Plains Indian, dressed in buckskins and wearing a headband with a feather in it. Worse yet, Tiger Lily and her father, Great Big Little Panther, were said to belong to the Picaninny tribe. Here it must be noted that "Picaninny" appears to be a variant spelling of pickaninny, a derogatory term for African American children. While J. M. Barrie may have meant no harm, it would seem that Tiger Lily was essentially a racist caricature.
Not only was Tiger Lily in J. M. Barrie's works something of a stereotype, but over the years she would be played by a succession of actresses who were not Native American. Rooney Mara is not the first non-Native cast in the role by any stretch of the imagination. Anna May Wong played her in the 1924 silent film Peter Pan. In the Fifties Sondra Lee played the role of Tiger Lily in three different television productions of Peter Pan (each starring Mary Martin as Peter). In a 1976 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Peter Pan Paula Kelly played Tiger Lily. It would not be until the 2003 film Peter Pan that Tiger Lily would be played by a Native American. In that film she was played by Haida actress Carsen Gray. The two part television movie Neverland from 2011 also saw a Native American play Tiger Lily. In that instance she was played by Q'orianka Kilcher, an actress of Quechua-Huachipaeri descent.
With Peter Pan (2003) and Neverland it would have appeared that progress had been made with regards to the casting of Tiger Lily in films and on television. Unfortunately, the casting of Rooney Mara in the role shows this may not be the case. The matter is only made worse by the fact that Native Americans are sorely under-represented when it comes to mainstream American media. Currently I can think of no Native American characters on American television. I can only think of one major motion picture from last year featuring a Native American character: Tonto in The Lone Ranger (who was played by Johnny Depp, who may or may not be Native American in descent). With Native American characters so rare in American film and television, it seems all the more offensive when an actor of non-Native descent is cast as one.
Indeed, it is not as if there are no young Native American actresses in the film industry. The Baker Twins (Shannon and Shauna), Crystle Lightning, and Q'orianka Kilcher (who played the role in Neverland all come to mind). For that matter, they could also cast an unknown in the role of Tiger Lily. I am sure that there are many young, Native American actresses who would jump at the chance to appear in a major motion picture.
Of course, it is possible that in Pan Tiger Lily may not be a Native American character, in which case it would seem the film would be straying from J. M. Barrie's original works. It could also be possible that Pan will explain Tiger Lily as being someone of European descent who was adopted by a Native tribe. In those instances it would be acceptable for Rooney Mara to play the role. Otherwise it would seem that Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily is simply going to be another instance in the film industry's history of European American actors playing in redface. Speaking as someone who has some Cherokee ancestors, I was hoping we would be long past that sort of thing by now.