20/20

Disappointing Disney

Hollywood has once again regurgitated an over-adapted story, this time returning to Neverland with the movie Pan. But this time, the return is anything but innocent.

Pasty white Steelers heiress and actress Rooney Mara was recently cast as Tiger Lily, the Indian princess of Neverland’s tribe. It’s too early to judge whether Mara’s Tiger Lily will continue the tradition of denigrating Native Americans, though the recent casting already suggests an insensitive stance on Tiger Lily’s specific history.

The original Indian princess of J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan shares a complicated relationship with Native American presentation.

Placing Neverland’s Indians among the island’s population of mermaids and fairies casts the unnamed tribe as imaginary and denies their existence in Wendy’s real world. Adaptors of Peter Pan continuously coalesce stereotypes of “savage” Native Americans, celebrating derogatory racial expressions through songs like Disney’s “What Makes the Red Man Red?” A scene from the 1953 film Peter Pan shows Tiger Lily’s father, Chief Great Big Little Panther, with a painted red face. His tribesmen chant incoherently as they bang on drums and pass around a pipe.

Sixty years later, Disney continues perpetuating blatant racism through movies like The Lone Ranger. Could there be anything more inappropriate in film than painting a white actor’s face so he can “pass” as Native American? Johnny Depp’s cringingly forced Tonto does not bode well for the success of Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily. For both roles, the glamour of a recognizable face seems more important than the complete disregard for accurately portraying underrepresented groups.

The decision to cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily adds a sense of irony to the new film Pan. Warner Bros.’ refusal to recognize the consequences of endorsing ethnic mockery seems appropriate for a movie about children unable to mature.

The movie industry’s continued obsession with whitewashing remains perversely counterintuitive to social progress since Peter Pan’s initial release in 1904. Whether painting Mara’s face or placing feathers in her hair, any attempt to make her “pass” as Indian will simply call greater attention to the inadequacy. White actors like Mara and Depp share the privilege of experimenting with ethnic caricatures at the expense of promoting misguided stereotypes.

Hollywood doesn’t just appropriate, it also excludes. The refusal to hire marginalized actors for roles extends beyond race. For the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal Pictures notably used CGI effects to miniaturize taller actors instead of hiring professional acting dwarves. The Little People of America protested the casting decision, calling attention to Hollywood’s discrimination. Apparently little people are too short to play little people in movies.

Aspiring actors must face the challenge of whitewashing and ableism in Hollywood. In other words, if you’re not an attractive, tall, white actor, you should probably keep your day job.

While not surprising, the decision to cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily is nevertheless disappointing. It’s time for Hollywood to grow up—we’re not in Neverland anymore. Either Hollywood opens the door for marginalized actors, or shuts the window to Neverland for good. 

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