Thursday, March 20, 2014

Taking on Tiger Lily

With the casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan movie (as if I didn't have enough issues with that already, starting with the fact that it's inexplicably set in WWII), I can't not address the problematic portrayal of the character and how I hope to address it.

Anna Mae Wong as Tiger Lily with Betty Bronson'
 Peter Pan in the 1924 silent film.

Complaints about Mara's casting center around the white-washing of Tiger Lily, which has been a problem with the casting since the story was first filmed. (That said, Q'orianka Kilcher, having already played Pocahontas and Aaya in SyFy's Neverland, might want to play someone besides an iconic Indian princess for a change.)

Rooney  Mara

J. M. Barrie himself,I'm sorry to say, made no real stab at accuracy when he wrote his Indian characters to appeal to young boys in Edwardian England. 

On the trail of the pirates, stealing noiselessly down the war-path, which is not visible to inexperienced eyes, come the redskins, every one of them with his eyes peeled. They carry tomahawks and knives, and their naked bodies gleam with paint and oil. Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons...

Bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger, comes Tiger Lily, proudly erect, a princess in her own right. She is the most beautiful of dusky Dianas and the belle of the Piccaninnies, coquettish, cold and amorous by turns; there is not a brave who would not have the wayward thing to wife, but she staves off the altar with a hatchet. 

The single worst section in the book, to my mind:

They called Peter the Great White Father, prostrating themselves before him; and he liked this tremendously, so that it was not really good for him. 

"The great white father," he would say to them in a very lordly manner, as they grovelled at his feet, "is glad to see the Piccaninny warriors protecting his wigwam from the pirates."

"Me Tiger Lily," that lovely creature would reply. "Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him."

She was far too pretty to cringe in this way, but Peter thought it his due, and he would answer condescendingly, "It is good. Peter Pan has spoken."

I didn't even want to include this, but it's the elephant
in the living room of Neverland.

Barrie at least made Tiger Lily a warrior and foil to Wendy's domestic aspirations. The 1953 Disney film was pretty much entirely offensive in its depiction of the Indiands--it's as if the writers were not even writing about human beings. "What Makes the Red Man Red?" indeed.

(And yet my personal favorite rendition of Tiger Lily comes from a Disney "My Side of the Story" book, in which she's a real estate agent who gets in over her head when trying to find a property for Hook to buy.)

Given that I'm generally so concerned with being true to J.M. Barrie's original story, it's valid to ask how I'm addressing the portrayal of the Indians. It's a problem without a good solution. As I see it, these characters have never been done right (I think SyFy's Neverland miniseries came the closest, but I realize there are issues there as well, no doubt many I haven't even caught). The premise of The Stowaway is that Peter Pan told his story to Mr. Barrie with a plethora of wish fulfillment fantasies and misunderstandings--if not outright lies. And that includes his descriptions of the other people who live on the island.

After reading many bloggers' opinion, I went with the approach that since this tale is fantasy already, why not use a lost civilization as the "tribe" in Neverland? Research turned up the City of Caesars: a civilization founded in Patagonia by shipwrecked Spaniards who built a city of gold and diamonds. Spanish doubloons and sailors. Aha! 

As Hook says to his companion Vivian in The Stowaway,
"[The Trapalanda] are neither of Asia nor the Americas. Peter calls them Indians because he has nothing else in his vernacular that fits...Have you heard of the City of Caesars or the Wandering Town? It's a lost civilization, like Atlantis, except that here it is very much found."

I realize this approach can be seen as erasing the Indians altogether, as the movie Hook did. Tiger Lily is one of the few well-known Indian characters in literature, after all. But I would rather be guilty of that than adding to inaccurate and offensive stereotypes that I am not informed enough to avoid. I am not qualified to write an Indian tribe with the accuracy and respect it demands, nor do I believe research would be adequate to resolve my ignorance. As I said, it's a problem with no good solution. I am making this decision because it seems likely to cause the least harm.

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