©Walt Disney Pictures
Tiger Lily as depicted in the 1953 Disney film 'Peter Pan'

Casting Controversy: Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in 'Peter Pan' Prequel


Non-Native actress Rooney Mara, most famous for her edgy portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has been cast as Tiger Lily in the forthcoming Pan, a live-action prequel to the story of Peter Pan told most memorably in a 1953 animated Disney film. Concerned Natives and culture-watchers of many ethnicities are decrying the choice as yet another redface travesty, much like Johnny Depp's Tonto in the 2013 film The Lone Ranger.

The 1953 film, adapted from Scottish author J.M. Barrie's 1904 play and 1911 novel, has always been a source of aggravation for many Native Americans for its depiction of a "redskin" tribe, complete with "injuns" who speak in pidgin and say "how" and "ugh." 

Casting a white actress as an Indian princess in a story that was far from racially sensitive to begin with -- this really does sound like Johnny Depp's Tonto again, doesn't it? -- was hailed as a stupid move all over the blogosphere and Twitter. "Great to see Hollywood so thoughtfully responding to criticism that it woefully under- and misrepresents indigenous people!" writes Callie Beusman at Jezebel.

Jacqueline Keeler -- @jfkeeler -- one of the #NotYourTonto organizers, tweeted, "Rooney Mara cast as Tiger Lily in a Peter Pan remake? WT-? Why won't they stop! I need a rest!" Tweeter @fozmeadows wrote "Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily? Right. Because NOBODY IN HOLLYWOOD has Q'orianka Kilcher's contact details. *headdesk*"

While casting a white actress as an Indian character is a familiar kind of disappointing, some folks who are trying to read the tea leaves are seeing something else -- a revamped Tiger Lily who isn't Native American at all. This would be a departure from J.M. Barrie's source material, but maybe not such a radical one. Peter Pan's Indians, after all, do not live on Turtle Island, they live in "Neverland," and there is no real reason why they are Indians. And in J.M. Barrie's original play (but not the movie), they are said to be of the "Pickaninny Tribe," which adds an anti-African American slur to the anti-Native "redskin" caricature. It's a blurring that suggests Barrie didn't really care whether he was writing about Indians, or Africans, or African Indians or Indian Africans -- he simply wanted a handy caricature and exotic other that might show up in the dreams of white English kids circa 1904. 

Details from an article about the casting at Variety.com hint that Pan's casting department may be counting on this reasoning as a get-out-of-racism-jail-free card. "The world being created [for Pan] is multi-racial/international – and [Tiger Lily is] a very different character than previously imagined," says the report. Other actresses up for the role included Adele Exarchopoulos, who is French with some Greek heritage, and Lupita Nyong'o, who was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents.

"Re-imagining a story to remove unfortunate racial stereotypes is a worthwhile endeavor," writes Lexi Nisita at Refinery 29, "but re-imagining a Native American character as a white character is not a step in the right direction, unless it's coupled by a lot of bold choices in the opposite direction." 

Which is the case -- is Mara's casting an example of an actor putting on redface, or a Native character being whitewashed?

Rebecca Pahle of The Mary Sue explained that neither tactic solves the problem. "Tiger Lily being a problematic character isn’t an excuse to cast a non-Native American actress. Rather, it’s the same as it was with The Lone Ranger: The key to bringing a racial caricature forward to the modern day isn't to disregard that person’s race but to change the character so they’re not a racial caricature. Jesus Christ. It’s not that hard. There’s something to be said for 'loyalty to source material,' but early 1900s racism is not one of the things you need to keep."

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I'm less offended by a White girl playing an NDN character in an animated feature than I am by the original story. Certainly racism was prevalent when the story was written, but as there is no reason for the Indians or the Black they should change the characters to something less racist.

sweetgrass777's picture
Submitted by sweetgrass777 on
Nothing new folks......They are always typecasting non-native actors in portrayal of Native people. The media is controlled by we know who. This is the same instance with Benecio Del Toro. They could not find a Native Actor to play the part. We sell out our own people sometimes by allowing them to do this. Protest the dam movie like you protest everything else and quit complaint if you not going to speak up about it!

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
Rebecca Pahle should realize that there are a host of christian Native Americans in America. This is why she should think twice about taking the holy and sacred name of Jesus, the Christ, in vain. Non-native americans do not desecrate holy native american images, unless they're stupid in the first place. Let's show some respect for our native american christians!

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
I'd suggest that "She is not a Native American" messages be put out there by bloggers. Also, contact the people who are making this movie. Demand that they discontinue this farce; instead make her non-Native American. My second suggestion is: Make your own cartoons/movies. They don't have to be anti-caucasian. And contact the richer tribes for investment; the eligible Native American people for the creative process; actors; directors, and anyone who can make a movie or cartoon . Bloggers/writers should address the issue of using non-NAs in show biz. It's only right that NAs speak out; it's imperative! It's very righteous if they make their own movies; if only to protect their fellow NAs.

JC's picture
Submitted by JC on
The casting director has a Twitter account and I recommend that anyone who doesn't agree with this casting contact her with a tweet. I did. I'll also be contacting the studio and politely explaining that the casting of Ms. Mara is disrespectful, disappointing, illustrates a marked thoughtlessness and has made me come to the decision that I will not be taking my family to see this movie if the role is given to a non-Native actress.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Let's all keep this in perspective. Remember, this is an ANIMATED feature and only Rooney Mara's voice is being used. How many of us can tell the difference between Tantoo Cardinal's voice and Irene Bedar's? How many of us would know Graham Greene's voice or Randy Spear's? This isn't at ALL like substituting Rock Hudson or Chuck Connors for a native actor. It's a part for a voice-over; the actor/actress will never be seen. I would be more wary of how NDNs are depicted by the animators, or how ANY voice-over might be stereotypical (How, me Indian, come take-um scalp). I would certainly like to know that a real Native got the job, but this type of discrimination happens everywhere minorities are employed. If you MUST protest, protest that NDNs are added to this story only for "ethnic flair." They could just as easily be any other ethnicity.