What Is An Ethical Tiger Lily?

Believe it or not, this is Disney's version of an Indian chief.

Disney’s version of an Indian chief.

I recently watched the Disney “Peter Pan,” long my favorite of the classic animated films, which I had not seen from beginning to end in decades. I was genuinely shocked at the portrayal of the Indians, which would make the average movie Western seem politically correct and the Washington Redskins seem like a compliment. I know the story is a fantasy; I know that these are not supposed to represent real Native Americans, but a Victorian child’s visualization of the villains of their games. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the effect of such a film on a Native American child as being anything but devastating. The Neverland Indians, and their heroine, Tiger Lily, have been a human relations problem since at least the civil rights era, and the provocation is legitimate: did you recall (I had forgotten) that Tiger Lily belonged to the “Piccaninny tribe”? That James Barrie was a funny guy.

In the musical “Peter Pan,” the musical number involving the Indians has been deemed uncomfortably racist and is usually cut or replaced: I can’t wait to see how TV will handle it next year when the small screen gives us a horrifying live version of that musical to follow on its defecation on “The Sound of Music.” Then there is the casting of the role of the Indian Princess, which raises the continuing ethical issue of casting white actors as non-white characters. Black dancer/actress Paula Kelly played the role in the last (terrible) TV version of the story, and somehow managed to avoid criticism from the Native American actors lobby (yes, there is such a thing), not that casting an African-American as a Native American is any different in theory from casting a white actress in the role. The wrong race is the wrong race. But now that the producers of the latest movie adaptation of the story have announced that Rooney Mara will be their Tiger Lily (she’s white), the Tiger Lily controversy is back with a vengeance.

Hollywood is not motivated by ethics, but the bottom line. The casting of Mara represents the typical dollars and cents assessment that audiences want to see stars, not unknowns, and there simply are not any Native American actresses who qualify as household names. Then again, how many moviegoers choose to see “Peter Pan” based on the casting of Tiger Lily, a tangential part at best? And how big a draw is Rooney Mara?

The word for this as an ethics issue is incoherent:

  • Native Americans made little noise about the stunt casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto (with a dead bird on his head), one of the rare Native American characters created by a Native American actor. It was an “honor.” Johnny’s liberal creds were impeccable, and the movie was careful scripted to show Tonto as the smart and competent member of the “Lone Ranger” team, with Lone being played as a clueless boob.
  • Showing white characters as idiots, however, isn’t racist. Those are the rules.
  • The theory that it was an outrage to cast Mara is based on the same logic that beset poor Jonathan Pryce when he was cast as The Engineer, in yellow make-up, in “Miss Saigon.” Minority performers seldom have a shot at traditionally white roles, and it is unfair to give the few good parts that would seem to require their physical qualities to whites. The argument, however, is hypocritical, for those same minority actors argue that white characters should be open to performers of other races.
  • They should be, too, unless the part and the story containing it would be undermined by a race-blind choice. Olivia Hussey, who is Eurasian, made a fine Juliet. I wouldn’t want to see her play Harriet Taubman, particularly.

[CORRECTION: Hussey is not Eurasian, though somewhere, decades ago, I absorbed the false information that she was. I apologize for the mistake; I assume the point is clear anyway.]

  • The “this is unfair to actors with special qualities that rule them out for most parts” complaint just doesn’t survive the Kant Rule of Universality. Does an unknown 6’4″ actor  have a legitimate beef that 6’2″ Daniel Day-Lewis got to play Abraham Lincoln? I don’t think so. Day-Lewis can wear two-inch lifts, or just “act taller.” Lifts are just another form of make-up.
  • Is this controversy over affirmative action? Then it is invalid. In art, only the art matters. (Well, except when money matters more….like in movies.)

I can’t blame Native Americans from protesting; I can’t blame the producers for choosing Mara. None of the options lead to perfectly ethical results. Normally I would say that the safest course is staying true to the original work, but when the classic involved names its Indian tribe after a black racial slur, that one is out the window. Consigning “Peter Pan” to political correctness Hell is no solution: for all of its quirks, the story is magical,  perceptive, and a deserving classic. A rule requiring roles to only be cast with actors of the correct race would hamper creative invention and performer opportunity; such a rule applying to only non-white characters would seem, and would be, biased and unfair. In teh case of Tiger Lily, there is no most ethical course, just a lot of troubling choices.

I still think it’s really funny when the crocodile chases Captain Hook in the Disney movie, though.


Sources: WSJ, US News, Asian American Theater

11 thoughts on “What Is An Ethical Tiger Lily?

  1. When you state “… the classic involved names its Indian tribe after a black racial slur”, are you sure that isn’t just a variant of getting upset by “niggardly” or “nignog”, say? The reason I ask is that I had formed the impression that that particular word (which I will not repeat in case I am mistaken) was actually derived from a word originally used of their children by the slaves themselves, and only later applied by others to the children of the slaves or of the freed slaves’ descendants. If so, unlike derogatory terms constructed by outsiders to be derogatory, it is a term only made derogatory by allowing its capture (like “niggardly” and “nignog”), and we owe it to respecting the people involved not to accept that capture, a capture furthered by over-carefully avoiding casual and indifferent usage of the term (I’m pretty sure that a London-based cosmopolitan Scot like Barrie had never heard it used in any but a literary context and never thought of it as belittling of a race as opposed to belittling of uncontrolled children – the obverse of his very theme in the book, and most likely what he was getting at).

  2. Couldn’t they just recast the guy who played Rufio in “Hook” to play Tiger Lily?

    Couldn’t that stir enough controversy and arguments over cross-purposes and miscasting that people just forget what they are arguing about?

  3. I can’t focus on this essay because my brain exploded (kaboom-Jack-style) after reading that Peter Pan was “long [your] favorite of the classic animated films.” Ugh.

  4. Let’s not drag Robin Wright into this, Luke! In defense of the classic Disney animated movie, it should be noted that the Indians were the good guys, ultimately in alliance with the Lost Boys against the evil (white) pirates. What surprises me is that were going to be subjected to yet another film version of “Peter Pan”. A perfectly charming version was made back in 2003. Can’t that one stand for a while without a remake?! And if I have to endure another one of these ethnic whine sessions over the casting of some movie, I think I’ll, 1) puke my guts out and, 2) prevail upon the Texas Air National Guard to launch a pre-emptive raid on Hollywood… for the sake of America’s sanity!

  5. Who told you Olivia Hussey was Eurasian? Her mother is of English and Scottish heritage while her father is Spanish. It’s possible that a lot of mixing happened in her father’s side of the family, but she is not “Eurasian”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.