March 21, 2014

Hey, Hollywood, Princess Tiger Lily shouldn’t be lily white

Rooney Mara is no Indian princess. And yet she was cast to play Tiger Lily in “Pan,” the upcoming reimagined “Peter Pan.” Does Hollywood have no sense?

Delinda Pushetonequa grew up in the ’80s, when John Hughes films reigned and everyone wanted to be in “The Breakfast Club.”

Growing up in Iowa, she wanted to be an actress. But she wondered if that was even possible since she’d never really seen any Native American actors on television or in mainstream movies. They only appeared in a few Native films, ones her family would watch over and over again.

More than 20 years later, she isn’t surprised at the recent announcement that Rooney Mara will play Indian princess Tiger Lily in “Pan,” the upcoming reimagined “Peter Pan” from director Joe Wright.

“Our culture is not celebrated in history, because history is always written by the victors,” says Delinda, 32. “We are treated like we are not real people. Look at the (Washington) Redskins. And ‘Peter Pan’ has been racist; it’s given a culturally racist view of who Native people are. But Tiger Lily is supposed to be a Native. They should change her name to something else.”

In 2014, we would hope that a new “Peter Pan” would get rid of the offensive and disgusting treatment of Native Americans in the J.M. Barrie original story and the 1953 Disney cartoon — no more “What Makes the Red Man Red” stereotypes. And you would hope that Warner Bros. understood the importance of bringing some depth to Tiger Lily and using a Native actress. A


protesting the casting already has over 7,000 signatures and counting.

Communities of color are still vastly underrepresented onscreen, according to a study last year by University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. More than 75 percent of speaking characters in the top 500 movies between 2007 and 2012 were white.

That’s why casting a white Tiger Lily is not the same as some recent color-blind casting in the news. This week we learned that Norm Lewis will play Broadway’s first black Phantom of the Opera. Michael B. Jordan, who is black, was cast as the Human Torch in the upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot. This Sunday, on ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” we’ll see a black Rapunzel. And this Christmas comes the remake of “Annie,” starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx.

These are opportunities for diversity, a chance to offer visibility to people who are not often seen in starring roles that break stereotypes. More than that, these characters are not based on the color of their skin or their culture. But Tiger Lily? She is supposed to be an Indian princess. Imagine if Hollywood rewrote that character with dignity and gave the role to a Native actress. It could be major.

Delinda says it wasn’t until her college years at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence that she realized she could be an actress. She worked with Pat Melody, who founded the Thunderbird Theatre at Haskell. And she went on to get her master’s in theater at UMKC.

Last year, with Pat’s help, Delinda got the part of Regan in a Native version of “King Lear” in Alaska.

Pat, who is now artistic director at the American Indian Repertory Theatre in Lawrence, says Hollywood has a bad habit of cultural appropriation.

“I am not Indian,” she says. “I am white. And I think that there are so many Native actors that the idea of casting a non-Native makes no sense. It’s almost as if the Native people are the last minority people that you can simply ignore. It’s been imprinted on American culture that it is perfectly all right to appropriate them and ignore all aspects of Native culture. Hollywood thinks they have come a long way, but casting a white Tiger Lily shows there is a lot of work to be done.”

On the other hand, Gaylene Crouser, executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center, says if she were an actress, Tiger Lily is a role she would never take.

“It is always disappointing when Hollywood casts white people in Indian roles, but having said that and having not seen the screenplay of ‘Pan,’ ‘Peter Pan’ was a very racist movie to begin with. Indian people were portrayed as ignorant, foolish savages. They used derogatory terms for Indian people. I am not sure how much you could change it to make it much better, given the story line.”

Call me an optimist, but I believe it can be done. More importantly, it’s time Hollywood created respectable and relatable roles for Indian people, for Asians and Latinos, too. And although black people have come the furthest on screen, we’re not there yet, either.

Kids shouldn’t second-guess their dreams based on Hollywood stereotypes. When you don’t see yourself onscreen, it’s easy to feel invisible. I know that in Neverland, no one ever grows up, but this is the real world. It’s time for Hollywood to grow up, leave behind its whitewashed make-believe and embrace our multicultural reality.

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