How a New Peter Pan Adaptation Confronts Its Racist Origins

6 minute read

In the over 120 years since Peter Pan first appeared in J.M. Barrie‘s novel The Little White Bird, the mischievous character who never grew up has become a cultural fixture, a symbol of imagination, childhood fancies, and eternal youth.

Peter Pan’s fantastical life and adventures represents a dream world for many. But revisit Barrie’s stories, and readers will find that while he filled his works with wonder and magic, the author also relied on and spread racist tropes. Among the most prominent was the character of Tiger Lily in Peter Pan.

The fictional Native American princess of Neverland, Tiger Lily is an exotic imagining of the other. Barrie uses racist slurs like “savages” and “redskins” to describe her and her tribe, deploys a mock Native American language, and portrays the character using stereotypes.

Historians say Barrie’s depictions of Tiger Lily and other Native Americans is a reflection of his time. But the multiple film adaptions and television series Peter Pan has inspired have been controversial and problematic in their own right, from creating blatantly racist caricatures, like Disney’s 1953 animated film, Peter Pan to Pan, a 2015 live-action adaptation that featured Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, in a role that many criticized as whitewashing.

Now, a new film seeks to retell the story of Peter Pan—and to reframe the narrative on Tiger Lily. In Peter Pan & Wendy, a live-action version of the classic fairy tale that releases on Disney+ on April 28, director David Lowery was intentional in grounding Tiger Lily in reality, not racist caricature. In an interview with Total Film, Lowery said that he was not precious with keeping Barrie’s renderings of Tiger Lily for his film.

“The challenge for us was: how do we take this character who, going back to the original text, was problematic, and give her a role that is not only supporting, but integral to the entire movie,” he said. “There was nothing from the past that we needed to hang on to when it came to Tiger Lily. The version of the character in the movie, who is so strong and vibrant, it’s incredible. There should be a Tiger Lily movie!”

As the film hits Disney+, here’s what to know about the controversial and racist history behind Peter Pan and Tiger Lily.

Who is Tiger Lily?

Although the character of Peter Pan first appeared in J.M. Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird, Tiger Lily made her first appearance in Barrie’s 1904 stage play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and again in his 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy. In both works, she’s referred to as a beautiful Native American princess, the daughter of Great Big Little Panther, the chief of the fictional Piccaninny Tribe in the fantasy world of Neverland. By all accounts, Barrie’s literary treatment of Tiger Lily, her father, and the rest of the Native Americans in his work is racial caricature, from their nonsensical dialogue or broken English to his naming of their tribe as “Piccaninny,” a racist slur. They dance and smoke peace pipes; in a telling passage from Peter and Wendy, Tiger Lily and other people in her tribe call Peter, “the great white father.”

Read more: See All the Actors Who Played Peter Pan on the Big Screen

According to Anne Hiebert Alton, an English professor at Central Michigan University and the editor of a scholarly edition of Peter Pan, while Barrie’s depiction of Tiger Lily and her community is problematic, it was a veritable reflection of the times.

“It was a popular fantasy trope,” Alton said in an interview with Smithsonian Mag. “Barrie was telling the story in the very early 1900s, and so part of it, I think, was: this was a good story, this’ll stage well. He was very Victorian—and that’s the age when British people were still proud to brag that the sun never set on the British empire.”

A long history of problematic portrayals of Tiger Lily

The racist legacy of Barrie’s depiction of Native Americans continued with the many film adaptations of Peter Pan. Notably, Disney’s 1953 film, Peter Pan, not only rendered Tiger Lily nearly completely silent, an exotic damsel in distress to be rescued by Peter, but also doubled down on racial caricature with a offensive musical number titled, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” In recent years, Disney has added a content advisory notice to the film and removed it from children’s profiles on the platforms because of the negative racist stereotypes.

Later adaptations still faced plenty of criticism. While some filmmakers sought to subvert the problematic history of the character by casting indigenous actors, like Quechua–Huachipaeri Peruvian American actor Q’orianka Waira Qoiana Kilcher—who portrayed Tiger Lily in the 2011 limited series, Neverland—others chose to do away with the on-screen depiction of the Native Americans altogether, like Steven Spielberg with 1991’s Hook. Others invited more scrutiny with their interpretations of the role; both director Joe Wright and actor Rooney Mara were criticized for whitewashing after Mara appeared as Tiger Lily in the 2015 film, Pan.

How Peter Pan & Wendy reinvents Tiger Lily

In Lowery’s Peter Pam & Wendy, Tiger Lily emerges as a leader in her own right and a mentor of sorts to Wendy, as she navigates her coming-of-age. To ensure that the role was as culturally respectful as possible, Lowery worked with two Native consultants, Dawn Jackson (Saginaw Chippewa) and Dr. Kevin Lewis ( Minisitkwan Lake Cree Nation) who were involved with the project, from the development stage through post-production. Cree actor Alyssa Wapanatâhk was cast as Tiger Lily. In an interview with Native Viewpoint, Wapanatâhk said that she worked elements of her heritage into the character, with the encouragement of Lowery.

“Making sure that she was authentic was the hugest part,” she said, noting that she consulted her grandmother, a fluent Cree speaker, during the process. “I wanted to be authentic. I think that’s why we brought my Cree background into it.”

She also noted that her spirituality also influenced her role as Tiger Lily.

“I knew that If I didn’t have this culture. If we didn’t have these ceremonies, I wouldn’t be here in this position,” she said. “And I knew that if I just kept that strong, then everything would connect. Everything would fall into place where it’s meant to be.”

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