Tiger Lily in Disney’s ‘Peter Pan’
What’s astounding, of course, is that the outrage is about a white woman playing the character Tiger Lily rather than the fact that Tiger Lily is part of the new script at all. The character is not a particularly sensitive or sophisticated representation of a Native American woman; after all, the idea of a Scottish author adding a tribe of indigenous Americans to his fairy-tale land is a little uncomfortable, no? Especially given that Barrie’s name for the group is the Piccanniny Tribe. From their earliest appearance in Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the Picanniny Tribe was depicted in typical stereotypical fashion: wearing pelts and feathers in their hair, communicating in guttural grunts. Disney’s popular animated film version was not better; while Tiger Lily herself is visibly Native American, she doesn’t utter a line of dialogue. And let’s not forget the 1954 Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, which featured a Nordic Tiger Lily and the song “Ugg-a-Wug”:
Many other modern Peter Pan retellings, from Steven Spielberg’s Hook to Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Peter and the Starcatchers series (and the subsequant Tony-winning play based upon the first book), have removed the Native American elements entirely, which is all probably for the best. It’s not that Native Americans don’t deserve to be depicted in the story; the question is: why have the Indians, representative of the English fascination with Native Americans, remained in the various adaptations of Peter Pan throughout the years in the first place?
Oliver Herford’s 1907 illustration of Tiger Lily
The point is, the whitewashing of Tiger Lily and the Native American tribe is nothing new; if anything, it has its roots in J. M. Barrie’s own vision for the Peter Pan story. The Indians are the other, a fantasy-land version of a real, diverse group of individuals. That they have been depicted with such ruthless stereotypes is an unfortunate truth born out of the unsophisticated mindset of the time in which these characters were created.
If Pan does anything right, it’ll strike the notion that Tiger Lily is an Indian princess at all. Sure, if her “tribe” is in fact indigenous to Neverland, it would have been nice to see an actor of color play the part. But that the post-Victorian concept of Native Americans is still so deeply intertwined with Neverland’s indigenous peoples is an issue; if Pan does its job well as a reimagination of this classic story and its characters, it’ll treat Tiger Lily as a literary figure with more respect than previous films, theater productions, and books. After all, in this new, imaginative vision of Neverland — a fictional place, after all — all bets are off, and Joe Wright and his team could potentially improve upon over a hundred years of negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples.