Alanna Saunders Plays Tiger Lily on 'Peter Pan Live!' But Has The Role Been Updated? Or Is It Still Offensive?
There's no doubt Peter Pan is a beloved children's book, or that the 1953 Disney movie has been elevated to a place in the animated film canon. The idea of a land where children never grow up captures the dreams of kids and adults alike. But Peter Pan has a nastier side as well, a racist and sexist message that should cause concern for modern day parents — and television producers. One character in particular bears the brunt of these outdated ideologies: a certain "Indian princess." Has Peter Pan Live! updated Tiger Lily's character for the 21st century?
First, they cast newcomer Alanna Saunders as Tiger Lily. According to NPR, Saunders has "ties to the Cherokee Nation on her father's side. Her paternal great-grandmother, her representative tells [the reporter], was part of the Cherokee Nation." So far, so good. Too often, minority roles, of which there are already too few throughout entertainment, are given to white actors. (See: The controversy surrounding Rooney Mara's casting as Tiger Lily in an upcoming prequel.) The NPR piece also points out that NBC specifically sought a Native American actress for the role, as reported in Indian Country Today. (As an aside, Saunders just graduated college in June, and Peter Pan Live! is her screen debut, which is pretty cool.)
Still, there are so many things wrong with the original Tiger Lily, it's hard to know where to start. Author J. M. Barrie was born in Scotland in 1860, and he first published Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up as a play in 1904, and in novel form in 1911. Obviously, ideas of racial sensitivity have changed since the early 1900s, but even for its time Barrie's portrayals of Neverland's Native Americans were crude. According The Movies, Race, and Ethnicity, Tiger Lily's tribe are written as "warlike primitives who speak in guttural tones." The Disney movie, which came out 50 years later, includes the exact same stereotype. The Native Americans speak in a mixture of broken English and sign language, perform a war dance, are drawn with bright red skin, refer to themselves as "Injuns," and, just for good measure, sing a song titled "What Made the Red Man Red?" Have a look for yourself:
On top of this big ol' pile of racism, Tiger Lily also has to deal with an extra helping of sexism. In both the play and the movie, her character literally does not speak. Tiger Lily exists entirely to be saved by Peter, and to make Wendy and Tinkerbell both jealous. She doesn't get to perform any actions — or even say anything. Instead, other characters' actions and desires happen to her. In the play, she does sing one song, "Ugg-a-Wugg," which includes the lyric "I'll just send for Peter Pan." To which he responds "And I will come and save the brave noble redskin." I'm getting real tired of this crap, Peter.
All this bring me to the the latest Peter Pan adaptation, NBC's Peter Pan Live! As I'm sure the network knows, broadcasting the more objectionable parts of the play would result in outrage, calls for boycott, and accusations of racism. So, to their credit, the minds behind this staging have made some concessions (a better idea might have been choosing a more progressive play to begin with, but that ship has sailed).
Saunders herself hasn't commented on her character's previous awfulness, but she did say that her Tiger Lily is a "strong leader of this multicultural tribe" in an NBC promo:
Hearing from the actress that the role has been expanded to more than just a victim is encouraging. So is the creators' decision to revamp her song "Ugg-a-Wugg," which has been retitled "True Blood Brothers." Producer Neil Meron told Entertainment Weekly that songwriter Amanda Green worked with a Native American consultant to include actual Native American phrases in the song, instead of gibberish — though he didn't mention which language specifically, or to which tribe the consultant belonged. Meron said, "Now and forever, this will hopefully be the version [in the show]."
I'm waiting until the Dec. 4 telecast to judge whether Meron and his team did enough tweaking to rid Peter Pan Live! of its distasteful elements. For now, I'm just happy the production has given Saunders a chance to expand her career.
Images: Patrick Randak/NBC; GameraBoy/Tumblr