The internet exploded last night with the news that Rooney Mara was in talks to play Princess Tiger Lily in Joe Wright’s forthcoming Peter Pan origin story “Pan”. The uproar was immediate - Tiger Lily is a Native American character, while Mara is plainly white.
At first glance, this would seem to be another example of the Hollywood whitewashing that required "Prince of Persia"'s lead roles of Prince Dastan and Princess Tamina to be played by Jake Gyllenhall and Gemma Arterton. We all know why it happens, but it doesn’t make it any more edifying.
However, is this a similar scenario? Variety reports of Wright's film that “the world being created is multi-racial / international" and that Tiger Lily is "a very different character than previously imagined”, adding that actresses including Adele Exarchopoulos and Lupita Nyong’o were considered for the role.
While it bears mentioning that all starring roles announced thus far have gone to white actors, we don’t yet know what exactly Joe Wright has done with the role of Tiger Lily or how he envisages this “multi-racial” world as a whole.
What we can at least expect is that we are not going to see a repeat of the Tiger Lily of previous Peter Pan incarnations. Which frankly, is wonderful news. Tiger Lily is a hugely passive character, not least in the Disney cartoon version, where her one trait is being forced to keep silent for the entire film (a task she eventually breaks... in order to cry for help). Yes, it's a representation of a Native American woman, but a hideously stereotyped one.
But is that better than no representation at all? It remains to be seen. The casting of "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"'s Mara suggests that the film may be going for a character of the “kick-ass” variety, although that doesn't necessarily make it a positive representation of womanhood. Of course, what may have been ideal is if Joe Wright had used this opportunity to cast a Native American actress as Tiger Lily and then utterly flipped the character on its head, making her as active and fully-fleshed and interesting as she deserves to be. That is now clearly not going to happen. And was never exactly likely.
So in answer to the question posed at the top of this article, it seems Rooney Mara is not really going to be playing a Native American role at all. Of course, that very fact means that a culture perpetually rendered invisible in popular culture has been dealt that fate once again. But until we get to see the finished film or at least read a script, it remains to be seen what we are being offered in its place.