Writing Race – Felicia Day and Exploring the Tiger Lily Situation
Posted on March 25, 2014
When Felicia Day questioningly tweeted the casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in a new Peter Pan film, she did not expect some of the responses to her tweet to equate the casting to the choices of casting Black actors in “white” in recent films. Day expressed her rebuttle in an editorial that she shared on her Tumblr page titled “‘Tiger Lily Doesn’t Equal Human Torch’ plus a very long rant”.
You can read her entire response as she brings up the statistics of non-white actors in films currently as well as her own feelings about how casting Mara as Tiger Lily doesn’t necessarily equate to Johnny Depp playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger or casting Idris Elba to play Heimdal in the Thor movies. I wanted to support much of what Day expressed in her Tumblr editorial as well as shine a light on the discussion of race in storytelling, such as in films and on television.
Race has been a controversial topic recently with mainstream films and books. From The Hunger Games, where some viewers balked at the casting of black actors for the District 11 Tributes, to this latest issue about Mara’s casting for the new Peter Pan film, people are taking notice to the use of actors of diversity when they portray characters that are presumed to be white. There is already a question about a lack of diversity in storytelling. I’ve explored the issue in “Writing Race – Diversity in Genre Fiction” as well as my own exploration of the subject in “Writing Race – Research Results“.
But why, when Day expresses her disappointment in a white actress being cast in a Native American roll, did she feel compelled to respond, “[F]rom the general tone of the responses (most were civil, for the record), seems like there are lot people upset about black people replacing white people in the Marvel Universe. And they consider that issue a valid counter-argument to my comment about Tiger Lily’s casting. (I guess because they think both have “changing canon” in common?)
I’d like to clear up some stuff here, especially with regards to my initial tweet:
I am not upset about Tiger Lily, a role originally written for a Native American female character in the book, being cast as white because it upsets the canon. Screw canon. I am upset about a role that was expressly written as a female minority being given to white actor instead...”.
There are two arguments in play here, and they need to be separated to be explored. One is the casting of a non-white actor in what might be considered a white roll based on lore or the origins of the character. The other is the casting of a non-white actor in a roll that is based on a character that has a specific racial definition.
Day’s original point about Tiger Lily in her initial tweet, with which I fully agree, is more about how the character is clearly defined as a Native American in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan . Granted, at that time, Barrie was using the image of a Native American in order to bring an exotic element to his story, or to exoticize a specific race. When Barrie introduces her, he writes, “Bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger, comes Tiger Lily, proudly erect, a princess in her own right. She is the most beautiful of dusky Dianas and the belle of the Piccaninnies, coquettish, cold and amorous by turns; there is not a brave who would not have the wayward thing to wife, but she staves off the altar with a hatchet.” Even Barrie’s words, while reflective of their cultural context, is very clear top which race Tiger Lily belongs. And yet even he cannot shed more Caucasian influences on his character of color. She is a “dusky Diana”, comparing her to the Roman Goddess of the hunt. She is the “belle” of the Piccaninny tribe (the name of which has its own racial implications).
Tiger Lily is meant to be a Native American. So Day’s argument that an actor of color should be considered for the part is valid due to the fact that the character in question has clearly defined racial descriptions. Johnny Depp received criticism about his portrayal of Tonto, although he defended his casting in the roll due to some Native American in his biological background. Both Tonto and Tiger Lily share similar problems for a modern adaptation in as much as both rolls were written to be stereotypical depictions. Neither were meant to honor or to portray with any realism to their cultural background. So what is a filmmaker to do with such rolls? For Depp, he played a stereotypical Tonto for comedic purposes that mixed and matched Native American depictions and ultimately did not help make the film a hit. For now, the creators of the new Peter Pan film have an opportunity to learn from that kind of reception to possibly salvage the use of the character of Tiger Lily.
But what if a character is not necessarily defined? Do the origins of characters define them forever, or can someone take a character where race does not change who or what that character is and better reflect today’s society that is filled with more than one or two racial identities? Take for instance Heimdal, who is part of the Norse mythology canon. The argument can be made that the Norse culture, which was predominantly Caucasian, created and worshiped gods who reflected their own culture, and therefore that locks in that racial depiction. However, a counter to that argument is whether or not the casting of Idris Elba changes the character of the god? Just because an older society reflects its social context does not necessarily mean that we need to uphold the same values now.
Then there’s the grey area – the really uncomfortably undefined area. On ABC’s Once Upon A Time, they cast Alexandra Metz as Rapunzel. And once again, there were comments made against the casting of a racially diverse actor for the part that demands long “golden” hair. After watching the episode, I saw nothing culturally wrong with the casting of Metz for OUAT‘s Rapunzel, nor did I feel that her portrayal of Rapunzel changed the character any more than Disney-fying does from the traditional fairy tale. Yet it doesn’t fit in with the two arguments. Based on Rapunzel’s hair, doesn’t the character demand to be Caucasian? Does the portrayal justify those who are upset with the casting in the first place or even justify Mara’s casting as Tiger Lily?
And therein lies the path to find the right answer. If all storytellers, be they filmmakers, television producers, or writers, would explore whether characters need racial definition or not, perhaps it would open the playing field for more actors to get cast in more rolls. Have the discussions about whether or not The Human Torch from The Fantastic Four has to be played by a white actor or if Michael B. Jordan will do a fine job. Consider, when writing, whether or not the fairies in your tale are all Caucasian. If the discussion changes the castings which then increases the dialogue in the general population, maybe someday it won’t be needed anymore.
Day concludes her Tumblr editorial by saying, “We have to make an effort to change the pattern of only seeing stories through white characters’ points of view, so that in the future, diverse protagonists are just a given. So that we can have heroes and villians and judges and love interests of all backgrounds, and not have to point it out as ‘look how special this is!’ Evolving stories and lore is a GOOD THING FOR OUR WORLD.” I definitely agree, Miss Day.
I think that a character’s race is a part of the character, not the most important part, but not irrelevant, either.
In the Fantastic Four, it really won’t make much difference. If I recall the source material, the Human Torch was a retired military test pilot who worked for Reed Richards. There’s no reason that character couldn’t be Black, or Asian, or Native, or any other ethnicity. For that matter, casting a woman to play the part would be fine with me–it would a different spin on the character, but what is important is that the character is a pilot.
Heimdal in the Marvel universe isn’t Nordic, he’s Asgardian, which is a non-human race. The cannon says that they were mistaken for gods by early humans, but they are aliens. So long as it’s clear that Asgardians are a species with genetic diversity, there isn’t any reason why Heimdal couldn’t have dark skin.
Tiger Lily is a Neverlander–again, not Earthly. The tribe that she belongs to shares some similarities with Native Americans, but in Neverland there isn’t any reason why that tribe should have a particular genetic makeup.
Tonto, on the other hand, is a character who is Native American. It is an important part of who he is and why he chooses to follow the Lone Ranger. No matter who plays the character, the character’s ethnicity is integral. I didn’t see the recent film, but in all the previews Johnny Dep’s makeup looks like they are trying to make him look Native.
I believe that in most film adaptions being faithful to the physical description of characters is not that important. In some cases it is–one couldn’t cast a Black actor as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” without drastically changing the story. Most of the time, though, I really don’t think matching the race of the actor to the race of the character as originally written is that important.
This having been said, it’s clear that Hollywood movies in general seemed to cast White actors unless a role is specifically designated ethnic. There are very few non-White actors who have been able to break out of the ethnic stereotype and been seen simply as actors, not as ethnic actors.
Thank you for your perspective about the characters, especially your points about some of them being outside of our world entirely. And you touched on the one section I edited for length and repetitiveness, which is that there are characters that cannot be cast differently – like your Atticus Finch example. It’s a complicated subject, and one that not many want to talk about. So I truly appreciate your thoughts!
After reading Ms. Day’s blog, I’m convinced that her concern is that the “powers-that-be’ actively avoid hiring ‘qualified minorities’ for some stories.
Her frustration is centered around the minority actors or actresses who don’t get the chance to play the ‘Tonto’ or the ‘Tiger Lily’. Therefore, the audience doesn’t get the opportunity to ‘update’ their belief systems regarding various stereotypes.
She questions why a strong Native American character can’t be played by a Native American.
However, the feedback that she received seem to miss that point, IMHO.
Ultimately, Ms. Day was attacked by a mob mentality who held up many instances of ‘character changes’ as proof that she should ‘just shut up and deal with it’.
There are people willing to dismiss certain topics rather than face them head on.
She definitely addressed the issue from her personal lens of being an actor. I linked to her tweet that started things. If you read through them, you can kind of see why she ended up writing what she did and how that mob mentality frustrated her. I will admit that I don’t have definitive answers either. But I like the discussion. Thanks for adding your comments!