The Vampires of New England Series--Inanna Arthen

Rewriting The Rules

December 5, 2014

Oompa Loompas in Neverland

You can tell that I’ve been out of the loop, because I didn’t even realize there was a new Peter Pan movie in the works until the official trailer came out last week. The whole controversy over casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily which roiled last March escaped me entirely at the time. It’s arisen again, with more petitions going around to protest the “white-washing” of “Native American” characters.

That’s not what is going on with Warner Brothers’ Pan, however. It probably wasn’t very clear last March, but the trailer makes it extremely obvious what the new movie is actually doing. They aren’t casting white actors as “Indians.” They aren’t filming J.M. Barrie’s “Indians” at all. They’re making the “tribe” in Neverland something completely fanciful, with no relationship to real-world Native Americans except the character names.

They’re doing exactly the same thing to the Neverland “Indians” that film versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory did to the original Oompa Loompas in Roald Dahl’s book: changing them from parodies of “primitive” people into rainbow-colored imaginary beings that no one could identify with any existing race or ethnicity. In short, they’re dodging the whole race question by doing an end-run around it. Unfortunately, this “rainbow-washing” doesn’t address the fundamental problems of the narrative as a whole.

Oompa Loompas 1964-1973

Original 1964 illustration (top) with its “whitewashed” version from the 1973 edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

You have to be really old to remember this, but the original Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were written—and illustrated, with many little pen-and-ink drawings—as miniature black people. I was eight years old when the book was first released in 1964. Everyone in my 100% white suburban elementary school was reading it. The waiting list for the school library’s copy was months long. When I finally got to read the book, even at age eight I saw a lot about it that was just squicky. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, of course, a seriously evil book for a lot of reasons, but the Oompa Loompas are its worst offense. It may or may not be a coincidence that the book’s writing and publication coincided with the peak of the Civil Rights Movement here in the U.S.

I did not realize until recently that the book was revised in the 1970s to change the descriptions and illustrations of the Oompa Loompas so that they were no longer little black pygmy slaves from darkest Africa but little multi-colored dwarf slaves from Loompaland. It apparently took long and fervent arguments by serious African-American academics to get the book changed, and by that time I had lost all interest in it. I only saw the 1971 movie (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) once, and only because one of the erstwhile kids was played by a young actress from Dark Shadows, of which I was a fan. I didn’t like the movie. Its continued status as a raging cult favorite eludes me entirely.

It was easy to see why Dahl so unashamedly imagined Wonka’s undocumented immigrant slave labor force as African. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is little more than Atlas Shrugged for kids. I’m sure Dahl sincerely believed that “primitive” peoples greatly benefitted from a benign and patronizing owner who took care of their every need, fed them their favorite food every day and only asked that they work for him from dawn to dusk and from birth to death, and serve as test subjects for genius Wonka’s weird inventions. What a deal, eh?

But the “Indians” in J.M. Barrie’s story may need a little more parsing out before we understand why they, too, are far better excised from the story than superficially dignified by casting real-life Native Americans in the parts.

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy) was written as a play in 1904 and novelized in 1911. At that time and place—Edwardian England—Native Americans had become highly popular figures in children’s stories and spontaneous play. They were usually referred to (without any derogatory intention) as “Redskins” or “Red Indians” (to differentiate them from the natives of India, who were referred to by the colonial English as “blacks”). To Edwardian kids, Native Americans were a romantic and distant people, primitive and savage, yet noble and dignified. They could be framed as either villains or heroes—murderous raiders, or brave warriors and princesses like Pocahontas throwing herself in front of John Smith to save his life. Because of the distance, they were more likely to be seen positively by English children than by American kids, who tended more to the “cowboys and Indians” games in which the “Indians” were bad guys to be defeated. But there’s no escaping the fact that in Barrie’s England, the popular concept of Native Americans was neither flattering nor accurate.

Barrie did nothing to expand on or improve the characterization of Native Americans that his audience expected. Neverland has “Indians” for the same reason it has pirates, mermaids and fairies: because these were all features in children’s adventure stories and popular make-believe games of the time. Neverland is the land of make-believe, which Barrie tells us is different from one child to another, and which “almost becomes real” in those moments just before falling asleep. It was never presented as having the internal consistency or logic of, say, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Lewis’ Narnia or even Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Tiger Lily’s mock Native American name itself is a problematical pastiche—combining “tiger” to represent fierceness with “lily” to suggest feminine beauty and purity. (It’s also the name of an actual flower.) No Native American would have had such a name because there are no tigers in the Americas. But it’s the name of Tiger Lily’s tribe that evokes the real wince: the Piccaninny Tribe. Piccaninny, of course, is a word used by whites in the United States and Australia to describe youngsters (and infantilized adults) of dark-skinned races, and is now considered an offensive term. However, the “Indians” in Peter Pan are usually referred to as “redskins.”

The first time we meet Tiger Lily and her tribe in the novel, Peter Pan, they are stalking the pirates around the island of Neverland:

The lost boys were out looking for Peter, the pirates were out looking for the lost boys, the redskins were out looking for the pirates, and the beasts were out looking for the redskins. They were going round and round the island, but they did not meet because all were going at the same rate.

The full description of the stalking Piccaninnies covers all the stereotypes of fictional “Indians” believed by English children:

On the trail of the pirates, stealing noiselessly down the war-path, which is not visible to inexperienced eyes, come the redskins, every one of them with his eyes peeled. They carry tomahawks and knives, and their naked bodies gleam with paint and oil. Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as of pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons. In the van, on all fours, is Great Big Little Panther, a brave of so many scalps that in his present position they somewhat impede his progress. 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. Observe how they pass over fallen twigs without making the slightest noise.

In a key scene, Peter and Wendy are witnesses to the intended execution of Tiger Lily by drowning. In another stereotype, Tiger Lily confronts her fate with stoic courage:

The boat drew nearer. It was the pirate dinghy, with three figures in her, Smee and Starkey, and the third a captive, no other than Tiger Lily. Her hands and ankles were tied, and she knew what was to be her fate. She was to be left on the rock to perish, an end to one of her race more terrible than death by fire or torture, for is it not written in the book of the tribe that there is no path through water to the happy hunting-ground? Yet her face was impassive; she was the daughter of a chief, she must die as a chief’s daughter, it is enough.

In gratitude for Peter’s rescuing Tiger Lily by taking her place on the slowly submerging rock, the entire Piccaninny Tribe virtually worships him:

They called Peter the Great White Father, prostrating themselves before him; and he liked this tremendously, so that it was not really good for him.

‘The great white father,’ he would say to them in a very lordly manner, as they grovelled at his feet, ‘is glad to see the Piccaninny warriors protecting his wigwam from the pirates.’

‘Me Tiger Lily,’ that lovely creature would reply. ‘Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him.’

She was far too pretty to cringe in this way, but Peter thought it his due, and he would answer condescendingly, ‘It is good. Peter Pan has spoken.’

The Great White Father was one of J.M. Barrie’s original working titles for his play, but he was persuaded not to use it by the play’s producer, Charles Frohman.

The Piccaninnies come to a valiant but sad end when the pirates trick them as they prepare to attack. The tribe is vulnerable to ambush because it always follows a predictable pattern:

The pirate attack had been a complete surprise: a sure proof that the unscrupulous Hook had conducted it improperly, for to surprise redskins fairly is beyond the wit of the white man.

By all the unwritten laws of savage warfare it is always the redskin who attacks, and with the wiliness of his race he does it just before the dawn, at which time he knows the courage of the whites to be at its lowest ebb. The white men have in the meantime made a rude stockade on the summit of yonder undulating ground, at the foot of which a stream runs; for it is destruction to be too far from water. There they await the onslaught, the inexperienced ones clutching their revolvers and treading on twigs, but the old hands sleeping tranquilly until just before the dawn. Through the long black night the savage scouts wriggle, snake-like, among the grass without stirring a blade. The brushwood closes behind them as silently as sand into which a mole has dived. Not a sound is to be heard, save when they give vent to a wonderful imitation of the lonely call of the coyote. The cry is answered by other braves; and some of them do it even better than the coyotes, who are not very good at it. So the chill hours wear on, and the long suspense is horribly trying to the paleface who has to live through it for the first time; but to the trained hand those ghastly calls and still ghastlier silences are but an intimation of how the night is marching…

…Around the brave Tiger Lily were a dozen of her stoutest warriors, and they suddenly saw the perfidious pirates bearing down upon them. Fell from their eyes then the film through which they had looked at victory. No more would they torture at the stake. For them the happy hunting-grounds now. They knew it; but as their fathers’ sons they acquitted themselves. Even then they had time to gather in a phalanx that would have been hard to break had they risen quickly, but this they were forbidden to do by the traditions of their race. It is written that the noble savage must never express surprise in the presence of the white. Thus terrible as the sudden appearance of the pirates must have been to them, they remained stationary for a moment, not a muscle moving; as if the foe had come by invitation. Then, indeed, the tradition gallantly upheld, they seized their weapons, and the air was torn with the warcry; but it was now too late.

It is no part of ours to describe what was a massacre rather than a fight.

So, the Piccaninny Tribe is “massacred” by the (white) pirates, as Peter and the Lost Boys huddle in their underground cave below waiting for the battle to be over so they can safely emerge from hiding. It never occurs to Peter to attempt to assist Tiger Lily and her warriors in their fight.

Film versions of the story have done very little to ameliorate the offensiveness of J.M. Barrie’s depictions, although the stereotypes have usually been presented more comically, especially in the Disney animated film.

Given the entire historical background of the Piccaninnies and their appearance in the play and novels, I honestly can see no way to include them in updated versions of the story, nor any reason to do so. Surely, Native Americans are not fantasy creatures like hobbits or elves, to simply be adapted into a work of fiction as a colorful device. If a citizen of the colonial British empire, 110 years ago, wrote a much beloved story employing stereotypes and clichés that we’ve now grown past (or so we fondly think), does that mean we have to continue using them, just “cleaned up” a little?

The trailer for Pan contains many views of Tiger Lily and her “tribe,” whose visual appearance evokes a tribe of hippies, rather than any sort of natives—wild combinations of brilliant hues, fringes and bobbles and flowing streamers, hair and skin as colorful as their outfits. But just as the orange and green Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory were still unthreatening, small-statured slaves with no legal existence and no rights, the faux “tribe” of Pan is still cooing wide-eyed over white English boy Peter because he wears an image of their sacred symbol. If the movie’s Tiger Lily is more attracted to the roguish James Hook than to Peter, it’s hardly an improvement.

Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film, Hook, got it right. His version of Neverland, which in many other ways was very faithful to the original source material, omits the “redskins” entirely. He makes no effort to depict them in some more “correct” and dignified manner; he knew better than to try. Not only that, but Spielberg’s Lost Boys are ethnically and physically diverse. Their leader in Peter Pan’s absence is the Filipino boy Rufio, as cocky as Peter ever could be. At the end of the film, Peter passes on his sword to Thud Butt, a chubby black boy who had shown just as much courage and energy in the battle with the pirates as any of his thinner compatriots.

That is how movies like Pan should display ethnic diversity: by blending diverse characters smoothly into the cast as a whole. The problem with Pan isn’t that Tiger Lily and her “tribe” aren’t played by Native American actors. The problem is that the entire cast is monochromatic. There are several shots in which hundreds of boys work in a mine. There are scenes in an orphanage. There are scenes of the pirates and the “tribe.” All the clearly discernible faces are white, except for two: one boy in the orphanage, and one of the pirates. Let’s talk about that single black pirate: he’s huge, hulking, wears very little clothing, and his apparent role is to beat up people when Blackbeard orders him to. So, we have the standard black male stereotype: huge but dumb brutish thug, who isn’t even allowed to wear a shirt.

Maybe we should be relieved that Pan isn’t trying to present Tiger Lily as Native American.

Of course, we can’t fairly judge Pan until the movie is released and we can see the work in its entirety. Warner Brothers has a particularly bad history for misleading promotion of films—and films can be changed in response to early bad publicity. It does look like the movie might be a lot of fun. But we can have just as much fun with a diverse cast of all sizes, shapes and colors. What is it going to take to convince Hollywood to join the 21st Century?

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