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OPINION

Disney Plus needs to add some context to racist 'Peter Pan' now

Disney depicts these tribesmen as comically stereotypical Native Americans, even though — Neverland being a fictional place — they can’t really be American at all.

Erik Brady
Opinion contributor

The original text of "Peter Pan," as J.M. Barrie wrote it more than a century ago, styles its Indigenous people with a word not used in polite company anymore — not even, someday soon, by Washington’s NFL team, which announced this week that it is “retiring” that name after 87 years.

HBO Max benched "Gone With the Wind" for a couple of weeks last month while it came up with a new introduction that hails the film’s significance while condemning its bigotry. Isn’t it time for Disney Plus to do something similar with "Peter Pan"? As it stands, the only warning attached to the 1953 animated classic is for tobacco use. 

Never mind that the real problem with the scene in question isn’t its so-called peace pipe: it’s the openly racist portrayal of a band of Indigenous people. Disney depicts these tribesmen as comically stereotypical Native Americans, even though — Neverland being a fictional place — they can’t really be American at all.

These whooping, drumming cartoon natives sing “What Made the Red Man Red?” Sample lyrics: “Once the Injun didn’t know / All the things that he know now. / But the Injun he sure learn a lot / And it’s all from asking, ‘How?’”

Disney is planning a new live-action film retitled "Peter Pan & Wendy." The website Disinsider reports that an as-yet-uncast Native American or First Nations actress will play Tiger Lily, who plays a "pivotal role" in this version. The site says the reimagined character “is both a fierce warrior and a serene and benevolent leader.”

A new 'Peter Pan' tale, but Tiger Lily's the star

Isabella Star LaBlanc, who is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, played Tiger Lily in a similar fashion last winter in a woke production of Peter and Wendy, a play performed for audiences at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C. where the team name that mocks her people has long been used unashamedly.

“It’s incredible to think about a world where I can watch pro football again and not have to worry about that word,” she says by phone from her home in Minneapolis.

When she arrived in Washington for rehearsals last fall, LaBlanc was shocked to find herself “in a city where that word was everywhere. That word carries a lot of weight for me. It has a violent history in our country. And in Washington it is used so casually.”

The playwright, Lauren Gunderson, wanted a Native woman in the role of Tiger Lily in this modern version of "Peter Pan," in which Wendy wants to grow up to earn a Nobel Prize — and Peter, as ever, doesn’t want to grow up at all.

“The Indians and the pirates,” circa 1905, depicting a scene from “Peter Pan” by J.M. Barrie. Artist Unknown.

Most of us grew up with the story of Peter Pan. LaBlanc did not. Her parents never let her watch the Disney cartoon. Nor did they read the book to her, because Barrie’s Tiger Lily speaks gibberish, smokes a peace pipe and puts her ear to the ground to hear who’s coming.

Gunderson’s play puts all that small-minded burlesque to rest in a story that cleverly places Tiger Lily at the center of the play’s high-flying second act.

“Tiger Lily gets to be powerful and reclaim her agency and her voice,” LaBlanc said. “And I had this moment where I thought how cool it is that I get to show this side of the Native story to the people in D.C.”

Returning from 'NEVER'-land

That moment came to her during a Sunday matinee early in the show’s run, when LaBlanc noticed a man in the third row who was wearing a Washington NFL team jersey.

“I looked out in the audience and recognized it right away,” she says. “In Barrie’s original piece, and in so many Westerns, the R-word is so often used.”

LaBlanc grew up in Minnesota, where protests over the Washington team name have been common for decades.

“The biggest NFL fans I know are my Native family,” she says. “I’m a big Vikings fan. But if I thought the team name was hurting people — making them feel unwelcome and disrespected — I would say, ‘Well, let’s fix that.’ I love football, but people are more important.”

Only the beginning:White people like me must not give in to 'Anti-Racism Attention Deficit Disorder'

The Washington NFL team’s first season there came in 1937. As it happens, that is the year that Barrie died, at the age of 77. He wrote "Peter Pan" as a play in 1904 and as a novel in 1911. Peter Pan, in Barrie’s words, is “the great white father” — and Tiger Lily’s tribe are “piccaninny warriors.”

NBC’s telecast of the 1950s Broadway version, starring Mary Martin, offered Sondra Lee as a blonde Tiger Lily. In 2015’s "Pan," Rooney Mara played Tiger Lily to loud complaints about casting a white actor in a Native role. Some versions — Steven Spielberg’s "Hook," in 1991, for one — solved the problem by simply leaving Tiger Lily out of the story entirely. Gunderson, the playwright, had another idea: Put her story center stage.

The power of stories is at the heart of all versions of "Peter Pan." He believes that Neverland is a land without stories, so he flies away each night in search of them. That’s how Peter happens to hear Wendy through the window telling stories to her brothers. And that’s why he flies Wendy to Neverland — to tell those stories to the Lost Boys.

In Gunderson’s version, Tiger Lily upbraids Peter for not understanding that Neverland has always had stories, if only he knew where to look.

“There were dreamers here before you, Peter,” LaBlanc’s Tiger Lily says. “You fly off every night for more stories, but have you ever asked for mine? My people have generations of stories, and you never once thought to ask.”

On the page, that may sound like too much woke-ness for a children’s show. On the stage, it didn’t play that way at all.

“It is crazy to think that Native people wouldn’t have their own stories,” LaBlanc said. “I always grew up hearing them. So it’s really this idea that Peter Pan wasn’t asking for those stories because he wasn’t aware of them.”

America has long been like that. So has Washington’s NFL team. Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner, once told USA TODAY that he would "NEVER" change the team name — the all-caps are his — and insisted that the name honors his team’s decades of history and tradition.

'NEVER':The anatomy of Washington team owner Daniel Snyder’s most famous quote

In that way he favored the history of his football team over the stories of Indigenous peoples who have been here since time immemorial. He was a lost boy who wouldn’t grow up, trapped in a NEVER-land of his own design.

Now Snyder, at long last, is flipping that script. Isn’t it time for Disney Plus to do the same?

Erik Brady is a former sports reporter for USA TODAY and one of the paper’s founding staffers. Follow him on Twitter: @ByErikBrady