Scarlett Johansson's transgender casting is part of an issue worth revisiting
Here’s a story we’ve heard before: A cisgender actor has been cast as a trans character for an upcoming movie. This time around, the cis actor is Scarlett Johansson and the movie is Rub & Tug, helmed by her Ghost in the Shell director Rupert Sanders. According to trade reports, Johansson will star as Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life figure who used a string of massage parlors as fronts for prostitution in Pittsburgh during the ’70s and ’80s; Gill was born Jean Marie Gill, but identified as a man.
The news of the casting, which Deadline broke earlier this week, stirred up frustrations in the LGBTQ community. But here’s a response we haven’t heard before: Regarding the critics, a rep for Johansson told Bustle, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” Tambor won Emmys and Golden Globes for his role as a trans woman on Amazon’s Transparent; Leto won an Oscar for his role in Dallas Buyers Club; and Huffman earned a Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for her turn as Bree in Transamerica.
That those critical of the casting should consider cis actors’ accolades for portraying trans people onscreen entirely misses the point that many in the trans community are trying to make: Cis actors taking jobs that could go to trans actors is not only objectionable, but reinforces false implications about trans people. It’s as Nashville and Better Things actress Jen Richards wrote last year in response to Matt Bomer playing a trans woman in the movie Anything: “Every time a cis man gets applauded for bravely portraying a transgender woman on screen, every time he picks up an award for it while sporting a tuxedo, we’re reinforcing the belief that at the end of the day, a trans woman is still really a man.” The same principles apply to women playing trans men.
It’s not a coincidence that visibility leads to progress. Gay men and lesbian women were virtually invisible in media decades ago, but as a queer presence grew in pop culture, so too did the culture’s acceptance. For the “T” in LGBTQ, the uphill battle feels steeper.
GLAAD’s most recent “Where We Are in TV” report, which analyzes LGBTQ representation on the small screen, noted a staggering “84 percent of Americans say they do not personally know someone who is transgender.” The result is “they only learn about trans people through the images they see in the media.” We’ve seen performances like trans actress Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman and Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine, but the number of cisgender actors playing trans roles seem to outnumber the exceptions.
Johansson follows in the footsteps of cisgender actors like Rachel Weisz (set to play Victorian-era trans man Dr. James Barry in an upcoming film), Michelle Rodriguez (who played a man forcibly made into a woman in The Assignment), Elle Fanning (3 Generations), and Hillary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry). Films like these can feel like cisgender men and women telling their view of trans stories, especially when there’s no trans talent in front of or behind the camera. At their worst, these films can perpetuate the notion that trans men aren’t actually men but rather women dressing as men.
In 2015, trans actors like Transparent‘s Trace Lysette and Shameless‘ Elliott Fletcher addressed the lack of Hollywood representation through a PSA produced by ScreenCrush and GLAAD. “We’re mocked, our bodies are shamed or made into villains, reduced to plot twists and punchlines. We’re even erased from our own history. Imagine if this was all you saw of yourself. It’s no wonder you’re scared of us,” they said in the video. If these are the images that the reported 84 percent of Americans are seeing, it’s no wonder harmful laws, like North Carolina’s HB2 bathroom bill, are able to pass.
The HRC Foundation and the Trans People of Color Coalition updated their 2017 report on violence against the trans community in January 2018 with a more chilling statistic. According to the research, 28 transgender people were killed by anti-trans violence in 2017 — the highest number ever recorded by this study.
HRC President Chad Griffin called the “tragic stories” of this report a reflection of “the obstacles that many transgender Americans — especially trans women of color — face in their daily lives.” He added, “It is crucial that we know these stories in order to combat the transphobia, misogyny, and racism fueling this violence so that we can end this epidemic before it takes any more lives.”
Castings like Johansson in Rub & Tug don’t directly lead to this environment, but the image could wind up spreading misinformation that contributes to toxicity towards the trans community. If the 84 percent of Americans only know trans people through what they see on screen, the fear is that real trans men won’t be seen as men, and trans women won’t be seen as women.
All the progress that’s been made can often feel as part of an endless, frustrating cycle: a cisgender actor lands a transgender part, a backlash ensues, a director makes a statement defending the casting, and the situation remains more or less the same.
Anything director Timothy McNeil said he “didn’t hold open castings” for Bomer’s part because “Matt became involved with the project at an early stage and we felt then (and still feel today) that we were extremely fortunate to have him.” The Danish Girl director Tom Hooper acknowledged “there is a problem” in the industry with the lack of opportunities for trans talent, but he said he wanted to put his Elizabeth I actor Eddie Redmayne “in the lead of a film.” Similar responses came for The Assignment and 3 Generations.
This isn’t to say someone like Johansson isn’t capable of playing a trans person. In an ideal world, any actor could virtually play any part. The creative environment for trans actors just isn’t often ideal. Even with series like the history-making Pose—the show with the most trans series regulars to date—and Transparent, trans actors still struggle to secure auditions for roles, as both Lysette and Sense8‘s Jamie Clayton echoed on social media.
“Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE,” Clayton tweeted of Johansson’s casting. “And not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity,” Lysette wrote, “but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived… so twisted.”
Tambor and Huffman, two of the actors cited in Johansson’s statement, have even spoke out in support of casting trans actors. “I would very much like to be the last cisgender male playing a transgender female. I think we are there now,” Tambor said while accepting an Emmy win in 2016 for Transparent. (The actor was fired earlier this year from the Amazon series over sexual misconduct allegations he has repeatedly denied.) Huffman in 2014 told The Huffington Post: “I certainly understand the sentiment that a trans actor should play a trans role. And I support it…. What can I say — I think transgendered [sic] people have been marginalized for a long time and I think you see that in people who are not trans playing them.”
Now there’s a Care2 petition calling for the studio behind Rub & Tug, New Regency, to recast the role of Gill — something that also happened with Johansson and Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell. The 2017 film, adapted from the anime of the same name, was accused of whitewashing as Johansson played The Major, a character traditionally depicted as Asian. “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person,” the actor had said. “Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.” Sanders said in 2016 he had no regrets. “I stand by my decision. She’s the best actress of her generation,” he told reporters. Ghost in the Shell ended up earning a dismal $19 million with its opening weekend, and Paramount’s chief of domestic distributor Kyle Davies ultimately chalked it up to “the conversation regarding casting.”
Johansson and Sanders could find themselves in a similar situation with Rub & Tug. The new petition states, “Clearly these two have not learned anything from their last debacle.”