Earlier this week, Deadline broke the news that actress Scarlett Johansson would once again be working with director Rupert Sanders on Rub & Tug, a film based on the real story of transgender massage parlor owner Dante “Tex” Gill. The announcement has drawn significant backlash, particularly given the fact that Sanders and Johansson’s last effort was 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, which became one of the most prominent recent examples of white-washing in casting Johansson as a canonically Japanese character.
Ghost in the Shell’s script bent over backward to justify portraying Johansson’s character as a white woman, a gambit that ultimately suggested that the filmmakers knew that there was a problem, but didn’t consider it important enough to address properly. That suggestion is only further heightened with Rub & Tug, which positions a famous cisgender woman as a representative of the trans male experience, rather than seeking out an actual trans actor for the role. It’s a problem emphasized by trade announcements on the movie, including Deadline’s, which misgenders Gill by using female pronouns instead of Gill’s preferred male pronouns, and uses his dead name (the name Gill was assigned at birth).
Though conversations about opportunity and representation for marginalized communities in Hollywood are being had more often and more openly in recent years, the very fact of that underrepresentation has allowed filmmakers continue to justify their choices by either fundamentally altering narratives, as with Ghost in the Shell, or citing historical precedent for similar casting practices. The reaction to Johansson’s casting, and her response to it, represents in miniature the problems with that line of thinking.
Johansson’s dismissal of casting practice concerns highlights why casting practices are still a problem
Following the Rub & Tug announcement, online reaction was swift and vocal. Trans actors and creators, including Indya Moore (FX’s Pose) and Jamie Clayton (Netflix’s Sense8), have spoken out against the casting decision.
Wen cis women play trans men you are reducing the existential experience of a trans man as playing dress up. cis people cannot tell trans stories- don't have the range. If they did, they would empathize with the reality of how problematic, dismissive and fetishizing this is.— IAM (@IndyaMoore) July 4, 2018
Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU #RupertSanders @NewRegency #ScarlettJohansson https://t.co/RkrW8MeGcG— Jamie Clayton (@MsJamieClayton) July 4, 2018
The backlash has been made worse by Johansson’s response, issued to Bustle by an unidentified rep: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”
Tambor, Leto, and Huffman are all cisgender actors who have played transgender roles; Tambor in the Amazon original series Transparent, Leto in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, and Huffman in 2005’s Transamerica. In other words, Johansson’s answer is more of an excuse: “If everyone else is doing it, I can do it, too.”
This would be flawed thinking even without the added knowledge that each example she’s cited is a performance that was critically acclaimed, suggesting that the idea of playing a transgender character as awards bait factored into the casting decision. (Tambor won a Golden Globe and two Emmys for his performance as Maura Pfefferman; Leto won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award; and Huffman won a Golden Globe.)
Leto has defended his casting as a transgender woman, but Huffman has spoken in support of transgender actors playing transgender parts. “I certainly understand the sentiment that a trans actor should play a trans role,” she said, in a 2014 interview with HuffPost Live. “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.”
Tambor, too, spoke about the marginalization of transgender actors in his 2016 Emmy acceptance speech. “Please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their stories. Do that. And also one more thing: I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender [sic] on television.”
That said, Tambor is probably not an example that Johansson really wants to be following, given the allegations of sexual harassment that led to him being fired from Transparent. He was accused of sexual misconduct by his former assistant, Van Barnes, as well as transgender actress Trace Lysette, who reacted to the news of Johansson’s casting on Twitter, pointing out that transgender actors are not offered cis parts.
Oh word?? So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all? Hollywood is so fucked... I wouldn’t be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that’s not the case. A mess. https://t.co/s8gBlBI1Sw— Trace Lysette (@tracelysette) July 4, 2018
On top of that, Transparent creator Jill Soloway has also spoken about having cast Tambor, saying that, “I could come up with a lot of cis-cuses—cis excuses—about why my choice shouldn’t be questioned. But I actually feel the opposite. I feel like our choice should absolutely be interrogated. [...] Nobody should be that ignorant right now to cast a cis man in this role. If anybody has been reading the Internet they understand how awful it is for trans women to see cis men portraying them. It’s an insult.”
The same could be said for transgender men now seeing a cis woman portraying Gill. Gill’s story is fascinating — his massage parlors were a front for brothels, and, like Al Capone, he was eventually stung for tax evasion rather than his gangland activities — and deserves to be told properly. That includes casting a transgender actor in the part.