Update: Scarlett Johansson has dropped out of Rub & Tug following the criticism surrounding her casting. In a statement to Out on July 13, the actress said: "In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project. Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive."
Last year, Scarlett Johansson was publicly denounced for her whitewashed role in Ghost in the Shell, a live-action iteration of the Japanese classic anime franchise by the same name. Now (as if she didn’t learn from the last time), the actress is facing more criticism, as she is slated to star in Rub & Tug, a biopic about a transgender man—and crime boss—who presided over Pittsburgh’s underground sex work industry throughout the 1970s.
The problem with this entire situation should be immediately apparent. The practice of casting cisgender actors as trans people perpetuates the idea that trans people, somehow, are pretending to be something they aren’t; that being trans is inherently an act or performance.
“You will exacerbate the cultural belief that trans women are really men, which is the root of violence against us,” said Jen Richards, a trans actress and writer, in a tweet from 2016.
This mythology has long been a part of conversations between heterosexual men. Transgender people, particularly women, collapse into the language of their comedy: the idea that trans folk aren’t “really” the gender they identify with produces a sort of anxiety, which is then weaponized into violence. So when Scarlett Johansson accepts a role as a trans man, and when news outlets deploy language about the film as the story of a woman who “used a male identity,” rather than identifying the subject as a transgender man, it has real repercussions beyond the big screen.
“I'm a filmmaker. I hold the freedom of art sacred, but I also recognize its power as a responsibility,” said Richards. “We shape perception, we are culpable.”
As it is, there’s a sizeable lineage of films where cisgender actors play trans people: Boys Don’t Cry in 1999, Normal in 2003, Transamerica in 2005. In 2014, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his performance as Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club, a film where (spoiler alert) a transgender woman’s tragic death, from HIV, ultimately teaches the other protagonist, and the audience, a lesson about tolerance.
I like these films, especially Dallas Buyer’s Club, and I’m happy they exist in the world for people to see them. I truly believe filmmakers, like any other artist, should be afforded certain liberties when it comes to their artistic expressions. But it’s also important to interrogate the cost of that freedom.
Empathy is inherent to the nature of narrative film and television, researchers say. Filmmakers, as storytellers, have the ability to build relationships between people and their subjects, teaching them to see beyond their differences. So in cases like Rub & Tug, or Dallas Buyer’s Club, or any number of other films that engage in this practice, it feels like a lost opportunity.
“The reality of lived trans experience is so much more interesting, so much more powerful, than the simulacrum Hollywood has peddled for decades,” wrote GLAAD’s Nick Adams, in a guest column at the Hollywood Reporter in 2016.
Often the argument against assigning actual trans people these roles is that the job should simply go to “the actor best suited for it”—that the pool of trans A-listers is either marginal or nonexistent. This implies there aren’t any readily available trans actors who can do the job just as well as anyone else. Casting has to start somewhere, and at some point, the gatekeeper has to open the gates. If trans actors continue to be denied roles and opportunity, it becomes impossible for their profiles to grow in the entertainment industry.
It seems a far stretch of the imagination to think a cisgender actor can, in any meaningful way, understand the complexities and nuances of a trans person’s humanity. The distance between the two experiences just isn’t one that can be closed by hair and makeup.
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