Scarlett Johansson will play a trans man in her latest film - here's why people think she was wrong to accept the role

Lowenna Waters
Wednesday 04 July 2018 11:45
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Picture:(Neilson Barnard / Staff / Getty Images )

Earlier this week, it was announced that Scarlett Johansson will be playing the role of a transgender man in the forthcoming movie Rub and Tug.

The actress will portray Dante 'Tex' Gill, a famous 1970s-era massage parlour owner in Pittsburgh, and the film's story line will follow Gill's relationship with his girlfriend. Importantly, Gill was born a woman, but lived as a man.

Johansson previously worked with Rub and Tug's director on the widely-condemned 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, where she played an Asian person in a popular Japanese manga comic. The film bombed at the box office and also garnered accusations of 'whitewashing'.

It's surprising, therefore, that Johansson has jumped headlong into another project with the director, which sees her yet again portraying a marginalised character.

Many people on social media have been quick to call out the actress for her decision:

Amazingly, Johansson's 'people' responded to the criticism with the argument that other cis gender people have portrayed trans people in many movies, therefore Johansson's behaviour should be excused. This argument just doesn't wash.

Speaking to Bustle magazine, the statement read:

Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman‘s reps for comment.

Felicity Huffman played a transgender man in Transamerica; Jared Leto won an Oscar in 2014 for his portrayal of a transgender woman dying of AIDS-related illnesses in Dallas Buyers' Club, and Tambor took the lead role in the award-winning TV series Transparent, from which he has been fired since he's received allegations of sexual abuse.

Unsurprisingly, many have been deeply offended by the flippant, off-the-cuff, and dismissive statement. Since the statement has been made, many activists within the trans community have slammed the decision. The latest LGBT+ actresses to respond are Trace Lysette, who took to Twitter to voice her anger, saying:

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.

Actress Jamie Clayton also took to Twitter to voice her disappointment at the decision, stating that the real issue at hand is the fact trans actors are always pigeonholed into playing trans characters, and that they never get the opportunity to play non-trans roles.

Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS.

Speaking to the indy100, Juno Roche, a trans campaigner and author, argued that this kind of treatment was passable say 10, 15 years ago but now it's antiquated and down right offensive.

We were being played by people who weren't trans 10 or 15 years ago.

We have trans actors now, and we know that we have trans actors who are desperate for work.

She also added that Johansson should 'know better', and that she should take responsibility for her career decisions:

It seems really really stupid on every level and it demeans us and it says that we're not even good enough to play ourselves.  

Many trans activists have also noted Johansson's 'tone deaf' move. Speaking to the indy 100, Juno Dawson, a trans activist and Attitude magazine culture columnist, described how she thinks Johansson is taking the limelight away from trans actors and actresses, who aren't given the chance to shine.

It seems being criticised for playing a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell wasn't enough for Johansson! Is she openly trolling at this stage?

The issue I have with cisgender actors playing trans parts is that it adds to the damaging myth that trans people are 'dressing up' or 'pretending' to be men or women.

As Pose, American Horror Story and Orange is the New Black have shown, there are some phenomenal trans actors out there and they're not being given opportunities to shine.

Jake Graf, a well known trans activist and filmmaker, said that Scarlett's response to her critics was 'lazy and dismissive', which shows how 'backward and lagging' her understanding of the rapidly evolving film industry is'. He continued to point out that yet again the actress has thoughtlessly pushed out trans talent.

As a woman who has been at the forefront of so much positive change and calling out of archaic and toxic industry practices over the last few years, Johansson should have the foresight to see the damage that this flagrant disregard will continue to have. 

.As we've seen so frequently over the years, it's all too easy to call others out while issuing glib and defensive statements about your own lack of ethics when being considered for a new job. 

Come on, Scarlett, you know better than this. 'Time's Up' on taking roles from the rapidly growing pool of exciting new trans talent out there. You know it's only going to bomb anyway...!

Johansson has been working in the film industry and Hollywood since 1994, which is long enough for her to understand how erasure works in movies, and that all too often marginalised groups are cast using cis gender, white, actors to play those characters. The backlash she received after her appearance in Ghost in the Shell should surely have given her a wake up call.

However, it seems that she's chosen to stay ignorant to these lessons, and is repeating the same mistake within quick succession of the last. The key issue here is that by accepting the role, she's pushing out already marginalised transgender actors. There are hardly any transgender roles out there on the big screen as it is - when these fleeting opportunities do arise, they really should be done properly. This is, sadly, another that has missed the mark.

More: We asked 14 trans activists how cis people can be better allies in 2018

More: How the far right is attacking the lives of the transgender community - and what we can do to stop it

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