Update: (July 13, 2018) Scarlett Johansson has withdrawn from Rub & Tug. Speaking to OUT magazine, she said: “While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.” You can read her statement in full here.
Scarlett Johansson is currently embroiled in major controversy around her latest film role… and her response to the backlash really, really isn’t helping her case.
Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter reported that the 33-year-old had been cast as the lead role in an upcoming film about Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life person who owned a string of massage parlours in the 70s and 80s. (The movie is called, rather unsubtly, Rub & Tug). So far, so standard, right? Well, not so fast. Tex Gill, the real person, was assigned a female gender at birth, but he lived and identified as a man. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was pleased to hear that a cisgender woman had been cast to play this transgender role. As Meredith Talusan succinctly encapsulated it in a piece published on Them: “It has never been ethically or politically justifiable for cisgender people to play trans roles. And as long as we live in a society where trans people see a fraction of the opportunities afforded to cis people, it will continue to be deeply unjust when cis actors steal parts from trans talent.”
And how did Johansson respond to the widespread outcry? Well, if you were hoping for an apology, that didn’t happen. A thoughtful explanation/justification/please-educate-me-for-my-wilful-ignorance? Nope. Instead, the actress responded with a baffling defiance. When Bustle reached out to her rep for comment, they were provided with a statement direct from Scarlett herself: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”
She’s referring there, of course, to other cisgender actors who have played trans people in the past. What she may not have been aware of, however, is that all of those actors have expressed regret about taking on those transgender role. Felicity Huffman, for example, was nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for her role in Transamerica, told The Huffington Post that she “supports” trans actors playing trans roles, going on to 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.” Jeffrey Tambor—who, it should be noted, is no longer on the show after sexual misconduct allegations—won an Emmy for playing a transgender person in Transparent, used his speech to advocate for trans people playing trans roles. Jill Soloway, the show’s creator, has said that if the show was being made now and not in 2014, she would find it “unacceptable” to cast a cis man as a transgender woman. And Leto, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club, said in an interview that he would “probably pass” on the role if offered it now.
Unsurprisingly, trans actors, including Transparent’s Trace Lysette, aren’t impressed with Johansson’s statement.
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
And not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived… so twisted. I’m so done…
— Trace Lysette (@tracelysette) July 4, 2018
Jamie Clayton, who stars in the Netflix show Sense8, also weighed in.
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
This isn’t the first time Johansson has been cast as a character that frankly, she had no business playing. A year ago, she was criticized for playing a canonically Asian character in the film adaptation of a popular Japanese manga, Ghost In The Shell. It was a choice widely called out as “whitewashing,” a.k.a. Hollywood’s long-standing practice of erasing marginalized groups (like people of colour or transgender or genderqueer people) from projects by casting white, cisgender actors. In what doesn’t feel like a coincidence, the director of that film, Rupert Sanders, is also working on Rub & Tug.
That Johansson would respond in this way is particularly troubling given the way that she has been an outspoken advocate of the #MeToo and Times Up movements. It just doesn’t jive that she would be so vocal a supporter of causes like that—which seek to shed light on oppressive and abusive practices that hide in the shadows—and then turn around and be a willing participant in a project that does exactly that to a group that she is not herself part of. She’ll wear Marchesa to the Oscars in support of designer Georgina Chapman, wife of disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, but she won’t entertain—even for a second, apparently—a discourse with people who would like to reclaim their community’s own stories on film? That itself at least deserves an explanation, no?
The worst part? Johansson didn’t get here by herself. There are umpteen layers of behind the scenes people, including producers, writers and studio execs, who thought it was appropriate to cast Johansson in this part and greenlit this project under its current guise. We wonder if they’d care to comment—or if they’ll just direct us to Tambor, Leto, and Huffman’s reps too.