Trans actors deserve better
The Scarlett Johannson controversy is a lesson, says Empire contributing editor Helen O’hara
REPRESENTATION MATTERS. We all understand that it is Not Okay for white people to don blackface, or rewrite roles meant for people of colour to cast white actors. But the question of who gets to play whom is apparently a live issue for trans people, as the recent controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s role in Rub & Tug shows.
The furore erupted when cis actress Scarlett Johansson was announced to star in Rupert Sanders’ planned film about Dante ‘Tex’ Gill’s 1970s massage parlour empire. Gill, history tells us, was trans, and Johansson’s casting was immediately criticised. The outrage was particularly fierce given the whitewashing of last year’s Ghost In The Shell, in which Johansson played a character who was originally Asian. After a very ill-judged early statement (“Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment”) and a week of criticism, Johansson withdrew from the film, saying, “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance.” Her departure left the production’s future in doubt.
So then came the other backlash, the one claiming that actors should be able to play any role, that this is no different from an American adopting an English accent and that there are no trans stars who could carry the project. Without a star the project won’t get made, they say, so isn’t it better to tell a trans story with a cis star than not to tell it at all?
But these arguments don’t wash. Actors can’t play any role, or we’d still be cool with whitewashing (for the record: we are not). No-one becomes a star without being given a chance; trans actors will never become stars if they’re not given the chance to play even trans roles, let alone the (vastly more numerous) cis roles. There’s no evidence that this project even looked past Johansson, so there’s no basis to say there’s no-one up to it. Finally, the trans experience is sufficiently distinct that it’s fair to suppose that a film will gain something by casting for authenticity; this is not a mere accent but a fundamental fact of a person’s identity.
The idea that the film is doomed is also wrong: its survival is a choice. When Hollywood wants to do the right thing, it can. If Johansson wants to be an ally, she can still produce or take a supporting role, perhaps one that features heavily in trailers. There are numerous examples of an unknown from an under-served group getting a film lead and smashing it out of the park: Marlee Matlin in Children Of A Lesser God, Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman or virtually everyone in Slumdog Millionaire. Star producers can push such projects along: look at Angelina Jolie with The Breadwinner or Brad Pitt’s Plan B with Moonlight.
Rub & Tug needn’t be shelved. The fact that Johansson left the film has already garnered it more publicity than her presence might have done; it’s in the news now whatever happens. The film could get a further boost by doing the right thing and championing a newcomer. The argument that “anyone can play anyone” might be reasonable if there were a level playing field of opportunity, but right now the practical effect is that straight, cis white stars can play anyone, and everyone else can go fish. That’s not commendably open-minded casting. That’s just prejudice.
Top: Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman. Above: Scarlett Johansson has left Rub & Tug.