Trans ac­tors de­serve bet­ter

The Scar­lett Jo­hann­son con­tro­versy is a les­son, says Em­pire con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor He­len O’hara

Empire (UK) - - AGENDA -

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.

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