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How the Scarlett Johansson Flap Can Help Fix Hollywood's Trans Problem

"Acting is acting—anyone should be able to play any role" is the oft-repeated mantra when the right (or ability) of an actor to play a certain kind of part is challenged on the basis of the actor’s own identity. Scarlett Johansson is the most recent actor in an ever-growing list of Hollywood stars forced to assert this contentious statement. For ScarJo, this is the second social media storm which has engulfed her reputation over her appropriateness to play a particular part.

The first was in 2017, over her role for Ghost in the Shell with director Rupert Sanders. In that film, Johansson played Motoko Kusanagi, a canonically Japanese character. It was rightly denounced as a whitewash, characteristic of systemic racism in film casting. Now, having learned nothing from the sharp criticisms of Asian industry voices, she and Sanders will work together again on Rub & Tug. The movie is a biopic of a transgender man, Dante "Tex" Gill, with Johansson, a cisgender (i.e., non-trans) woman, playing the trans male lead. [Editor's note: Johansson announced July 13 that she has dropped out of the film, citing "recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting."]

It’s not the first time a cis actor has been criticized for playing a trans role, and it will not be the last. Every time this argument is had, viewers and critics who are not members of the minority in question tend to balk at the suggestion that cisgender actors should never be cast in trans roles. It’s understandable that people bristle at the idea of there being hard rules or boundaries to the imagination in a craft like acting, which lives off fantasy and artifice.

Western drama, after all, has been built upon traditions that called for actors to play outside of their own lived experience and even outside of their own identity: All of Shakespeare’s female parts were played by young boys, for example. But this was because in England, the law forbade women to appear on stage until 1660, when Margaret Hughes made her stage debut as Desdemona in Othello at the Vere Street theatre in London.

In the same production, while Hughes made history for white women, the part of Othello, a black character, would have been played by a white man in blackface. It was not for two more centuries that a black man would play Othello—Ira Aldridge took the role in London in 1824 after celebrated Shakespearean master Edmund Kean died mid-run. Aldridge’s portrayal of Othello eventually became legendary but was initially criticized by vicious and racist reviews. One review, for The Times of London, insisted that Aldridge’s naturally black skin tone was too light for Othello—Kean’s blackface had been much more convincing for white audiences accustomed to seeing blackness itself as a costume or vehicle for their own imaginations, never as something capable of telling its own story.

Trans narratives have been fodder; trans people themselves are sensationalized as tragic heroes in films such as Boys Don’t Cry and The Danish Girl.
So, generally, appeals to the history of men and boys successfully playing women, and white people playing people of color, must not be considered testaments to the nobility of acting as a limitless craft. They are merely testaments to the long history of racism and sexism in the theatre and later the cinema—both regularly excluding certain people from being able to take part in the making of commercial entertainment. The history of acting as a profession is the same as the history of most other professions—the social hierarchies in which professional actors exist have always shaped it. The art of acting has never been as blind to race, class, ability or gender as many of its devotees insist.

This reality is a problem that persists. Centuries on from Hughes and Aldridge’s groundbreaking and anomalous performances, it is now usual for female parts to be played by women, and for black characters to be played by black actors. But it is still much harder to make your mark in the modern-day industry as a female actor or as a black actor (it is harder still if you happen to be both). Nowadays, the difficulty tends to be a lack of sufficient opportunity. There is less interest in telling stories led by women and/or minorities, which are instead confined to the narrow range of stock character "types" available for actors from these groups (e.g., the Teen, the Slut, the Mom, the Sassy Friend, the Maid) in an industry where the execs, producers, directors and writers all tend to be white men.

Aggravation at members of one social category taking up the mantle of another group in drama tend to be less about the mechanics of acting itself, and more about the industry power dynamics involved, which are a microcosm for the power dynamics of wider society. When Johansson took on one of the few parts that could have been given to an Asian performer in 2017, she tapped into a wider pain of Asian communities, who are so often erased, mimicked and whose opportunities are controlled by a white-dominated industry. It was a brutal reminder of who has the power to offer livelihoods and prestige, and who, always, can take them away.

Similarly, there is recognition, now, that many transgender actors have had their aspirations choked at birth by a grim history of being shut out of cultural representation. Trans people were first vaguely alluded to as phantoms and bogeymen in films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, then ridiculed in comedies like Ace Ventura, and most recently, they have become "challenging" (ergo prestigious) roles for cis actors. Trans narratives have been fodder; trans people themselves are sensationalized as tragic heroes in films such as Boys Don’t Cry, Transamerica, Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl. Johansson’s casting is merely the latest in a long lineage of cis people’s self-aggrandizement.
Trans people need to be behind the camera, perhaps brought in as consultants but—better yet—in charge of development projects.
Where once execs could claim a dearth of sufficiently qualified or capable trans talent to play trans characters on screen, their flimsy arguments have started to crumble with the emergence of trans visibility in the entertainment industry. Actors like Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Mya Taylor, Jamie Clayton and Hari Nef are winning acclaim for mainstream roles as trans characters. This year, a film fronted by trans actor Daniela Vega, won an Oscar. The decision not to foster this emerging and tested potential now seems like a conscious decision to deprive trans actors not only of opportunity, but of income.

Again, this is about power dynamics. Minority groups are frequently denied any claim to the universality of the human condition. Openly gay actors, for example, do not frequently get cast as straight people. They are gay—their sexual identity and its marginalized status is seen as a restrictive qualifier on their range as performer. Similarly, trans actors are not typically cast as cis men and women, and have little hope of being commonly cast as such in the near future. As a result, they are reliant on being considered for the handful of trans roles that appear in mainstream entertainment. It is easy to see why Johansson’s casting is deemed a kick in the teeth.

There is another discomfort, too. When cis actors play trans parts, they often get cast as a trans character of the opposite gender—i.e., a woman is cast as a trans man. More often, the issue is that men are routinely cast as trans women, which is as deeply sexist as the culture that kept women off Shakespeare’s stage. Trans womanhood is seen not as its own discrete reality, but a thing under the control or dominion of men. And, of course, this visibly reinforces trans people’s unease that their experience will never be understood as anything but an elaborate costume or artifice itself.

In Johansson’s case, it is horribly unclear if Rub & Tug intends to portray Gill as a trans man with an understanding that trans men are entirely separate to lesbian women, or merely misgender him as a woman who liked to dress up and pretend. There is evidence that Gill’s identity caused much confusion in his own lifetime—a 2003 obituary referred to him as a woman throughout, while noting that he preferred to be addressed as male. How the film intends to handle this ambiguity of perception is unclear, but Johansson’s casting has shown an insensitivity that does not inspire confidence. As one trans man on Twitter said, “This isn’t just a cis person being cast as a trans character, this is a trans figure being written as a cis character.” Trans men are still so often mischaracterized as self-hating lesbians, and transphobic histories have often tended to conflate trans men with butch women: It is only natural that trans men are fearful once more about what erasures and misunderstandings this casting might perpetuate.

The answer to this complex issue is not simple. Asking Johansson to reconsider is unlikely to work, given the money at stake and the audience her name can draw for studios. It is worth noting the ire directed at her is not directed at Rupert Sanders with the same vitriol. Once again, cis men get off scot-free. The fact is,  Johansson is a cog in a bigger system. The ugly truth is that there is no trans actor with Scarlett Johansson’s box-office power simply because hundreds of white cisgender men have collectively decided that there shouldn’t be.

The holistic solution to Hollywood’s trans problem is to cultivate and foster trans actors’ careers intentionally and willfully, risking financial hits and taking gambles. Cis people are less willing to surrender their financial power for good trans stories. Therefore, trans people need to be behind the camera, too, perhaps brought in as consultants but—better yet—in charge of development projects. This is a big ask. Cisgender women are only just getting there, with initiatives like Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, which prioritizes female-led screenplays. For now, showing up and supporting what little trans filmmaking there is—with ticket purchases and larger investment—needs to be as prevalent a form of activism as angry tweets, if trans people in cinema are to move forward.

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