Hollywood biggie Scarlett Johansson has landed herself in a controversy over one of her characters yet again. In a contentious move, it was recently announced that the actress will be playing a transgender character in Rupert Sanders’ next — Rub & Tug.
On July 2, Deadline reported that ScarJo will be portraying the role of Dante “Tex” Gill, born Jean Gill, a transmasculine (transgenders who were assigned female at birth, but identify with masculinity) crime boss who operated massage parlours in 1970s Pittsburgh as a front for an illicit prostitution business. Moving past the fact that Deadline felt it was perfectly acceptable to identify Gill as a “woman” who took the “physical identity of a man”, the casting is utterly misplaced. Why, you ask? For starters, we live in a time where giving diverse talent visibility in the public view is more important than it has ever been. Yet, instead of visibilising under-represented artists, was it really necessary to have a woman play a role that could have so easily gone to a transgendered actor?
The report itself was a bit odd, all the while referring to Gill as a woman, who reportedly preferred to be known as “Mr Gill”. His own obituary from 2003 referred to him as “the woman who prefers to be known as a man.” But that was 15 years ago. Within that span, the transgender community has made enormous efforts to get itself the basic recognition in order to not be silenced any longer.
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However, despite the fact that Hollywood, on the face of it, is very pro-diversity, neither Sanders nor Johansson found anything wrong with the film’s casting. Incidentally, ScarJo has worked with Sanders in the 2017 sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell, which also faced backlash for whitewashing the cast, as the film was based on a Japanese manga with essentially Asian characters.
In an impolite statement issued by Johansson, the actress dismissed the backlash for her upcoming role. Speaking to Bustle about Johansson’s response to the critics, her representative said, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” Tambor (Transparent), Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) and Huffman (Transamerica) are all cis-gendered actors who have, at some point, played transgendered roles.
Coming from an actress, who so vehemently championed the cause of Time’s Up — a movement working towards uplifting under-represented artists — Johansson’s statement is absurd, at best, and insulting towards transgenders, at worst. Would she have been as dismissive as she was in her response had it been a question of a male director being preferred over a female one?
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Yes, for years, it may have been normal for cis-gendered (people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth), actors to step into trans roles, but one can’t do anything and hope for positive change to manifest out of thin air. It requires active participation from the entire fraternity.
Perhaps even Tambor, who despite his alleged sexual misconduct, had some redeeming qualities. Tambor had once said, “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television,” as he lent his voice to demand more roles for transgender talent.
While transgender actors such as Jamie Clayton and Laverne Cox have done their bit to visibilise the gender non-binary, this recent incident only proves that we expected too much from our cinema, a bit too soon.