Screencrush.com just reported that American actress Scarlett Johansson will play a trans man in her next movie. Ugh. The Scarlett Johansson trans role will be in director Rupert Sanders’ upcoming crime drama Rub and Tug, reigniting the tired debate over whether cisgender actors should play trans roles — in short, they really shouldn’t.
Johansson is set to play Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life trans male owner of massage parlors which were fronts for sex work in Pittsburgh’s red-light district during the 1970s. Gill famously fought with the local mafia and eventually served seven years in prison for tax evasion.
Although various publications have referred to the real-life Dante Gill as “a woman who dressed like a man” or “a lesbian,” Gill himself preferred for people to call him “Mr. Gill,” so it’s apparent that he was at least trans-masculine and male-identified. And now, after a lifetime of being misgendered, he’ll be portrayed by a cisgender woman.
The real-life Mr. Gill was also squat and large-bodied, making the svelte Johansson an odd choice for the role.
It’s also worth mentioning that the director of Rub and Tug is also the guy who directed Ghost in the Shell, a film based on an anime about a Japanese police investigator named Major Motoko Kusanagi. In the Sanders’ film, Johansson’s lead role was only called “the Major,” pretty much whitewashing away the character’s Asian identity.
The Scarlett Johansson trans role is just the latest in an ongoing trend
The casting of cisgender actors in trans roles continues to be a depressingly common trend. Recent instances of this include Elle Fanning playing a trans teen boy in 3 Generations; Jeffrey Tambor playing an older, newly transitioned woman in the Amazon TV series Transparent; Eddie Redmayne playing a trans woman in The Danish Girl; and Matt Bomer playing a trans sex worker in the film Anything.
It has also happened numerous times in movies and television before. In an upcoming biopic, cisgender actress Rachel Weisz will play a Victorian trans man and surgeon, proof that the trend will continue unless film producers make a deliberate attempt to stop it.
The arguments for cis actors in trans roles are as common as the practice itself: Studios want big name actors, not unknown trans ones; trans actors aren’t experienced enough to handle the demands of a large scale film shoot; the pool of available trans actors is too limited to give producers their choice of age and body types; and trans actors might be traumatized if they’re required to portray a pre-transition individual.
But all of these are perpetuated by not hiring trans actors. If there were more opportunities for trans actors, producers would have bigger pool of varied, experienced and well-known trans stars to choose from. Also, some trans activists argue that casting cisgender people in trans roles reinforces the misconception that trans people are merely “dressing up” or “pretending to be” the other gender. This misconception contributes to violence against trans people, adding to the stereotype that they’re deceptive sexual predators.
Update (July 3, 2018): Responding to online commenters who disapprove of the Scarlett Johansson trans role, Johansson’s rep told bustle.com, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”