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On Monday the internet erupted in disapproval when news hit that actress Scarlett Johansson was slated to don transface in the upcoming film Rub & Tug. The film is based on the story of Dante “Tex” Gill, a trans masculine massage parlor owner in the ’70s and ’80s who used his businesses to cover up an illegal prostitution ring. Directed by Rupert Sanders, Rub & Tug comes on the heels of another problematic film he made a year ago entitled Ghost in the Shell, which also starred the controversial Johansson.
In Ghost in the Shell, based on an original Japanese manga series by Masamune Shirow, Johansson plays Motoko Kusanagi. When confronted about why she participated in the whitewashing of an Asian character, Johansson defended her decision in an interview with Marie Claire by stating, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.”
Yet here we are in 2018 as Johansson pushes back against diversity in Hollywood by playing a trans man (another gender), and refusing to back down from a role that has clearly been deemed offensive to the transgender community.
Trans Hollywood, community leaders, and allies swiftly took to social media in protest of Sanders’ decision to cast Johansson as Gill. Their frustration stems from the reality that Hollywood doesn’t mind cisgender men playing trans women and cisgender women playing trans men — transface — because in all actuality they see trans identity as nothing more than ‘dress up’ culture.
The reason directors, producers and casting agents still aren’t casting real trans people in trans roles for film and television is because they don’t see transgender identity as real. To many we’re nothing more than mythological caricatures. Our experiences are reduced to fantasy-driven trauma porn packaged for cis-normative consumption.
We have to stop hiring non-trans actors to play trans characters. In my opinion, it's equally as traumatic & offensive as black-face. It also shows how lazy, unwoke, and complicit in transphobia you are. #CASTAUTHENTICALLY! https://t.co/3WW1cOzrEE
— Steven Canals (@StevenCanals) July 3, 2018
The trans community is sick of mediocre storylines told through the white cis-heteronormative lens which often center around our genitals instead of our humanity. Stop promulgating damaging stereotypes and trope-like perceptions that exacerbate the discrimination and violence we face. Cis-normative society is so obsessed with our “transition” that it misses the entire arc of our stories.
At a time where national annual earnings for trans people falls under $10,000, millionaires like Johansson shouldn’t be robbing the transgender community of economic opportunities to thrive. Representation without compensation is just exploitation rebranded. Telling stories that depict trans people as scam artists and criminals also won’t necessarily help our chances at gainful employment. Some day when there’s more equity for trans people and the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is higher than 35 years old, we’ll be able to explore all of those stories.
For now, films and shows which center around trans people are the only introduction many will ever have. The film and television industry has a social responsibility around how it unpacks those narratives. When Johansson is out there doing panels and press junkets on the film, she’s going to be stealing a spot a trans man should have been in — discussing the character’s complexity and drawing connections to real world experiences. Instead that trans man has been silenced and relegated to the margins of society.
Some pose the argument that cisgender people must play trans roles because films won’t receive big funding without big names. That’s an excuse from the depths of myopic hell. Breakout stardom happens all the time, and those films still do well at the box office — Black Panther being one of them. Furthermore, household names can still be cast in movies that star trans leads in roles that make more sense for them. The music industry does this all the time. “New artist, featuring Drake” — it’s all in how you market it. There are more than enough trans household names for casting agents, directors and producers to choose from. All it takes is effort and the willingness to give trans people the opportunity to thrive.
Johansson’s profile as an actress has been well-established, and she has a net worth of over $100 million. It would’ve been water off a duck’s back for her to turn down the role of Gill in solidarity with the trans community — or just as a decent human being in general. Instead she released a retaliatory statement via her rep stating, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”
Johansson’s statement was an attempt at absolving herself of her role in the erasure and cis-washing of a trans man’s narrative — while throwing other actors under the bus who’ve also played trans roles. The fact that she could readily reference those scenarios is further proof that she knew there would be pushback, yet she proceeded with disregard for the transgender community. She took a page straight from Michelle Rodriguez’s book of trash tactics and doubled down on her offensiveness — as many do when they feel their ego, privilege or entitlement are being threatened.
Johansson should have taken the humble approach of Amandla Stenberg, who dropped out of an opportunity to play Shuri in Marvel Comics’ Black Panther as a light-complected biracial person. In an interview with CBC, Stenberg stated, “That was really challenging, to make that decision, but I have no regrets. I recognize 100% that there are spaces that I should not take up.”
The truth is that white cis-heteronormativity knows no boundaries. Our culture, identities and experiences are always used as props — always at its disposal. Cisgender actors and actresses who play trans characters aren’t doing us any favors by co-opting our narratives while reinforcing stereotypes we lay our lives on the line to break.
What Johansson and Sanders are doing reeks of exploitation, erasure and degradation under the guise of cinematic inclusion. Dante “Tex” Gill may not have been the poster child for respectability politics, but he didn’t deserve to be dead-named, misgendered or dug up for an Oscar grab — and he most definitely deserved much better than Scarlett Johansson.