Johansson incites casting outrage

By Ginger Simons

Actress Scarlett Johansson drew criticism from LGBTQ+ rights activists this week for accepting to play the role of a transgender man in the recently announced film “Rub & Tug.” The character is based on the real life massage parlor owner Dante “Tex” Gil.

This is not the first time Johansson has been criticised for accepting a role originally intended for a member of a marginalized group. In the 2017 film “Ghost in the Shell,” she played the character of Major Motoko Kusanagi. The film is an adaptation of a 1989 Japanese manga series, and online critics accused the film of whitewashing a Japanese character by casting Johansson in the role.

By casting Johansson in the role of Gil, the filmmakers have taken away the opportunity for a trans actor to play a trans character. Films like “Rub & Tug” that feature trans characters are often the only forms of widely accessible trans representation, and casting a cisgender female actress sends a dire message about the value of trans people in entertainment.

Not only does this casting take away opportunities from actual trans male actors, in the film, the identity of a trans male is boiled down to a portrayal wherein a cis woman is pretending to be a man. Casting a trans male actor would be a far more accurate portrayal of this character, as only a trans person can fully understand and embody what it means to be trans.

Johansson, of course, is not the only actor who has made money from playing trans roles. Jeffrey Tambor is a cis man who played a trans woman in the television show “Transparent” and Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a trans woman in “Dallas Buyers Club.” While optimists may look at these portrayals and praise the filmmakers for incorporating trans characters in their stories, the stories are viewed through a warped lens – the actual experiences of trans people are erased, while cis actors are praised for their performances.

The motivations behind casting Johansson are not difficult to guess; the filmmakers wanted a major star to bring credibility and interest to the film, and defenders claim “there aren’t just any major trans actors that would bring the same attention to the film.” And to this, the response is obvious: How can there be any A-list transgender actors to consider if Hollywood insists on not casting them?

In an ideal world, the playing field would be even. Not only would trans actors be given the opportunity to play trans characters, but trans women would be up for the same female roles as other cis women, and the same for trans men. Trans women are women, and trans men are men, and if we want to have media that accurately and fairly gives opportunities to a diverse array of actors, this would be the prevailing mindset around casting choices.