The fierce backlash against a movie that hasn’t even gotten into the production phase yet, Rub & Tug (2018) starring Scarlett Johansson, leads to a larger question about freedom of artistic expression in a highly sensitive to political correctness era.
While no one is arguing that it’s not the best casting choice (understatement) to put Scarlett Johansson in the role of trans man Dante “Tex” Gill, who illustriously ran a network of brothels fronting as massage parlors in the Pittsburgh of the 70s and 80s, the uproar behind yet another instance of a cisgender actor playing the part of someone trans is more fraught than usual. This is partially because of Johansson’s already storied history with flirting a little too dangerously with appropriation (one could argue Lost in Translation ), in addition to just all-out appropriating for her latest role… maybe she was even appropriating in her position as the voice of a dog named Nutmeg in Isle of Dogs (2018). And it’s a part made even more controversial for her re-teaming with director Rupert Sanders, the same man who helped create Johansson’s other recent backlash just last year.
Making literal use of the term “whitewash” by playing the famed manga character Mira Killian a.k.a. Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017), a nominal faction posited that she/it was originally envisioned by creator Masamune Shirow as having no ethnicity–being purely cyborg. But it’s hard to see her as free from the confines of race when she’s drawn in a manner decidedly far more Asian than Caucasian. Nonetheless, Johansson and Sanders went forward with the project, as the Hollywood juggernaut usually does in the face of such frivolities as criticism from the marginalized.
This time around, however, Johansson has been even more brazen in her response to the public reaction, offering a “Let them eat cake-esque” retort in the form of: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” Insensitive and entitled white girl remark or bad ass bitch from New York that won’t stand down defense? You be the judge. Most tend to feel it’s the former, yet there is something to be said for being permitted the freedoms of artistic expression when you yourself are bankrolling a project (Johansson is an executive producer of the film). After all, it is still America…sort of. But now everything that has to do with being perceived as “taking away someone’s voice” is even more fraught with tension as a result of the current president. Everyone–particularly those who have long been subjugated by the blanc heteronormative–is tired of having their culture and/or gender misrepresented for the sake of keeping a high-profile celebrity name on the proverbial marquee.
Even those trans actors that have managed to carve out a place for themselves–Laverne Cox, for example–are relegated solely to being just that: trans. That is, with the rare exception of Trace Lysette of Transparent, who is among the only trans people to have ever appeared in a role where she plays a woman (and on primetime Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-2011), no less), that’s it. No backstory about said woman being trans. She and other trans actors like her are creating a rallying cry against this affront to the community, and not just because it’s a disingenuous portrayal (no matter how much weight Johansson puts on or how adept the makeup department is). More than that it is, as Lysette stated, an unjust double standard:
“So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all? Hollywood is so fucked… I wouldn’t be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that’s not the case. A mess.”
And it’s isn’t likely that said mess is going to be cleaned up anytime soon, for the real issue is that trans actors have a perception issue by Hollywood standards, which, for the time being, will never see them as possessing the same level of glamor as a Scarlett Johansson type.
This is precisely why everyone from Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry ) to Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club ) to Ed Wood (Glen or Glenda ) is given a chance to play these “Oscar-baiting” roles (except in the case of Ed Wood). Johansson is clearly trying to pull her Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos move here. This film is not about shedding light on an important trans figure, so much as allowing Johansson yet another opportunity to showcase her acting chops. And, on this note, trans people aren’t the only ones affected by being pigeonholed because of their “aesthetic.” Looking back on Johansson’s entire oeuvre, there isn’t much to be impressed by, with mostly femme fatale positioning or disembodied voices (Her (2013), Isle of Dogs) being the norm. Maybe Johansson, too, just wants her chance to prove that she is more than a bodacious body with blow job lips.
And here enters the fine line between further marginalizing the marginalized and being allowed freedom of expression. Sebastián Lelio, who recently directed a bona fide trans woman playing a trans woman in, what else, A Fantastic Woman (2017), weighed in on how up in arms people are getting by noting, “…the gesture of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender role can be aesthetically or ethically debatable—but it should never be prohibited.”
Even news outlets are afraid to stick with their guns in defending Johansson’s right as an actress to play someone trans, with Business Insider having deleted an op-ed piece in support of her portrayal just three days after it was published. Lelio made additional points about the belligerence Rub & Tug has already caused in the mere pre-production phase, explaining,
“When I decided to cast Daniela Vega to play Marina in A Fantastic Woman, it was an act of artistic freedom, not political correctness. I wasn’t telling the world that transgender roles should be played by transgender actors. I was only doing what I felt was right for my film. If I said transgender roles should only be played by transgender actors, I would be implying that Daniela Vega shouldn’t play a cisgender role. And I believe she has every right to play a man or a woman.”
With this in mind, maybe the takeaway from this entire scandal can be to cast trans people in cisgender roles, as opposed to the militant declaration that cisgender people shouldn’t play trans parts. There is rightful rage coming from the trans community over this casting, but it’s being misdirected. It isn’t Johansson’s responsibility to turn down a role because it’s taking away someone else’s chance, though the latest installment in the saga certainly suggests otherwise from trans actors going out of their way to mock Johansson in order to make a point.