Why trans actors should get the chance to play trans characters
In early July, it was announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast to play Dante Tex Gill, a transgender man who was born Jean Marie Gill, in Rub & Tug, a movie about that character’s experience of being a trans man in Pittsburgh during the 1970 and 1980s. Johansson was immediately met with intense criticism, and after weeks of backlash, the actress officially announced her departure from the project. “In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project,” Johansson stated.
This is hardly the first time a cisgender actor was criticized for taking a role many believe should have gone to a trans actor, however. In fact, a pattern of cisgender actors being cast as, and then inevitably critically acclaimed and rewarded for playing, transgender characters has emerged over the past few years. For example, Jeffrey Tambor won an Emmy for playing a transgender woman in Transparent, Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club, and Glenn Close was nominated for an Oscar for playing a transgender man. Yes, these cisgender actors are sensationally skilled, but many argue that their portrayals are dismissive and problematic in that they essentially denied a role that could have actually been given to a trans actor.
In fact, the playing field for trans actors is plainly uneven. As Transparent actress Trace Lysette tweeted about Johansson’s casting, "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.” When trans and cisgender actors both audition for the same roles — assuming trans actors even get this opportunity at all, which, as Lysette pointed out, isn’t usually the case — cis actors are consistently, and disproportionately, cast. This results in trans actors not being given the opportunity to play cisgender characters the same way that cis actors are being given the chance to play trans characters, which further minimizes the breadth of roles available to trans actors.
Hollywood’s propensity for this specific kind of miscasting speaks to its skewed motivation for telling trans stories in the first place. It seems the industry only considers trans stories worthy of being told in order to showcase an actor’s acumen as opposed to believing in the value of the story itself. Continually picking cisgender actors to play trans characters delegitimizes trans people’s experiences, which are too expansive and complex to eloquently and correctly be depicted by only cisgender creators.
Johansson’s team didn’t acknowledge any of these legitimate concerns, though. They responded to the backlash by releasing a comment stating, “Tell [critics] they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” This dismissive response is perhaps unsurprising given that Johansson’s previous collaboration with the film’s director, Rupert Sanders, on 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, was also met with blowback after Johansson was cast as a character who is Japanese in the source material. This response reiterates the very issue those critical of Johansson had with her choice in the first place: By essentially defending the casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles, Johansson’s team suggested that the erasure of trans actors is OK as long is the cisgender actor portraying that identity isn’t the first to have done so and as long as those who came before her received acclaim and awards for their performances.
Unfortunately, Rub & Tug’s future for production is now unclear. Johansson’s production company, These Pictures, was set to produce the film, and without Johansson the film lacks the marquee talent that likely led to its being greenlit in the first place. Nevertheless, the controversy that has surrounded this film is just a microcosm of the plight trans actors in Hollywood face, and hopefully the industry will start to wake up and give trans actors the opportunities they deserve.
More articles by Category: LGBTQIA, Media
More articles by Tag: Film, Identity, Oscars, Transgender