Who gets to play transgender roles?
What’s more important: Artistic license or accurate representation? Getting a movie made or getting it right? Having agency or just having a good agent? The dust-up over whether cisgender actress Scarlett Johansson should have played a transgender man in the movie ”Rub Tug” has opened, or, rather, re-opened, a cultural can of worms about how we tell our stories and who gets to tell them.
The unproduced film, which is in limbo now that Johansson, as of Friday, has withdrawn from the role, intended to cast the actress as Dante “Tex” Gill, a colorful character in 1970s Pittsburgh who ran an illicit massage parlor empire while transitioning from female to male. It was to have been directed by Rupert Sanders, who previously cast Johansson as the cyber-enhanced Major in “Ghost in the Shell” (2015), an anime adaptation that had its own share of “whitewashing” controversy.
The star’s casting in ”Rub Tug”had been greeted over the past few weeks with derision and anger by the transgender community, with actress Trace Lysette (“Transparent”) responding via Twitter “So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all?... Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived.”
She has a point. The awards circuit red carpet in recent years has been overrun with cis actors who play trans characters, are celebrated and honored for it, and move on to the next role while those who actually live as transgender can be bullied, beaten, or killed. Johansson initially did herself no favors by glibly responding through a spokesperson to those protesting the “Rub Tug” casting, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for coments.”
Tambor (“Transparent”), Leto (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”), and Huffman (“Transamerica”) have all won awards for playing trans characters. So did Hilary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry,” an Oscar-winning performance that few people protested in 1999. But that only indicates how society advances slowly but inexorably as once-marginalized communities become more visible and accepted by all.
We like to think we know where the line is for authenticity and allowable imposture, but the line keeps shifting. No one thought it odd in 1961 that Mickey Rooney should be cast as Audrey Hepburn’s buck-toothed, bespectacled Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — and no one today can watch Rooney’s scenes without cringing. When actress Emma Stone was cast as a part-Chinese character in the recent “Aloha,” the casting was rapidly and rightly mocked as dunderheaded.
Similarly, “Amos and Andy,” a radio show featuring white actors in a grotesque comic parody of black characters, was immensely popular in the 1930s and ’40s, but by the time the show was adapted for TV in the 1950s, blackface had become enough of a taboo that the show was re-cast with black actors (and still met with hefty protests). Fifty years later, discussions about cultural representations of blackness can be so nuanced that the light-skinned Zoe Saldana was called out for playing singer Nina Simone — whose dark skin was a critical aspect of her public persona, of “who she was” — in the 2016 misfire “Nina.”
The criticism fans out to every population that feels misrepresented by Hollywood. The upcoming film “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” has come under fire from disabled-rights activists for casting able-bodied Joaquin Phoenix as the late quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan. (See the interview in today’s paper for the actor’s response.) No one has faulted the new movie “Skyscraper” for casting Dwayne Johnson as an action hero with a prosthetic leg, but it may only be a matter of time.
All right, we’ll bite: Why can’t Joaquin Phoenix play John Callahan or Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone? Why shouldn’t a cisgender actor like Scarlett Johansson be cast as a transgender character like “Tex” Gill? The arguments for the defense are two-pronged. First, pretending to be other people, which by definition includes other kinds of people, is what actors do. One is reminded of the anecdote about an exhausted Dustin Hoffman showing up on the set of “Marathon Man” (1976), having stayed up all night to play a scene in which his character has been up all night, and costar Sir Laurence Olivier remarking dryly, “My dear boy, it’s called acting.”
We’re protective of the creative mystery surrounding the art of being someone you’re not, and we should be. Actors are our surrogates: They explore the behavior of people who may be nothing like them, or us, and we get to come along for the ride, gleaning insights and empathy as we go. What’s wrong with that? And who wants to be the party-pooper who says that some kinds of imposture are less fair than others?
There’s this, too: Movie stars are how movies get made. They’re how film projects get greenlit, financed, produced, and seen. Once you take Scarlett Johansson — or any actress on her level of clout — away from “Rub & Tug” and it’s likely dead in the water. Movie stars are power.
For some, that’s the larger issue: simply getting in the room. We’ve progressed as a society just about to a point where out gay actors can play straight roles and straight actors can play gay roles and no one gets their nose terribly bent out of joint. (Which is not the same as saying that being openly gay in Hollywood can’t still be a severe career limitation if not career suicide.) The frustration for transgender artists in the entertainment industry is that they’re stuck in a cultural and casting catch-22: too trans to audition for major cis roles and not major enough to audition for the starring trans roles to which they could bring unique insight.
Says Danielle Solzman, a trans movie critic and cultural commentator based in Chicago, “I have no problem with actors being allowed to act, but when it comes to trans roles, the status quo needs to change. More often than not, the argument is that trans actors aren’t bankable. How are we expected to be bankable when we’re not being allowed to get those opportunities?. . . . If unknown actors are able to have the chance to become stars in a tentpole franchise, why can’t trans actors be able to play a trans role?”
It’s possible that a talented young trans actor like, say, Newton-raised Hari Nef (“Transparent,” the upcoming “Assassination Nation”) may yet change the public calculus and break through to A-list stardom. Until that day, though, the odds favor box office over lived experience in ways that do the movies, the culture, and us no favors.
An earlier version of this story was published before Scarlett Johansson pulled out of the project.