I need to open this essay with a moment of honesty: I wasn’t as mad at Scarlett Johansson for playing a trans man as I should have been—at least at first.
When news broke that the 33-year-old actress would be playing transmasculine crime boss Dante “Tex” Gill in the forthcoming biopic Rub & Tug, I was reminded of that oft-cited quote from Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Johansson’s breakout role was Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, a movie set in Japan where actual Japanese people barely factor into the story; they are portrayed as curious oddities and circus-like attractions, given so little agency that their lines aren’t actually subtitled. This choice amplifies their otherness and their remove from the white American characters—as well as from us, the audience.
Following her much-criticized casting in the Rupert Sanders-directed manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell, the film answered the problem of Johansson playing a Japanese woman by having her play a Japanese woman whose brain was inserted into a white woman’s body. A closing scene shows her character, referred to as “The Major,” standing over her own grave—while accompanied by the deceased’s mother. There’s no overemphasizing how appalling it is to literally murder the lead character of one’s film as a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for whitewashing.
But this is now par for the course with Ms. Johansson. This is the same woman who responded to the more than 80 sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein by wearing Marchesa—a fashion brand he helped build for his wife through bullying and intimidation—to the Met Ball. After Dylan Farrow testified to decades-old sexual abuse claims against Woody Allen in a raw open letter, Johansson went to dinner with him.
When Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost joked that transgender people are the reason Democrats lost the 2016 election, she began dating him.
So when it was announced that Johansson would be reteaming with her Ghost in the Shell director to play a trans character following controversy after controversy over other cis actors doing the same thing, I wasn’t angry exactly. I expected this from her. She had already showed me who she is. I believed her then—and I still do.
It was when Johansson used Jeffrey Tambor to silence the concerns of trans actors and activists that I was officially done.
When the feminist news website Bustle reached out to the actress for a statement, she responded directly through her media representative. This wasn’t a canned response from a trained PR flack whose job it is to deflect criticism but an attributable quote directly from Johansson reflecting her personal viewpoint on the matter, and that difference must be noted. “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,” she said.
Each of these actors was a cisgender person who won a prestigious award for playing a transgender character on screen. Leto earned an Oscar for playing a sex worker with HIV in Dallas Buyers Club. Huffman took home a Golden Globe for her portrayal of a late-life transitioner who goes on a road trip with her hustler son in Transamerica. Tambor won an Emmy for starring in Transparent, in which he plays an aging matriarch who tests the bonds of family when she comes out to her ex-wife and children as a trans woman.
For an actress of arguable range who has never been nominated for an Academy Award but has earned a slew of conciliatory Golden Globe nominations, it’s an insidious response which places Johansson’s desire for acclaim over the humanity of transgender people. It says, “My need to win an Academy Award is more important than your opinions and experiences.”
That might seem like a harsh statement, but it’s well-earned. In the same breath that she dismissed the valid concerns of the trans community in favor of whether a group of old white men think she’s “fuckable” enough to take home a tiny gold statuette, Johansson cited an accused sexual predator in dismissing the voices of his victims. One of the leading critics blasting Johansson’s casting was Trace Lysette, who was among the three transgender women who alleged that Tambor sexually assaulted her during his time on Transparent. He was removed from the show following those allegations.
Defenses of Johansson’s casting argued that being transgender shouldn’t be a prerequisite for playing a trans person. Actors portray people different from themselves all the time—whether it’s Charlize Theron transforming her body to become a lesbian serial killer or Daniel Day-Lewis convincing himself he was Abraham Lincoln to portray the 16th president. All it takes, supporters say, is listening, learning, and a gift for metamorphosis.
But on these grounds, Johansson’s statement should immediately disqualify her from ever playing a transgender person—or any human being whose name doesn’t rhyme with “Farlett Bojansson.” If acting is an exercise in radical empathy, she has exhibited less than none. She must have practiced at the Corey Lewandowski School of Feelings.
But these defenses—including her own—show how little transgender people were consulted, asked for their input, or thought of at any level during these conversations.
When former Fox News host turned morning-show albatross Megyn Kelly assembled a panel of experts to discuss Johansson’s casting in Rub & Tug, each was a cisgender man and two—confusingly enough—were hosts of the reality competition program American Ninja Warrior. Kelly didn’t interview Her Story creator Jen Richards, who has eloquently argued that putting cis people in trans roles encourages real-world violence against transgender people. She didn’t invite on Sense8 breakout Jamie Clayton, who said Johansson’s casting forces trans folks out of the only roles for which they are ever considered.
Let’s assume that people like Megyn Kelly and Scarlett Johansson silence transgender people not because a) they’re rich white multi-millionaires who don’t give a shit, but b) because they believe deep down that films like Rub & Tug contribute to the greater good. Even in that case, willfully taking those stories from the trans community actually accomplishes the exact opposite task. As Richards and Clayton point out, it contributes to the discrimination transgender folks experience every day.
Although the rapid rate by which Hollywood cycles through trans casting controversies would indicate that these problems are unavoidable should Tinseltown continue to make movies about transgender people, they are not. These situations are emblematic of what happens when cis people—which includes myself—do not invite trans people to the table or into the room when we make decisions about them.
The director of Rub & Tug is a cisgender man whose previous credits include only the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell and Snow White and the Huntsman. His screenwriter, Gary Spinelli, likewise has just two feature films to his name. There’s a direct-to-video home invasion thriller starring Dolph Lundgren and American Made, a late-period Tom Cruise vehicle in which the Scientology second-in-command stretches his abilities by starring as a charming con man. Spinelli, by the way, is also cisgender. So is every single producer attached to that film—a list which includes Joel Silver and actor Tobey Maguire.
This pattern is not an accident. It is a direct result of blunt-force privilege—the entitlement to others’ lives without their consent—combined with access and power. For instance, when Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée was asked if he ever considered hiring a trans actor to play Rayon—the role that went to Leto—he promptly responded: “Never.” While that immediate dismissal is what garnered attention at the time, what he said after is much worse.
This pattern is not an accident. It is a direct result of blunt-force privilege—the entitlement to others’ lives without their consent—combined with access and power.
“Is there any transgender actor?” he asked. “To my knowledge, I don’t know.”
Consider the absurdity of this statement for a moment. Imagine you’re a historian writing a book about Sojourner Truth, and when asked if you consulted any black civil rights leaders for the book, you responded, “What black civil rights leaders?” Or let’s try this one: You are a filmmaker renowned for your documentaries about puzzle players, but you are offered a chance to instead make a nature film about dolphins. You have never encountered a dolphin before nor have you read a book about dolphins. In addition, you express a total disinterest in ever learning a single thing about dolphins. Would you still make a movie about dolphins?
No one would do this because it’s a preposterous thing to do. It would result in bad art with a clear misunderstanding of its subject matter. But when it comes to the topic of trans people, cisgender actors, writers, and directors make these decisions all the time without considering any alternative. Like the fake documentary about dolphins, it results in bad art with a clear misunderstanding of its subject matter.
A perfect case study in this phenomenon is Anything, a film by gay playwright Timothy McNeil starring cis actor Matt Bomer as a drug-addicted sex worker, the ludicrously named Freda Von Rhenburg. Freda develops a romance with the sad, balding widower next door (John Carroll Lynch), with the implication being that he’s the only one who will love her as she is, as if Freda is a Chernobyl victim or Anita Bryant or something. Her neighbor acts as Freda’s white male savior, convincing her to get off the streets and kick drugs in a single night. In a montage straight out of The Room, Freda goes through withdrawals, goes on a rampage looking for smack, trashes the house, and finds healing just in time for breakfast.
Anything manages to be both insulting and worthy of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sendup at the same time. It’s the kind of thing that could have been prevented had anyone involved listened to reason. After Bomer’s casting was announced, Richards claimed on Twitter that she auditioned for the role and told the producers they “shouldn’t have a cis man play a trans woman.” “They didn’t care,” she concluded. The end result of that decision is on the screen.
Compare this to shows like Pose, Her Story, and The T—each of which are written by transgender people and benefit from the perspectives that Johansson so readily shunned. There’s a great scene in the latter, which premiered last month on OTV, that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television. Two trans women—Emerie and Jo—are discussing the rejection they face from potential sexual partners after disclosing their identities. Emerie, a trans Latina played by actress Evilyn Riojas, sighs: “I’m just really tired of having to apologize for the best parts of me.”
Not only do you have two trans women having a conversation—which is itself revolutionary—but their exchange flips the switch on the stigma of dating while trans. These characters aren’t sorry for being themselves. They’re sorry that so much of the world still isn’t ready to see their beauty.
These moments ring true not just because they are honest and poignant but—more plainly put—the people who made them actually know what they’re talking about. There’s a reason that people don’t go to mechanics for medical advice: Experience breeds expertise. In the case of trans narratives, that expertise allows transgender writers and producers the chance to create these small, revelatory moments that would never occur to cis people. You won’t see scenes like those in Rub & Tug because no one will know to include them.
There’s a reason that people don’t go to mechanics for medical advice: Experience breeds expertise.
I wouldn’t know, and I talk to trans people in my job as a reporter almost every single day. That’s why it’s incumbent on us cisgender folks to do the work of bringing trans people to the table: It results in both authenticity and liberation.
There’s a fact about Danica Roem’s 2017 victory that’s stuck with me. In the six months since Virginia voters made her the first transgender person to hold statewide office, the state hasn’t advanced a single anti-LGBTQ bill—a sharp about-face from previous years. That’s because when someone is sitting right next to you, their humanity is hard to deny. Similarly, when we see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine or the cast of Pose in Teen Vogue, it makes it more difficult to refuse them a say in their own stories. They become more than just characters; they are people.
In many ways, transgender men like Gill (the character Johansson plays in Rub & Tug) are still waiting for their moment to be seen as human. While society has just begun to catch up to the radiance of trans women with groundbreaking television shows like Star, Difficult People, and Doubt, transgender men are largely invisible in the media landscape. Of the 17 trans characters on television last year, just four were trans men. There were no trans male characters on streaming shows.
I wasn’t angry at Johansson because I was used to this, but so are trans people. This has been happening to transgender men since Hilary Swank won an Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry almost 20 years ago—one of the last mainstream films to even portray a trans man on screen. They are erased and then told they didn’t belong in the conversation to begin with.
Rub & Tug might be just another role for Johansson, one that earns her a debatably long-overdue Oscar nod. But for people who are still waiting to be seen, it’s more than that. It’s their lives.