It’s a headline we’ve grown accustomed to over the years and one I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of – that one where cisgender artists decide it’s edgy to make content about transgender people, but won’t actually hire trans actors, writers, and crew members. This past week the tired trope resurfaced when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would be portraying Dante “Tex” Gill, a former massage parlor owner and transgender man, in the upcoming film Rub & Tug.
Backlash against Johansson, who also played a historically Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell for Rub & Tug director Rupert Sanders, was swift. However, the outrage was initially met with dismissiveness from Johansson and her team. “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,” a rep for Johansson told Bustle, despite the fact that if they had done the tiniest amount of research they’d find that each of these actors has admitted they wouldn’t take the role if offered today, and one of them, Jeffrey Tambor, has been the subject of allegations that he sexually assaulted multiple trans women on the set of Transparent.
Several folks carefully explained why Scarlett Johansson isn’t the right person for the role. Writer E. Oliver Whitney critiqued the casting decision, pointing out the fact that there’s ample evidence that Gill self-identified as a man. Meredith Talusan wrote, “If Hollywood has come to a point when it has chosen to reckon with its many faults, and if that reckoning has been led by women through the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, then the industry must, once and for all, stop casting cisgender actors to play trans roles.” And, actresses including Jamie Clayton and Trace Lysette took to Twitter to voice their outrage.
Johansson pulled out of the role last week.
Critique is crucial – it’s a necessary mode of being for so many of us who have been and continue to be harmed by systems of power fueled by hate. But, critique’s main force is a destructive one, and I hope that where we do the important work of breaking down and, ideally, stopping those who profit off of our stories, we can also strike a balance of construction, of building back up. If we call out the cisgender folks who are using our stories for their own gain, can we also call up and evoke the art of trans creators whose work we desperately need? If we boycott Rub & Tug, as I most certainly will, can we also redirect those funds we might otherwise have spent on popcorn and a matinee towards the creators who are getting it right?
That’s why these past few weeks couldn’t have been a more fortuitous a time for me to connect with Trans 4 Trans (T4T) Productions and the folks behind the new film, Death and Bowling. The film tells the story of a bowling league for older lesbians led by a queer matriarch named Susan. The protagonist is X, a trans man and actor who is also a member of the league. When Susan dies, X meets her estranged trans son named Alex, and the film explores the beautiful, strange, and complicated relationship they build in the midst of their grief. And, yes, X and Alex are played by trans actors.
But it’s not just the fact that the team has done right by casting trans actors to play trans roles. Trans folks have actually been given the opportunity to participate in all aspects of the creative process thus far and will continue to do so as the film goes into production this fall. Ariel Mahler, the film’s publicist, noted that over 30 trans people’s hard work has gone into Death and Bowling thus far.
Importantly, many of the trans folks involved in the project have been able to get crucial training and gain on-set experience in their fields of interest. So often when cis creators refuse to involve trans people in our own stories, we’re told that it was too hard to find talent or that the people they could find weren’t up to snuff. But a real investment in the trans community and real allyship would look like precisely what Death and Bowling has already modeled on a fraction of the budget: taking the time and spending the money to train trans talent in all aspects of the creative process.
In fact, as Mahler told me, “We are making it a point to work with a majority of trans actors and trans crew. This is revolutionary, because trans people face myriad barriers in the workforce, and the film industry is no exception… [Death and Bowling] serves as a training ground for trans people who want to work in the industry, but who might not otherwise have an entry-point.”
The story that Death and Bowling tells is one that needs to be heard and one that is exponentially enriched by each and every trans person who has a hand in its creation. Writer and director Lyle Kash said of the creative process, “As a filmmaker, I’m interested in pushing the art form of film, as well as how we think about casting and performance. I think there’s something important about trans people telling stories on their own terms, because no one understands performance better than trans people.” There’s no doubt that Death and Bowling will be a piece of art we look to in situations like the ScarJo scandal to confidently explain why trans people need to be fully involved in the production of work about our lives.
But, in order for Death and Bowling to make it to that point, they need a substantial amount of funding. The trailer was released earlier this month in conjunction with the launch of a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the rest of the production costs. At the time of this writing, they’ve crowdfunded nearly $25,000, one-third of their $75,000 goal. With three weeks left for them to reach their goal, now is the time for us to put our money where our mouths are. And, those who do contribute unlock a range of perks including a personalized Lavender League Bowling Club card, tickets to the film premiere, a chance to be an extra in the movie, and many other unique prizes. Contributions will go towards general costs, but Mahler hopes to be able to pay a daily wage to all of the folks involved in production as well.
So, if you were angry about Scarlett Johansson, your rage is completely valid and your voice is necessary. But, we have many ways to resist and one of them is with our money. If you’re somebody who’s got a few bucks kicking around, a donation to their campaign can help make a trans-created, trans-centered film more than a possibility. And, if you’re not someone who can contribute financially at this time, consider sharing their Kickstarter and liking Death and Bowling on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram so you can spread the word to your networks.
Critique is important, but it can become so easy to stop there, to lose faith in the possibility that things might be otherwise. But, we simply must find it within ourselves to do the work of building as well. We have to uplift the voices of trans folks who are doing the work, telling our stories, and giving us the opportunity to take back control of our narratives.
There’s a whole lot of hope in that.