Scarlett Johansson announced on Friday that she will no longer be playing a trans character in an upcoming movie following enormous (and well-deserved) criticism. In a statement to OUT magazine, the 33-year-old actress claimed she would be dropping out of the forthcoming Rub & Tug–in which she was slated to play trans crime boss Dante “Tex” Gill–after trans actors like Jamie Clayton and Trace Lysette argued her casting was extremely damaging for trans people.
In light of the controversy, Johansson said she “had learned a lot from the community” following earlier remarks dismissing the critiques.
“Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive,” she claimed. “[…] While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.”
But even despite Johansson’s own admission that playing a trans man was wrong, many have continued to defend her–saying she was “pressured” and even “bullied” into dropping out of the film.
For anyone who is somehow still confused, writers Wiley Reading and Bea Cordelia are here to explain.
Why is it bad for Johansson to play a trans man when actors play different people all the time?
WILEY: Yes, actors will stretch themselves to play people who are different from them, but there are two important arguments to be made specifically for casting trans people to play trans people. The first is about the quality of the art and the second is about casting ethics–which influence the quality of the art.
Good art comes from choosing people who can breathe life into the written words. Sure, actors are often chosen for their “look” over their ability to imbue the character with a rich and compelling aura of realness, but should they be? Is this something we should be encouraging? The best movies and TV shows are those where the actors don’t seem like they’re acting, when they’re able to lose themselves so fully in the character that there is no awkwardness or self-conscious fronting to distract from the beauty of the words, the carefully crafted movements, and the other sensory aspects of a well-made piece of cinematic art. Why are we then defending the choice of an actor who is clearly not the best choice for the role?
The second argument is that equity in representation–allowing trans actors to take control of their own narratives–creates undeniable positive effects both for trans people as a population and for visual media itself. I’m almost 30 years old and the first time I had ever seen a trans man play a trans man on television was four months ago, when trans actor Alex Blue Davis’s character on Grey’s Anatomy came out as a trans man.
When I was growing up, there was almost nothing about trans people at all in media. It was awful to have had absolutely no role models to look up to as a young person, because I had no idea that something was missing. I didn’t come out as trans until I was 25, and it was because I don’t know that was an option.
And when I finally did start seeing trans representation on screen, it was either awful, cruel jokes about trans women or uncomfortable and cringe-incuding docudramas about trans men whose identities were paraded in front of uncomfortable “normal” people for laughs or pity. Can you imagine a world where the only people like you are presented to you in every piece of media you consume as disgusting or pitiful? Can you imagine what that does to your self esteem? Loving yourself in the face of an entire culture’s desire to make you into a laughing stock or object of revulsion is bitterly, bitterly hard.
But it’s just a movie. It’s fiction.
BEA: Yes, but even fictional narratives say a great deal about the world we live in. When cisgender people portray trans people, it reinforces various harmful ideas. For example, when Jared Leto accepts an Oscar for playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club, millions of viewers watch a film where a man is made up and wears a wig and a dress. They are made to believe that underneath it all, trans women are actually men, which is simply not true. (Fun fact: when people tell you their gender identity, believe them!)
If you’d like to counter and say, “Well what about Felicity Huffman in Transamerica? She’s a woman and she played a trans woman. Isn’t that affirming?”
Nope! First, because the makeup artist literally equated “trans” to “vaguely hideous,” which is hugely offensive to such a large, diverse community filled with beauty, radiance, and utter fabulousness. In doing so, Huffman was tasked with not only bringing the character to life but “playing trans,” which illustrates so many false notions cis people harbor about the way trans people look and act. Instead of making a movie about what cis people think about trans people, a trans woman could have saved them the trouble by playing the character herself.
There’s such a missed opportunity here. Most often, characters are written and assumed to be straight, white, cis, thin, non-disabled, etc. In most cases, there is nothing in the text that demands the character be any of those things. What would it mean to see a blockbuster romcom fronted by a fat trans woman and a bisexual Latino man in a wheelchair? The plot probably wouldn’t need to change, and I’m guessing their banter would only get better.
How is Johansson playing a trans man different from a, say, liberal playing a Republican or a rich person playing a poor person?
WILEY: Poverty is not an identity. It is absolutely true that care should be taken to avoid furthering negative stereotypes, but poverty is a condition, not an identity. Republicans, meanwhile, are not marginalized. It’s entirely possible for an actor to play a character who belongs to a different or opposing political group without resorting to trying on and discarding deeply personal identities as if they were costumes.
Most of us know that there is a difference between a poor white man and a poor black man. Both are poor, both may have known hardship, but one has the added weight of legalized discrimination upon him. He is–to use a quintessentially American metaphor–born on first base while the white man was born on third. To paint these people as equivalents in their social power is to ignore the fact that cultural, government, and environmental forces have an undeniably large impact on how “successful” a human can be, and that in this country, we’ve stacked the deck against certain groups of people.
Equal representation in media is one of the greatest tools we have to improve conditions for marginalized folks. The economic power that comes from being paid for your perspective cannot be understated as a tool to lift trans people up and prevent further violence against us. The acceptance that grows when a media-consuming public sees trans stories that make them think and feel–that has a real impact on public sentiment towards trans people, and it paves the way for long-term, constructive improvements to our condition.
When people see us on TV and identify with us–not with someone play-acting as us, but actually us–they begin to understand that we are a diverse group of people with struggles they may not ever have imagined. It opens the door for conversations about how cis people can protect and support their trans friends and neighbors. We cannot learn to understand and love something that we never see reflected in our culture.
OK, then. What’s wrong with a cis woman playing a trans man, since trans men were once “biological” women?
WILEY: Well, as for why it’s different for a cis woman to try to play a trans man–to start with, many trans people simply have different biology than cis women. I don’t speak for every trans man, but a lot of us have significant physiological and psychological differences from cis women. Furthermore, many trans men feel they have never experienced “womanhood” or even girlhood.
For example, I have had a high level of testosterone since I was a child. Although most everyone in my life treated me as if I were a girl, I knew that something was wrong and I have realized now, as an adult, that I was absorbing a confusing mix of conditioning that came both from the imposed “feminine” conditioning my family and community imposed, and from the “masculine” conditioning that was denied to me but somehow felt like it fit. Now my body looks like a mix of what we consider masculine and feminine characteristics, and I live in an interesting, self-built gender world that is half-constructed, half-organic, and altogether different from the gendered world cis women live in.
Trans people often have confusing genders, because our internal and external genders have spent some time out of sync. Even when we have easy-to-understand gender presentations (think football-loving, computer-savvy trans guys with facial hair), we still have to live with a wild set of contradictions between our identities and the things our bodies do and don’t do, as well as our roles in our communities, families and relationships.
This complex tapestry of identity is absolutely fundamentally different from a cis woman’s experience. Although we may have some surface-level experiences in common, under our shallow similarities is a wholly different world.
But what if the director couldn’t find a qualified trans man?
WILEY: This question is a frustrating catch-22. When we write and produce so few stories starring trans people and even fewer where trans people are permitted to speak for themselves, it reduces the opportunities for trans entertainers to work. When artists are not hired, mentored, and trained, they don’t end up on anyone’s radar. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
For the record, there are many working trans male actors. They may not have the kind of name recognition that Johansson has, but neither did Daniel Kaluuya before Get Out, Timothee Chalamet before Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, or Octavia Spencer before The Help. Everyone starts somewhere. Whether you’ve heard of someone has nothing to do with their skill, work ethic, or potential to tell a story beautifully.
I can understand the urge to hire someone you have some familiarity with, but if every director felt that way, there would never be any new talent! All directors take a chance with relatively unknown actors–it’s just that most directors are much less likely to take a chance on an untested trans actor than an untested cis actor. Although many people would describe it simply as a preference, it is simply discrimination, and it effectively locks trans folks out of the industry.
Fine, but sometimes trans actors just don’t look right for the part.
BEA: It is an actor’s job to inhabit the life of someone outside of themselves–to unearth and embody the humanity of a character. Most of the time that means an actor has to imagine what it would mean to live under different circumstances, to have a different history, to wish for different things, and to behave in different ways.
The place where this philosophy falls short is when it comes to actors playing people of different identities–specifically ones that physically manifest themselves. We’re talking race, gender, sex, and ability. This becomes especially important when considering people who are somehow marginalized: people of color, trans and gender non-conforming folks, women, disabled people. When actors in a greater position of social capital over those people step into their characters, they not only have to play the character, they also have to take on a body they do not own–and specifically one that is too often underrepresented, criminalized, and interrogated in the media.
Such casting decisions only perpetuate misinformation and misrepresentation of those already-vulnerable communities. A white actor can don blackface, but that doesn’t mean they know what it means to live with black skin. And further, that takes an opportunity away for a black actor to work–one who doesn’t have to “act black” but who can just act the character themselves because the race is already there.
Why should we be upset about this when others like Hilary Swank have played trans men before and received accolades?
WILEY: I am equally pissed about both of those castings — Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. I’m also pissed about Elle Fanning, Jordan Todosey, Daniela Sea, and Dot Jones. It’s an epidemic. I don’t know the people who are angry about ScarJo and not the 10 billion other times this has happened, but they are not me and they are not my trans male friends.
Just because it’s happened before doesn’t make it OK. We can be angry about more than one thing, and in fact, we can be angry every single time this happens. Every time it happens it’s even worse because we’ve already had this conversation! Trans folks have been busting ourselves for years to explain to cis people why our stories should be written by us, told by us, and represented by us. Every time we have to have this conversation again, it just reveals the lengths cis people will go to avoid learning and growing.
To claim that it is hypocritical to be upset about this instance of erasure is to ignore the work of decades of trans activists who have been saying the same things, making the same points, and raising holy hell to wrest control back from people who are–at best–careless with the precious resource of our stories.