Last week, in a perfect reminder of how problematic mainstream feminism can be, it was announced that Scarlett Johansson will play Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life transgender man in the 1970s who ran a string of massage parlors in Pittsburgh, in the upcoming film “Rub & Tug.” This latest casting decision has sparked massive outrage, with people pointing out that it’s “problematic for Johansson, a cisgender woman, to portray Gill on screen” and that it has “never been ethically or politically justifiable for cisgender people to play trans roles.”
To many, Johansson’s decision to accept this role reeks of hypocrisy. A self-proclaimed feminist, Johansson gave a rousing speech at the Women’s March where she spoke passionately against sexual assault and “all the men who had taken advantage” of young actresses in Hollywood such as herself. And yet at the same time, Johansson consistently aids and abets in the marginalization of people of color and LGBTQ people in Hollywood by accepting roles that she, as a cisgender white woman, has no business playing.
This isn’t even the first time Johansson has come under fire for this. Just last year, she was cast as a Japanese woman in “Ghost in the Shell.” The backlash was intense — especially when word came out that the producers of the film had tested visual effects to make Johansson appear “more Asian.”
These casting decisions are particularly egregious because there are so few roles for marginalized people in Hollywood to begin with. A study conducted by the University of Southern California found that only 29.1% of speaking characters in the top 100 movies of 2016 were people of color. Moreover, only 1.1% of speaking characters were gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and not a single speaking character in 2016 was identified as transgender. And on the rare occasion that there is a character of color such as Allison Ng in “Aloha” or a queer character such as All in “Zoolander 2,” the roles are often played by white and cisgender actors — again, rendering marginalized people invisible on-screen.
There is no lack of roles for a conventionally beautiful white cisgender woman such as Johansson. The role of Dante Gill in “Rub & Tug” should have gone to a trans actor, giving the LGBTQ community some much-needed representation in mainstream media. It is disappointing enough that there are so few major trans roles in mainstream movies — it is even more frustrating when that one role doesn’t even go to an actor who can imbue the role with accuracy and lived experience.
Furthermore, having a cisgender woman play a transgender man perpetuates extremely harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about trans people — in particular, the idea that transgender people are “tricking” other people, or “lying” about their gender. As actress Jen Richards pointed out, having a cisgender men play a transgender women on screen only reinforces the belief that “at the end of the day, a trans woman is still really a man.” This belief is not only offensive, but also deadly. People have committed murder upon discovering that their sexual partner is transgender, and that revelation (so-called “trans panic”) can even serve as a legal defense in the courtroom in 48 states.
Yes, Hollywood has a huge problem with sexism that needs to be addressed — but those same structures marginalize other identities in the same way or worse. As feminists, we must demand an entertainment industry which represents our communities with integrity, and provides opportunities for marginalized people to tell their own stories.
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