Don’t just blame Scarlett Johansson, blame Hollywood too

Hollywood’s systemic transphobia has been an issue for decades. After Scarlett Johansson’s recent casting as a trans man, we’re not going to take it anymore.

Scarlett Johansson came under fire last week when it was announced that she would be portraying Dante “Tex” Gill, in the newly announced film, Rub & Tug. The film is based on the real-life story of Gill, who ran a string of massage parlors that were fronts for prostitution dens in the 1970s and ’80s.

The problem is, though, that Gill was a transgender man, and Johansson is a cisgender woman.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that Johansson has received backlash from accepting questionable roles. Last year, she was cast in the film Ghost in the Shell in a role that was originally Japanese, and the film suffered because of the whitewashing controversy. Ghost in the Shell was directed by Rupert Sanders, who is also set to direct Rub & Tug.

To make matters even worse, Johansson’s rep released a statement to Bustle reportedly from the actress about the controversy, stating: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”

The statement is clearly just as tone deaf as the decision to cast Johansson in the role, but it brings up a perfect discussion about transgender representation in the media. Don’t blame Scarlett Johansson for landing this role, blame Hollywood, because they’ve been pulling these stunts for decades, and we’re not going to let them get away with it anymore.

Tambor, Leto, and Huffman all won or were nominated for prestigious awards for their representations of trans characters in Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club, and Transamerica, respectively. Johansson may think that they didn’t receive the same backlash that she’s facing right now, but they did — we just didn’t hear it. But now trans voices are louder than ever, and their criticisms finally have some weight in the public discussion, and they don’t think it’s okay.

Johansson is just another actor who thinks that by taking such an “edgy” transformative roll, she can get praise from the Hollywood elite and hopefully land herself an Oscar nomination. Sorry, Scarlett, but you’re not going to get that Oscar as easily as you thought.

After the Ghost in the Shell controversy, you would think she would be more careful about how she represents herself in the media. But by accepting the role of Tex Gill and further perpetuating the idea that trans people are just playing dress-up rather than taking their transition seriously, she’s only making herself look ignorant and setting the film up for failure.

The only way I could realistically see it being okay to cast a cis actor for a trans role would be if we already lived in a world with a huge roster of trans stars, where trans stories were the norm in Hollywood blockbusters and trans actors were getting their time to shine. Maybe then, if one role went to a well-meaning, cis actor, who acknowledged and worked with the trans community, it could be acceptable.

But we don’t live in that world. There are barely any trans people who are household names, and that’s because trans people aren’t being given the opportunity to get their foot in the door. If we did a poll of average people in America and asked them if they knew any trans actors, they’d likely name someone like Laverne Cox, but how many other famous actors — real stars — could they name? Even then, how many of those trans stars would be transmasculine actors?

Studios, directors, and casting agents can use the excuse of wanting to cast a “star” in their movies in order to get the project made. But they don’t want to take a chance on aspiring trans stars often enough to ever make a trans movie star. That’s the issue with Johansson’s casting. Studios want to take advantage of trans stories and struggles, with movies like Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, Transamerica, Boys Don’t Cry, and now Rub & Tug, but don’t care enough to work with the people who face those struggles themselves.

Sense8 star Jamie Clayton summed it up perfectly in a tweet:

How many trans actors play in non-trans roles? How often do trans people get to portray any characters other than trans characters? And yet, we allow cisgender actors to take trans roles time after time.

Another argument often brought up by people defending these casting decisions is that it should go to the “best” actor, whether they are trans or cisgender. In a perfect world, yes, that should be how an audition works. But how often are trans actors even given the chance to be in the running with stars like Scarlett Johansson? Do you really think that New Regency had a huge casting process filled with a diverse selection of trans male actors, and then Scarlett Johansson won the role?

Sometimes, all it takes is one great role to make a star. We have seen it happen to so many other stars in the past. One big role for a newcomer can lead to an Oscar nomination, maybe even a win, and then their career is made. It worked for Jennifer Lawrence, and it could work for a trans actor as well.

Why can’t Hollywood offer these juicy roles to someone who actually understands the struggle of the character that much more?

If Johansson wants to redeem herself, she needs to take a step back, look at the mess she’s in, step down from the role and fight for a trans man to replace her. But considering she stuck with Sanders to make Ghost in the Shell, I’m not holding my breath.

The rampant systemic transphobia in Hollywood has to come to an end. The trans community has made huge strides in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. Until Hollywood makes an effort to get trans actors into trans and cis roles, they shouldn’t be casting Scarlett Johansson or any other cis actors in transgender parts.

If they want to exploit the community for their struggles, then they should at least pay them back in the process.