Announcement of the casting for “Rub & Tug,” an upcoming movie depicting the real-life transgender man Dante “Tex” Gill, has sparked controversy among critics and LGBTQ activists alike. Actress Scarlett Johansson is set to portray Gill, who ran a Pittsburgh crime ring in the 70s.
Rather than facing criticism of the role directly, Johannson pointed to Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor and Felicity Huffman – actors who’ve similarly portrayed trans characters in film. Rather than acknowledge the struggles of the trans community and their fight for representation, she chose to deflect blame to other problematic portrayals.
Dispersing the blame does not lessen it. Just because previous films have used analogous casting tactics to trans-erase and whitewash films does not make it any less damaging in the present.
To make matters worse, this isn’t the first time Johansson has come under fire for accepting a controversial role. In 2017, she starred in the remake of “Ghost in the Shell,” causing many to question why a white woman was chosen to portray a Japanese character. The film’s director Rupert Sanders is also directing “Rub & Tug.”
Most would never think to defend the casting of a white actor to portray the life of a black person in film, yet cisgender actors are so frequently encouraged to portray trans men and women. To cast a thin, cis woman to play the role of an overweight trans man has larger implications than just physical misrepresentation and a compromised narrative.
Some argue that an actor’s job is to convincingly portray roles that are far from who they are as a person outside of set. If that were the case, why are we only seeing cis actors playing trans characters and never trans actors portraying cis characters?
The logic of casting an A-list celebrity to draw in wider audiences is not lost on me. It makes business sense to cast a well-known celebrity to increase publicity and viewership. However, there are ways to sell a movie without robbing trans actors from the opportunity and being utterly disloyal to the trans experience.
Trans stars like Laverne Cox, who stars in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” face much larger hurdles on the pathway to representation in movies and film. Hollywood must stop hindering talented and willing trans actors from portraying a narrative they know better than anyone.
It’s 2018 - it’s imperative we remove the giant roadblock of trans-erasure from film and television. How are trans actors going to gain any recognition if they are never even given the opportunity to audition for their own roles? It’s a vicious cycle of neglecting proper representation.
“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of trans actors ready to play these parts,” writer and trans activist Jennifer Finney Boylan said in an article for the New York Times. “We deserve the chance to represent our own truth.”
Hannah Kleinpeter is a 20-year-old mass communication senior from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.