The Transgender Question in Hollywood
Scarlett Johansson's Backlash
Scarlett Johansson has made waves with the announcement for her role as a transgender character in an upcoming movie called Rub & Tug as Dante “Tex” Gill. Johansson’s was under public scrutiny for accepting the lead role in Ghost in the Shell— a popular Japanese animated movie and series— which was directed by Rupert Sanders. Unsurprisingly, Johansson will be collaborating once more with Sanders in Rub & Tug. While both Sanders and Rupert received heavy criticism from the Asian community with Ghost in the Shell, this time they are receiving backlash from the transgender community for Rub & Tug.
The representation of lesbian and gay storylines have been increasing throughout the years, making enormous strides in representation more recently through the Academy Award Best Picture: Moonlight (2016). While the representation of cisgender queers have gained praise and recognition, the progress for the gender queer and trans representation—especially of color— continues to be an upward battle in breaking numbers in Hollywood.
Furthermore, it is the debate on the controversial topic of cisgender heterosexual actors playing queer and trans roles that have been brought to attention. This isn’t to say that cisgendered actors can’t play queer and trans roles— Hilary Swanks (Boys Don’t Cry) and Jared Leto’s (Dallas Buyers Club) awarded performances of gender queer and trans characters have clearly demonstrated this. However, it does overshadow talented actors/actresses that do identify as transgender and queer from potentially groundbreaking roles.
In response to the backlash Johansson is receiving, she told Bustle to “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” Johansson makes a snide remark to the critics and angered trans community by noting award-winning and nominated actors that were cisgendered, but played a trans role. With her bitter statement, which is dismissive of the issue of representation, Johansson tries to bite back saying that if she were to be receiving heavy criticism of a role she accepted then so should the acclaimed actors she listed. While I do agree that critics should regard past and present transgender roles played by cisgender actors, Johansson seems to miss what her critics are saying and why they are angry.
Yes, there has been Oscar winning and nominated actors for cisgender actors playing trans roles (see: Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl) that critics should be just as angry about them as they are with Johansson. Although the thing is, critics are frustrated because of both Sanders and Johansson’s lack of empathy and awareness to the cause, and Johansson’s statement emphasizes that. Especially in an era post-Moonlight and Love, Simon, fans, and critics are expecting more from Hollywood when it comes to representation.
Especially when there are examples of successful transgender actors playing transgender roles.
Laverne Cox’s role as Sophia in the series, a transwoman who gets incarcerated at the Litchfield Penitentiary, faces both transphobia, racism, and misogyny during the series. Her role in Orange is the New Black was not only a performance, but also a reflection on what Cox must have faced as a transwoman of color. Laverne Cox’s depiction as Sophia was groundbreaking in the representation of the transgender community, and opened avenues of representation for trans artists. She is the first transgender actor to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy and to be on the front cover of Time magazine. Her activism in both the arts and queer community has been instrumental in the awareness of trans issues and rights, and has earned Cox the GLAAD Media Stephen F. Kolzak award for her activism.
In addition to Laverne Cox’s impact as an actress and activist, Ryan Murphy’s rigorous push and decisions for casting in his new television series Pose, which has five transgender actors. Pose is a dance musical set in 1980s New York that “looks at the several juxtaposition of several segments of life and society in New York.” Murphy, creator of the hit series Glee and American Horror Story, makes TV history with Pose and its diverse cast.
Lastly, we turn to the 90th Academy Awards. The nomination in the Best Foreign Language film is Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017), which is also known as Una Mujer Fantastica.
Sebastian Lelio, director of Gloria and Disobedience, has crafted a Chilean queer dramatic storyline focused on the aspiring transgender singer: Marina (Daniela Vega). Marina faces discrimination as she is put in the spotlight after the death of her older boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes), and becomes criminalized and put on trial. What is groundbreaking is the fact that the story is portrayed by Daniela Vega, who is a transgender woman, making the emotions in the film to be heartbreakingly and brutally honest to the core.
In regards to the controversy of cisgender actors playing transactors, Vega states in an interview with the Guardian that she has “two different takes. As an actress, I don’t mind if a cisgender actor plays trans. But as a trans woman, I feel that many times we weren’t allowed to show what we can do, and we can do many things.” Daniela Vega’s statement offers the argument that the problem is not entirely with cisgender actors playing transgender roles, but rather that Hollywood should be creating more opportunities for trans artists to seek. That directors and producers should be pushing more for casting transgender actors for more than just identity roles, but roles period.
Scarlett Johansson’s role as Dante “Tex” Gill and her retort to her critics is just another upset in the battle for transgender representation in movies. If anything, due to the immediate and strong reaction from the community, the push to open the doors for trans actors has certainly widened.