Scarlett Johansson’s Step Away From Trans Role Is Better Late Than Never

It took the actress a while to get that she shouldn't play a trans man in an upcoming movie. But it's the right call in a Hollywood that's too comfortable with actors donning racial or gender identities like costumes.

[Photo: Scarlett Johansson]
Despite sharp and swift criticism from the trans community, Johansson’s clueless initial response showed the Hollywood establishment’s utter comfort with defaulting to white and cisgender as the norm. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

It took actress Scarlett Johansson about two weeks to bow out of playing trans man Dante “Tex” Gill in the upcoming film Rub & Tug after outcry that trans actors should be cast as trans characters. That two weeks may seem a short learning curve, but a year ago, Johansson was criticized for accepting a role representing another group to which she doesn’t belong: the heroine of Ghost in the Shell, originally Japanese in the beloved comic.

Johansson apparently has a short memory—and so does director Rupert Sanders. Sanders directed her whitewashed Ghost appearance and would have also collaborated with her on Rub & Tug, the story of a real-life trans man crime lord.

Johansson also has a privilege problem that’s both an individual and an industry failing. Her finally confronting that problem by dropping out of Rub & Tug on Friday was necessary and came not a moment too soon.

Her decision to change course and not play a trans man is good for Hollywood, where white, cisgender actors putting on Otherness as costume is sadly neither new nor uncommon. Whether it’s white men playing Indians (Rock Hudson in Winchester ’73) or white women masquerading as Asian American women in 20th-century films (take Jennifer Jones in Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing), the tradition is longstanding and insidious. Johansson is only the latest example of a performer demonstrating ignorance of their privilege by playing characters with marginalized identities they do not share. But she’s one of the few who can admit they were wrong.

Because despite sharp and swift criticism from the trans community, including from trans actresses like Trace Lysette and Jamie Clayton, Johansson’s clueless initial response showed the Hollywood establishment’s utter comfort with defaulting to white and cisgender as the norm. She cited examples such as Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (both cisgender male actors playing trans women) to justify her casting as a trans character. She missed the criticism about the inherent ciswashing in both Tambor and Leto’s performances. Her defensive response engaged in reductive what-aboutism, as if evidence of past mistakes is somehow reason and justification to continue making them.

On Friday, Johansson admitted in a public statement that her response to the criticism was “insensitive.” We can only speculate as to whether Johansson truly had a moment of learning in public or she merely relented under the weight of an avalanche of bad PR.

Of course, not everyone in Hollywood agrees that Johansson’s withdrawal from the project was a positive course of action. Actress Justine Bateman—best known for her role on Family Ties, which ended nearly 30 years ago—shared some choice words about the situation. In a series of weekend tweets she has since deleted, Bateman wrote, “Welp, congratulations to the critics. You just killed an opportunity to ‘get your story out there.’ There is not a trans actor with marquee value anywhere close to Johansson. Marquee value = film funding = distribution, etc.”

Like many ill-conceived arguments, Bateman’s statement inadvertently argues the exact opposite of the point she’s trying to make. The solution is to give more opportunities to trans actors so that more can attain the fame and “bankability” of actors like Johansson. These opportunities should be afforded to them in much the same way they are to cisgender actors. No one is born with “marquee value.”

This attitude of “there’s no one famous enough from [insert marginalized group] to play this marginalized character, so we have to cast a famous white person” is very pervasive in the entertainment industry and is not limited to the trans community.

It’s also a very old argument, with a long and insidious history dating back to the earliest days of Hollywood. Anglo German actress Luise Rainer is perhaps best known for her roles in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and the movie adaptation of the Pearl Buck novel, The Good Earth (1937). In The Good Earth, Rainer played O-Lan, a Chinese farmwife, in full Asianface and with an affected stereotypical accent.

This cut-and-dry example of whitewashing wouldn’t pass muster in Hollywood today (knock on wood). It was a 1937 precursor to Justine Bateman’s “marquee value” comment. It was a very real sign of Asian and Asian Americans’ exclusion from film but also the broader discrimination against them in U.S. society. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in place and barred immigration of all workers from China until 1943. The denial of opportunities for actors from marginalized communities had its counterparts throughout less glamorous sectors of the labor market.

Art and popular culture are often reflections of real life and can serve to maintain societal prejudice. And in this specific instance, this whitewashing very directly and negatively affected the career of an actor from a marginalized community.

Anna May Wong is certainly not a name as readily invoked and remembered as Luise Rainer when one thinks of old Hollywood. At the time, her star was rising and she was blazing trails in the entertainment world. A third-generation Chinese American who was among the first Asian American actors to gain international recognition, Wong starred in several films in the 1920s and the 1930s, including Shanghai Express (1932) alongside Marlene Dietrich. Wong expressed desire to audition for The Good Earth, but MGM Studios refused to even consider her for the role that eventually went to Rainer, who had won an Oscar for The Great Ziegfeld. Rainer would go on to win her second Best Actress Oscar for The Good Earth—an award for which an actress of Asian descent has still never even been nominated.

Similarly, blackface lasted as socially acceptable practice in Hollywood well beyond the 1930s of The Good Earth. Orson Welles famously (and ridiculously) played the title role in the 1951 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello in full blackface. Laurence Olivier also played Othello in blackface in a 1965 film adaptation, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. And that was especially galling since Sidney Poitier garnered international fame and became the first Black person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Similar to how white actors playing Asian characters in offensive makeup and manner of speech, blackface only became unacceptable because communities of color advocated for themselves and their protests made it unacceptable.

This whitewashing of roles also calls into question the efficacy of so-called “colorblind casting” as a solution. In theory, inviting actors of all races and ethnicities to audition for roles that are not race-specific sounds good on paper. In reality, the practice often favors white actors. Actress Zoe Kravitz revealed that she was blocked from even reading for a role in Batman franchise movie The Dark Knight Rises because the filmmakers told her they “weren’t going urban.” The role eventually went to a white actress, Juno Temple. Grey’s Anatomy is one example of how colorblind casting calls lead to a racially diverse cast, but often only in the case of the supporting roles. Isaiah Washington auditioned for the lead role of Derek Shepherd that was eventually given to Patrick Dempsey; he was only offered the role of Preston Burke after another actor dropped out.

Examples of Hollywood’s racial whitewashing are not meant to erase the urgent conversation about ciswashing of transgender roles and why it’s problematic. While cross-race and cross-gender identity casting are not exactly the same thing, they can both be distilled down to a similar, overarching point—that is the tendency of those in power to ignore the voices and talent of the marginalized.

Shows such as Pose, Orange is the New Black (which features Emmy-nominated actress and transgender advocate Laverne Cox) and films like 2017’s A Fantastic Woman, (which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and stars Daniela Vega, a Chilean trans actress) have inched us closer to a moment where enough trans talent is elevated in front of and behind the camera. Still, we’re not at the place where it’s wholly unacceptable to cast cisgender actors to play trans characters, which means there’s still work to be done.

While I’m loath to commend Johansson too much (she shouldn’t have taken the role in the first place), the way she very publicly leveraged her privilege for good in correcting her mistake moves the needle ever so slightly. It makes it less acceptable for cisgender actors to play trans characters, given the relative dearth of opportunities for actors who are actually trans. And as slow as this change feels, this is how change happens.