‘They are the best person for the role.’
It’s a statement used time and time again to support and, more commonly, to justify the casting of an actor in a role that some would say they should not have been cast in. Carefully avoiding any language that describes either the ‘person’ or the ‘role’ in terms of gender, race, or any other distinguishing feature, it implies that these factors are not what are important. We are all just people in the end, right? Actors are just acting, right? With the casting of Scarlett Johansson as transgender massage parlour owner Dante ‘Tex’ Gill in the upcoming film Rub & Tug, these question have been placed back in the spotlight. The most notable being; can a person ever truly be the ‘best’ choice if their casting contributes to continuing a cycle of stealing roles away from the very people those roles are portraying?
In a rebuttal to criticism that might be just as tone deaf as the original casting itself, Johansson stated:
Putting the blatant disowning of any responsibility regarding the casting aside, the statement does succeed in showcasing just how often cisgender actors are not only cast in trans roles, but praised for it. Felicity Huffman for Transamerica at the 2004 Oscars, Jared Leto in 2014 for Dallas Buyers Club, Jeffrey Tambor at the Golden Globes in 2015 for Transparent, and the list goes on beyond those mentioned by Johansson. Whilst there has been growth in the number of transgender actors on screens – 16 in 2017 compared to 7 in 2016 – ‘only 3 of them are series regular characters, with 2 of those (Transparent’s Maura and Wentworth’s Maxine) being played by cisgender men’ (GLAAD).
Ironically (and frustratingly) Johansson’s defense of her role in 2017’s American adaptation of Ghost in The Shell as Major – changed from the original source’s ‘Major Motoko Kusanagi’ (a Japanese woman) in order to further reinforce the character’s whiteness – could easily be reworked into applying to her current controversy, with the entire situation feeling eerily Groundhog Day-eque:
“[…] Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”
It is clear that by ‘diversity’ being ‘important’, Johansson does not mean it in a way that supports intersectionality, or anyone other than those in her immediate circle. Rather, what she sees as the cornerstone of representation is the inclusion of cisgendered white women (such as herself) that apparently haven’t had their due – despite making up 74% of all female characters in the top 100 films of 2017 (Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film).
Whilst representation is undoubtedly important, especially when it comes to normalising LGBTQIA+ experiences, this kind of representation simply reinforces the stereotype that transgender men and women are simply playing dress-up (which makes it totally okay for actors to do the same thing!) and takes roles away from transgender actors, as a scenario wherein a transgender actor is playing a cisgender character is simply unheard of. If Hollywood is to continue with the narrative that gender identity does not affect casting choices, then why the double standard? As transgender actress Jamie Clayton of Sense8 fame put on Twitter:
Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU #RupertSanders @NewRegency #ScarlettJohansson https://t.co/RkrW8MeGcG
— Jamie Clayton (@MsJamieClayton) July 4, 2018
It’s a cycle that doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon, with Rachel Weisz being cast as ‘gender-fluid’ surgeon James Barry not even a week after the Johansson debacle. But what can we really do about it? Most importantly, we can support trans actors and creators. A great example of real transgender representation being FX’s Pose (airing in Australia on Showcase) that features over 100 trans in its cast and crew, one being Janet Mock as the first black trans woman to ever direct an episode of television. We can also stop ScarJo from completing her offensive role bingo. But that might be just a little bit harder.