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Culture

Should cisgender actors be cast as trans characters? Scarlett Johansson's new role sparks fierce backlash

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After claims of 'whitewashing' when she playced a traditionally Japanese character, Scarlett Johansson will now play a trans man in a film called 'Rub & Tug'

Anna Freeman

04 Julio 2018 12:09

It appears that Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson didn’t take note from the controversy created by her casting in Ghost in the Shell, in which she played Major Motoko Kusanagi in the anime-inspired movie.

The character is of Japanese heritage in the illustrated book franchise that gave birth to the film, and critics slammed Johansson and director Rupert Sands for ‘whitewashing’ the adaptation.

Johansson and Sands are now both back in the firing line once more after it was announced that Johansson will play a trans man in a new film called Rub & Tug, directed by none other than Sands himself.

The biopic is about a transgender man and crime boss, Dante 'Tex' Gill, who ruled Pittsburgh’s underground sex work industry throughout the 1970s.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the actor’s casting would anger many in the trans community - and beyond. As the cultural dialogue surrounding trans rights and identity becomes more nuanced, the inherent problem with cisgender actors playing non-binary and transgender characters is evident: it suggests that being trans is just a performance.

Hollywood has a long history of straight, gender-normative stars being offered roles depicting queer and trans lives: Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, where she was awarded an Oscar for her performance, and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club, for which he also won an Oscar for his depiction of a transgender woman’s tragic life and death. Sean Penn also stepped into the shoes of Harvey Milk, who paved the way for San Francisco to become a gay Mecca, almost winning an Oscar as well.

The debate surrounding this issue is multi-faceted. Filmmaking is an art and its creator should have a credible sense of freedom in who they choose to tell the story. At the same time, representation and diversity matters, and cisgender actors already have a huge advantage in being offered roles.

The argument often goes that the problem with casting actual trans people in these roles is that the job should simply go to ‘the actor best suited for it’ — and that there are simply less trans A-listers available for a big budget movie. But this is a catch 22 in itself. There are less trans actors because there are less roles for them, and there are less roles because trans actors are usually not considered for them.

One thing you probably shouldn’t do at the very least as an actor like Johansson is add further fuel to the fire. Amid a growing backlash over her casting in Rub & Tug, she released a statement unlikely to quell any criticism. ‘Tell them they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,’ Johansson told Bustle, via her agents.

I don’t know who is doing her PR, but I think she may need some new representation.

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