The story of Dante ‘Tex’ Gill will be told in a re-imagined Rub & Tug. The trans man whose shady massage parlors made him a powerful figure in 1970s Pittsburgh was set to be the center of a biopic two summers ago. However, controversy sparked when it was announced that Gill would be played by cisgender actress Scarlett Johansson. The MCU star didn’t handle the backlash well, first pointing to cis actors who’d done the same, and then insisting that she should be allowed to play any role, even a “tree.” Eventually, she bowed out of the project, which her defenders argued would be the end of Rub & Tug. They were wrong.
Deadline reports Rub & Tug is being reconfigured from a movie into a TV series. Where the film was to be written by American Made’s Gary Spinelli, the pilot is being scripted by Our Lady J (pictured above), a trans woman who has previously penned trans narratives on the award-recognized TV series Transparent and Pose. Also ditched is director Rupert Sanders, who would have reteamed with ScarJo after their whitewashed adaptation of the anime classic, The Ghost In The Shell. Onboard is Gill’s widow, Cindy Bruno Gill, who will serve as a consultant on the series. Plus, the producers are committed to casting a trans man in the lead role.
This news is thrilling on two fronts. The first is that Gill’s story is a fascinating one, involving Red Light District drama, mafia run-ins, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ NFL dynasty, and an LGBTQA+ community who supported and was helped by the former blacksmith turned prostitution kingpin. The second is that it’s getting made at all.
Trans stories are too often kicked to the sidelines of Hollywood. When they are told, their trans heroes tend to be played by cisgender actors, often to acclaim. Jeffrey Tambor earned a Golden Globe for Transparent. Eddie Redmayne scored an Oscar nod for The Danish Girl. Jared Leto won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. This encourages more cisgender people to take on trans roles to prove their range, but ignores how cis actors then commit trans erasure by taking jobs from trans performers. Yet whenever a big star deigns to play a trans person, their defenders say the same thing: But without them this story won’t be told at all.
The argument is that trans stories are so niche or risky on their own that producers must cast a big-name to draw in financiers and audiences. But this argument ignores the success of films like Tangerine, the Academy Award-winning A Fantastic Woman, and the Emmy-winning TV show Pose, which have trans characters played by trans performers. These films may not have received the amount of attention as the studio-produced cis-cast Oscar bait above; yet they both received acclaim for their content and for stars Mya Taylor, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, and Daniela Vega. The accolades these and Pose have won pave the way for trans performers to become the big names that can get more trans stories produced. Their success also proves there is a growing audience who doesn’t need a cis star to tune in.
Still, that doesn’t mean that cisgender performers have no place in trans-centered projects. Big stars could agree to supporting roles, using their fame and privilege to shine a spotlight on marginalized trans talent. They could produce trans projects, or put their money where their supposed empathy for the trans community is and finance such films and TV shows. Apologies are fine. Actions of allyship are better.
Header Image Source: Getty