Hey, remember when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role of a live-action movie of Ghost in the Shell? Remember how that film was a critical and commercial disappointment, and how it couldn’t escape the controversy surrounding casting a white woman as one of anime’s most iconic heroines? Remember how that film seemingly decided to rub that whitewashing in everyone’s face by making it a key plot point in the movie? Well, apparently, Johansson thought that was a career highlight and is attempting to anger everyone all over again.
This week, it was revealed that she will play the lead in Rub & Tug, a drama about a massage parlour owner in 1970s Pittsburgh. Rupert Sanders will direct because, as is Hollywood tradition, mediocre white male directors are allowed to have unlimited second chances regardless of how many flops they make. As noted by writer E. Oliver Whitney, the story centres on Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a real-life figure who ran an empire of massage parlours that served as fronts for brothels. The project is being pitched as an American Hustle style crime dramedy, and it certainly has all the ingredients for such a tale.
The problem here? Johansson will play the lead role. Gill, as noted by Whitney, was a trans man.
In their write-up, Whitney noted:
‘All three trades, Deadline, THR, and Variety, announced Johansson’s casting by describing Gill as a woman who dressed like a man, one author using more incorrect (and ignorant) language describing Gill as “sexually ambivalent.” (Note: Gender identity is separate from sexuality.) However a quick Google search reveals that Gill lived as a transmasculine person.’
Whitney’s piece goes further into the difficulties in finding the exact language to discuss gender identity relating to historical figures. Our vocabulary around trans issues has changed so much over the past couple of decades, but the majority of reporting around Gill uses male pronouns and notes how he preferred to be known as a man. Whether Gill would have called himself a trans man is unknown, but by all accounts, he certainly didn’t live or see himself as a woman. One wonders if the script for Rub & Tug will go into that or just overlook it in favour of a ‘woman in disguise’ story. I heartily recommend you read Whitney’s piece for further details on the complexities of this issue. They’re great!
Cis people playing trans is a big Hollywood deal. It’s flashy acting, it’s inherently transformative, and it’s rooted in these archaic notions that true acting is the act of 100% living the life of another. Hollywood, in all its transphobic nonsense, sees cis people playing trans as more challenging and worthy of reward than trans people telling their own stories. It’s not hard to see how someone like Johansson would look at a role like this and think, ‘yes, I want in on that’, but how the hell do you go through the entire spiel and not think about the optics of the situation? Especially after Ghost in the Shell? Well, Johansson responded via her publicist to Bustle when asked about the issue. I swear I didn’t make this up:
‘Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.’
I’m beginning to think Colin Jost is too good for Scarlett Johansson.
Hell, this woman is giving Lena Dunham a run for her money in the White Feminism stakes.
The major problem with Johansson as a public figure is that she doesn’t seem to understand that mere lip service isn’t enough. She can publicly support feminism and talk at the Women’s March but it means little when she doesn’t understand her own power in the ecosystem of Hollywood. Cool, wear the t-shirt and spout the slogans but let’s not pretend you don’t have some measurable clout in this industry, and that you’re not using it irresponsibly. It meant a lot to see Motoko Kusanagi on the big-screen, and it stung for many to see one of the great icons of Asian women in pop culture be played by another white woman. Johansson tried to claim the casting was empowering because it was an opportunity to see a strong female lead in a major blockbuster. See, she’s speaking for all women now, but mostly the woman who looks and acts like her. Yeah, women in general don’t get a lot of big-screen leading roles, but Asian women get practically none in our current system.
It’s hard to take Johansson seriously on these issues when everything she does spits in the face of those who dare to question her. She preaches feminism but doesn’t see the questionable optics in wearing Marchesa to the Met Gala, mere months after the Weinstein scandal and issues over how he used his wife’s fashion line as a bullying chip. She talks of strong female characters but can’t imagine giving up a part for a woman of colour who could use it more (and did we mention how many times she’s worked with Woody Allen?). Now, instead of listening on an issue as serious as the cultural smudging of trans and genderqueer people from their own history, she sends out the equivalent of a meme in response. At least she didn’t pull Eddie Redmayne style faux penitence on this matter. This is more honest.
Scarlett Johansson is the new Lena Dunham because both of them are more concerned with the aesthetics of feminism than the real work, because to truly work at the liberation of our gender and allies from the patriarchy, you have to make tangible sacrifices. You have to realize, as white cis women, that your privilege matters, and that the entire concept of privilege isn’t just some word you’ve seen thrown around Tumblr a lot. You have to understand that sometimes your voice isn’t as important at that moment in time, and you can give your platform to others who need it most.
But hey, Jared Leto did it so it must be okay, right? Because everyone loves Jared Leto!
(Scarlett Johansson wearing Marchesa at the Met Gala courtesy of Getty Images)