This week Scarlett Johansson dropped out of a movie where she would have played a transgender character. The movie was “Rub & Tug,” based on the true story of Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who ran massage parlors in Pittsburgh. In the spirit of explaining LGBTQ+ issues as we have in the past with RuPaul’s transgender comments and Janelle Monáe’s reference to pansexuality.
So why was there backlash against this movie?
Transgender actors lamented that cisgender actors get to play trans roles, but transgender people don’t get to play cisgender roles.
So that’s why Johansson dropped out?
Initially, Johansson glibly defended her casting by referring to the cisgender actors who had played transgender characters. Through a rep, she said, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comments.” As the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr explained:
Tambor (“Transparent”), Leto (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”), and Huffman (“Transamerica”) have all won awards for playing trans characters. So did Hilary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry,” an Oscar-winning performance that few people protested in 1999. But that only indicates how society advances slowly but inexorably as once-marginalized communities become more visible and accepted by all.
In a statement to Out.com where Johansson announced she was quitting the film, she seemed to back off on her initial comments, saying, “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive.”
So does this mean only transgender people can play transgender people?
There’s no one agreed-upon answer to that. For some, it comes down to an unequal access to roles. Transgender actress Trace Lysette said, “I wouldn’t be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that’s not the case.” The trans actress and activist Jen Richards tweeted, “Until the world stops erasing/oppressing/murdering us, trans women play trans women, trans men play trans men, nonbinary people play NB people. If your project needs a ‘star’ for financing, then it’s simply not good enough.”
So some people might be OK with it if we had several movies where trans actors were playing cisgender roles. But then there are those who say that having cis people play trans roles misses a bigger point. Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote, “Trans actors should play trans roles because we can do the best job. The freedom to live our lives out loud ought to include the chance to make art from the complex, difficult, joyful reality of our lives.”
But isn’t playing someone who isn’t you part of acting?
It is, but there’s a concern that having cisgender actors playing transgender characters sends the message that transgender women are really men just playing dress-up. And the same goes for cisgender women playing transgender men.
In an interview last year, trans actress Laverne Cox referenced transgender writer, actor, and producer Jen Richards, who wrote an essay called “Why Straight Men Kill The Trans Women They Love.” Cox said:
Jen Richards said that she believes that when cisgender men or non-transgender men play trans women it sends a message to people who don’t know trans folks that trans women are really men… And then, as brilliant as Jeffrey Tambor is, as brilliant as Jared Leto is, and all these actors who play trans women, when people who don’t know anything about trans folks and trans women see the very sexy Jared Leto and his beard accepting an Oscar for playing a trans woman, the message that it sends is that trans women are really men. So when men find themselves attracted to trans women they have anxiety about that because of their own internalized homophobia and transphobia and they’ve gotten this message that trans women are really men and then this leads to violence. [Jen Richards] contends that this leads to violence against trans women. And I think she makes a really strong argument.
Cox then also clarified that she was not an absolutist on the topic.
So does this mean straight people can’t play gay people, too?
That’s not cut-and-dry, either. Eric McCormack is straight, but is best known for playing the gay Will of “Will & Grace.” In an interview with Huffington Post UK, McCormack said:
If anybody had a problem with me playing Will, I’d just say, ’go back and watch 200 episodes and tell me if you still have a problem… And then go and watch every episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ where Neil Patrick Harris plays a straight guy. I think it’s a dumb conversation.
But for many, it’s a serious issue. As Seamus Kirst wrote for Them last year, none of the actors who have won Oscars for gay roles were actually gay. Kirst was one of a few people to opine that “Call Me By Your Name” was another example of straight men being able to play gay roles, but that gay actors don’t always get the opportunity to play straight roles.
OK, so what do LGBTQ people think needs to be done?
Well, as is the case on so many issues, there is no one answer, and certainly there’s disagreement. But many think it would be a good start to cast more LGBTQ+ people in movies and television, allowing them to play LGBTQ+ characters, as well as straight, cisgender characters.
But how many LGBTQ+ actors are there? I can only think of a few.
There are several out there whom you have never gotten the chance to see because they do not get cast. But they are out there. As Ty Burr wrote in the Globe: “The frustration for transgender artists in the entertainment industry is that they’re stuck in a cultural and casting catch-22: too trans to audition for major cis roles and not major enough to audition for the starring trans roles to which they could bring unique insight.”
So does this mean I can’t like “Will & Grace” or “Transparent” or “Brokeback Mountain” anymore?
No, this does not necessarily mean that. There are groundbreaking movies and TV shows that told LGBTQ+ stories with straight, cisgender actors. But the bigger issue, for many, is who will get to tell those stories going forward.