In case that link disappears or doesn’t work, here’s what This Shit is all about. Scarlett Johansson is going to be playing a transman in the upcoming movie Rub & Tug. Yup, this is the same SJ who recently got chewed up and spit out by playing Major in Ghost in the Shell when that character should have been played by an Asian actor. Notably, both Rub & Tug and Ghost in the Shell are directed by Rupert Sanders. I don’t care about how good or bad an actor she is or the quality of the films (didn’t see the first and won’t see this one). I’m not a film critic and wiser people than I have had plenty to say about cultural appropriation and whitewashing of stories.
However, as a transman with a history in theatre and connections to stage and film, I’ve had (at last count) five people ask me what I think about casting cis people in trans roles since this news hit.
Let me be clear. In this and any representation of trans, non-binary, and genderqueer folx, casting cis actors is not OK.
SJ is well known for feminine roles and sexy figure. A quick cruise through her IMDB page shows a lot of decolletage, spandex-clad booty, and bee-stung lips. She’s clearly been typecast and I know that a woman’s career in Hollywood can be roughly delineated by ingenue roles and “are you Judy Dench or Meryl Streep?” so I don’t blame her or her agent for wanting to break out of the femme (fatale) box. That is absolutely as far as I’m willing to go in the “I get it” realm. There are other ways to break out of the box that aren’t reductive and culturally offensive.
By casting a cisgender woman as a transgender man, you reduce the experience of a trans person to a base comment upon their (assumed) genitals at birth. Because a cis woman (probably) has the same anatomy as a transman does not mean that she has the capacity to inhabit the character of that man. The underlying messages are that we don’t actually care about the lived experiences of trans people or their accurate representation in our media, we just want the (illicit?) thrill of seeing transgression and to think freely about what is under that shirt.
This is not about elevating acting ability to transcend barriers. This is not to disparage anyone’s acting ability. I have no idea if SJ can play the role well. I truly don’t care that Hillary Swank did an ok job in Boys Don’t Cry, and Willaim Hurt was brilliant in Kiss of the Spider Woman. All of that is beside the point.
Look, if there were thousands of trans characters in film and theatre and all the trans actors were finding work regularly, we could be having a different conversation. But that is not the reality. Not only is this casting reductive, a critical question begs to be asked about the messages we are sending out to trans youth by supporting this casting. The fairly obvious message is that we know you’re “just a [insert gender] playing at being [insert opposite binary gender].” When the percentage of completed suicides in the trans and non-binary communities far outstrip our cisgender counterparts, interrogating the harm done and potential for positive role modeling is not simply an academic exercise.
But what about Dr. Frank-n-Furter played by Tim Curry, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and nearly every stage and film adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy? Drag and being trans are different things, even on stage and in flim.
Some argue that there aren’t trans folx with marquee names to draw the crowds and $ to the theatres and I know that’s true. In fact, I’ve had numerous conversations about this exact topic with my producer, director, and actor friends.
So, dear producer friends, the questions you should be asking are:
- Why aren’t there trans actors who I can cast in this role?
- Am I looking hard enough?
- If this role and narrative is really critical to the driver of this story, should I be telling it without casting appropriately?
- What can I be doing from my positions of power to encourage trans and non-binary actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, etc. in my field?
- If I was casting a role calling for a Black woman but couldn’t find the right actor, what would I do? Consider similar options in this context.
I watched a dear friend of mine search very hard for a trans actor who was available to play a transman in a TV series. He and the studio went to great lengths to find the right man for the part and for various reasons beyond his control, the timing and casting didn’t work. We talked about it a lot and he had the salacious option of casting a cisgender woman, the uninspired option of rewriting the character to be cisgender, the dubious but marginally better option of casting a cisgender man, and the difficult decision not to tell that story in that season. Rather than reduce the part to anatomy, he shelved that storyline and is taking on a longer search to find the right person to play the part. It was a difficult choice for him and the studio because they had to consider the draw of the salacious or handy.
Consumer friends, I challenge you to resist giving your money to endeavors which cast cis folx in trans roles. It’s 2018, there are trans and non-binary actors out there with more on the way.
There is no more room to cast cis folx in trans roles so just knock it off.