Will this be the last time transgender stories are told this way?
by Eric Peterson
After years of Hollywood blithely casting cisgender actors to play trans roles, it’s possible we hit a turning point, thanks to a little movie with an awful title. Scarlett Johansson, star of Lost in Translationand the Avengersfilms, had been cast in Rub & Tug (I told you it was awful) as Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who was also a famous “crime kingpin” during the 1970’s. People were, to put it mildly, upset at this news. Not long after, Johansson announced that she would not play the role. The story went away, although the fate of the film without an A-list star in the leading role remains unclear.
Had the film gone forward as planned, Johansson would not have been the first cisgender actor to play a transgender person. Actors who have won or been nominated for Oscars for playing trans characters include John Lithgow, Hilary Swank, Glenn Close, Jared Leto, and Eddie Redmayne. This sort of casting choice is nothing new, and until recently, it wasn’t very controversial.
But things change, and as the trans community gains more allies and greater visibility, they are continuing to advocate for themselves, and this includes rejecting the way they’ve often been represented in popular culture. And, predictably, with every call for change, there is an equal and opposite case to be made for the status quo.
Most of those who objected to Scarlett Johansson playing Tex Gill wanted a transgender actor to play the role instead. They pointed out, accurately, that there are many trans actors with lots of talent who face difficulty getting cast as anything but a trans character. Why, they argued, should Hollywood then take one of the few roles that a trans actor has any hope of playing, and hand it to an actress who is clearly not hurting for work?
Another argument in favor of casting trans actors in trans roles is that they’ll do a better job. While we’ve seen that a cisgender actor can certainly excel in a role like this, it stands to reason that much of their preparation will entail learning how to wear the clothes, carry themselves, raise or lower their voice, adopt a feminine walk or a masculine swagger – work that trans actors have been doing for some time. A trans actor playing a trans role can skip all that and do the work that really matters: Who is this character? What do they want? What’s in their way? And on and on. A trans actor is much less likely to be so bogged down in the physical details that mannerisms and vocal tics become the sum total of their performance.
The simplest, and probably best, argument from those who would like to see their favorite cisgender stars play trans roles is but that’s why they call it acting. Meryl Streep wasn’t a Polish Holocaust survivor, they’ll helpfully remind you, nor was Stockard Channing a teenager. Actors are supposed to act; they’re not supposed to play carbon copies of themselves.
And I don’t really have an argument to counter that, other than to say maybe it’s not about the actors. Sure, we can debate whether or not Scarlett Johansson is an awful person simply because she sought out a challenging role, but I’m less interested in that debate than I am about those of us who would eventually see that movie.
It’s important to remember that one of the chief hurdles facing trans people in the real world is that they’re often seen as gender imposters. A trans woman who simply needs to pee is viewed by many as a male stalker who wants to spy on women and girls in the ladies’ room. Trans men are often viewed simply as tomboys. In short, trans people are oppressed in a myriad of ways that all boil down to being accused of being a dishonest, untrustworthy, even dangerous fake.
This stereotype is not eased when a cisgender A-List celebrity adopts the mannerisms and look of the opposite gender to play a part in a movie. No matter how good Johansson’s performance might have been, audiences would probably not have forgotten that they were watching a woman with glued-on whiskers. And that knowledge doesn’t help trans men or women who are still fighting after the movie is over, primarily for the right to be seen for who they truly are.
I would love to see a film about Tex Gill get made; he led an interesting life, and it could be a good story. I’d prefer that the role go to a trans man (Johansson could play Cynthia, his girlfriend, and she could even get top billing if that’s what it takes to open a movie). But more than anything, the role needs to go to a man, trans or otherwise – Timothee Chalomet, perhaps? Tex Gill was a man. He deserves to be played by one.
(This essay was originally published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, a newsmagazine for the LGBT & straight communities of Rehoboth Beach, DE.)