By Polly Schattel
When it was announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast to play a transman in the upcoming film “Rub & Tug,” the outcry was swift and savage. Excoriated in the press and on social media by prominent LGBT activists, Johansson at first released a defiant, almost taunting message that further flamed tensions on both sides of the issue. She announced she would back out of the part, prompting critics to cry censorship, and supporters to claim victory. This begs the question—was Johansson a victim of an online mob mentality, or was she truly insensitive, as her critics have claimed? And what does this backlash portend for high profile LGBT projects in the future?
Rub & Tug is the story of Dante “Tex” Gill, a hard-partying massage parlor and prostitution ring owner who was born a woman but identified as a transman—before that label even existed. Living and working in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, Gill was a trans pioneer who often ran afoul of the law but was seen as a colorful and lovable dabbler in unlawful enterprises.
The project, which was announced in early July, would have reunited Johansson with director Rupert Sanders, who had cast her previously in another controversial project, Ghost in the Shell. With that film both actor and director were criticized for cultural whitewashing—Johansson portrayed a character who, in the originating material, was Asian.
Almost immediately, prominent trans actors, filmmakers and writers spoke out about their belief that trans roles should be performed only by trans performers. The actor and trans-activist Jamie Clayton complained, “Actors who are trans never even get to audition for anything other than roles of trans characters. That’s the real issue. We can’t even get in the room.”
When Johansson released a defiant statement that said, “Tell them they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,” (referring, of course, to trans-based roles which—though oft-criticized in and of themselves—garnered cis-gender actors awards for their performances), her critics went into outrage mode. And when the actor finally backed away, others pointed to a predatory “identity politics outrage mob,” saying this would only hurt LGBT projects in the future.
Well, probably not. The LGBT community is fully within its rights to complain that trans artists should be in charge when it comes to roles depicting members of their community. Imagine, for instance, a film celebrating a pioneering woman with no women in front of or behind the camera; or a project highlighting the trials and travails of an African-American innovator, but made solely by white people. It’s unthinkable. What’s more, as the prominent trans writer Jenny Boylan suggested in the New York Times, cis-gender performers often get “trans-ness” wrong; they play too broadly, or too superficially; they get caught up in cursory details which leave the soul of the subject untouched. These are tales, in other words, told by outsiders.
But complicating all of this is the fact that the economics of the film industry are often complex and byzantine, and that many films would never get made without the star power driving them. Even the highest profile filmmakers have to play the Hollywood casting game, and powerful directors like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan are not immune. And while there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of brilliant and talented trans actors, writers and directors, perhaps none seem to have the star power—a complex algorithm of right project/right talent/right time—to get a film greenlit as Johansson can. In all likelihood, the project “Rub & Tug” is dead.
So what’s the solution? Should we never tell trans-tales unless trans-talents are the one telling them? Should we shun any and all stories involving minorities and LGBT characters unless they are in charge? How can we put these valuable stories onscreen while still attracting the necessary star power to get them seen?
One easy fix has already been tried, with great success. Amazon’s “Transparent” used Jeffrey Tambor’s terrific (if volatile) talent to great effect as a matronly transwoman at the head of a Jewish family, while hiring actual trans writers, performers, directors and producers for behind-the-camera, below-the-line roles. For four seasons, the series has told trans stories with great authenticity, humor and intelligence, while still playing the Hollywood celebrity game.
Perhaps if more prominent LGBT-based productions followed that simple inclusive formula, we would witness a lot less bickering about online mobs and identity politics, and enjoy more compelling, authentically-told tales onscreen.