Every time it’s announced that a well-known cisgender actor will be playing a trans character, I grow less and less surprised.
However, this week my disaffected boredom was challenged when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson was set to play a trans character in the upcoming film Rub & Tug. Naturally, people have been quite upset about this. However, where often celebrities in this position will respond with an empty-gestured “I understand that this has hurt people in the trans community, and I want to make it clear I’m doing my best to listen and learn”, instead Johansson made this comment: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”
Before I say anything about this flippant dismissal of some genuine concerns, some clarification is in order. Rub & Tug is a Rupert Sanders (Ghost in the Shell) film in which Scarlett Johansson is set to play Dante “Tex” Gill, a real life Pittsburgh mobster in the 70s and 80s who ran a series of massage parlours. Described in their obituary as “the woman who wanted to be known as a man”, Gill went by Mr. Gill and dressed as a man for their entire working life, and may have undergone some form of medical transition during their life.
It’s impossible to say with certainty, based on the information publicly available, whether Gill was a trans man or a gender-non-conforming butch lesbian who adopted masculine attire and terminology. It is, however, safe to say that Gill was not a cisnormative figure. It is also safe to say that a fat, queer, butch, possibly transmasculine person is not a role for Scarlett Johansson.
Is it necessary to have trans and queer people cast in those roles?
This, however, is the point of contention that we get caught up in - is it necessary to have trans and queer people cast in those roles?
So, instead of speaking specifically about the casting of Dante Gill - whose identity no one can definitively attest to at present - I instead want to use this opportunity to look at the debate about autonomous casting on the whole, and hopefully make it clearer why talking about representation matters.
The best actor for the role / Why is it such a big deal anyway?
I understand why the most frequent response to discourse around autonomous casting of queer and trans roles on our screens and stages is to question how important it really is, in the grand scheme of things. Surely, there are bigger fish to fry. Surely we should focus on marriage equality, or LGBT+ homelessness - surely some movie isn’t that big of a deal.
The first problem with that is that it’s possible for us to think and care about two things at once - the fact that one of my priorities professionally is diverse and progressive casting does not impede on my ability to campaign for other issues that affect my communities.
But the big thing that people don’t take into account is just how much our media - screen, stage, print - provides the discursive roadmaps we take into discussions around cultural or political shifts. The way we perceive things in our popular culture directly informs the way we engage with similar things in our real lives, and there have been direct correlations in negative representation of trans people in the news, on social media, or in pop culture, and increased violence towards trans people.
If we, for example, cast well known cisgender male actors as transgender women characters, we are framing the discourse around that character around a basis of masculinity, rather than one of femininity. It’s easier for us to believe Jared Leto shaving his eyebrows and gaffer-taping his balls than it is for us to comfortably accept the existence of transfemininity - particular a transfemininity that doesn’t “pass” for normative womanhood.
What “ciswashing”, as it is sometimes known, demonstrates is that, whilst we may be increasingly amenable to the idea of trans people, we are still unable to accept the trans body.
What we are saying when we cast Johannsson in this role, is that it’s easier, more palatable, more comfortable, for us to imagine a thin cis straight woman could pretend to be a fat butch gender non-conforming person, than it is for us to imagine that such a person could exist.
What “ciswashing”, as it is sometimes known, demonstrates is that, whilst we may be increasingly amenable to the idea of trans people, we are still unable to accept the trans body, the liminal or illegible body of someone who exists outside of our binary understand of sex and gender. And that allows the seed of discomfort to breed and fester, and grow into the fear and hatred used to oppress trans people.
What if the rest of the movie is well done?
For the most part, the decisions made around personnel and casting - the most visible element of a film, and the one most people have the most interest in - are pretty indicative of the decision-making and storytelling practice. And certainly it’s not always the case that autonomous casting = good representation. The film Transamerica saw a cis woman (Felicity Huffman) play a trans woman in what was a complex and empathetic narrative that portrayed trans women as one of the many ways in which one can be a woman (as opposed to perpetuating the idea of a “man in a dress”). In my capacity as a theatremaker I’ve also worked on numerous productions where cis women have played trans women (the most recent of which being STC’s Still Point Turning), and in all of those instances care and careful research have been high priorities amongst cast and creative teams. But not everyone has such rigour when it comes to the complex practice of minority storytelling.
I’m also yet to hear of any trans writers, consultants, or crew members on this project.
As I mentioned above, there is evidence to suggest that Dante Gill was a transmasculine person, but there is also evidence to suggest they were a gender non-conforming butch lesbian (sometimes referred to as “he/him lesbians”). I don’t know what research methodology has been undertaken by the writers of this film - whilst I assume it’s very little, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt - but the language they’ve used around the film, such as using Gill’s former name, referring to Gill as “she”, and inconsistently describing the character as trans or as lesbian, suggests to me that the care has not been taken to ensure the film is an ethical representation of a non-cis experience. I’m also yet to hear of any trans writers, consultants, or crew members on this project, one of the ways we create ethical trans stories where no actor is present.
Finally, with regard to this particular project and the potential for it to be good despite its casting, I will simply point to the fact that Sanders and Johannsson also worked together on Ghost in the Shell, a film which saw Johannsson, a white woman, play a Japanese character, and that that film was also a hot damn mess.
“Would you rather have a movie with Scarlett Johansson, or no movie at all?”
For some reason, the people I discuss autonomous casting with always play this as their trump card. I’m expected to say “oh, well of course any representation is good representation, and trans people will see this film and see how successful it is and it’ll inspire future generations”.
But you see, we have nearly 20 years of cis people playing trans people for Oscar bait to look back on, and the problem of underrepresentation of trans people is still very much real. When people say “it will inspire future generations of trans actors/writers/directors”, they fail to take into account the ongoing institutional bias against trans people in both education and the workforce - the interest, or inspiration, might be there, but the door is still shut to a lot of people who fall outside of what is regarded as normative and safe in film and theatre.
Given the harmful turns the conversation has taken so far - including Johansson flippantly referencing the performances of two men who have been accused of sexual harassment or assault - I, and many other trans and queer people, would genuinely prefer no film to a film that will promote actively damaging ideas about minorities.
So what are we supposed to do?
The most common clapback made when trans people speak out about casting is “well, what you do about it then?”
There are a number of active steps we can take towards more progressive casting and storytelling.
1. Cast trans and queer talent in our local film, television, and stage work. What’s more, hire trans/queer writers, directors, technicians, DOPs, designers, stage managers, dramaturgs - the ways you can give minorities a voice in their own storytelling don’t just have to be in front of the camera or in the spotlight.
2. Seek out already existing work that features trans and queer talent. The content is out there. It’s being made online or in small community theatres, and the more we support that content, the more the market is encouraged to seek out those people for bigger things.
3. Prioritise the resources and infrastructure needed to foster trans and queer talent. This means we have to put our money where our mouths are. Drama schools and programs need to more actively seek out trans and queer students, and to make the effort to make their institutions (and our venues) more open, accessible, and trans friendly. What’s more, as many trans and queer people face financial disadvantages due to discrimination in the workforce, scholarships and financial aid are important factors as well. If we really do want to see the cinema and theatre of the future be as diverse as we claim, then that’s where we have to start.
As with most things, change begins in our own backyard. But when trans creatives and activists are still stuck trying to explain why it’s even necessary that we should be part of the telling of our own narratives, it’s hard to see how we could even get that far.
Charles O'Grady is a queer playwright an director, and a proud trans man.