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Here’s why casting Scarlett Johannson as a transgender character is problematic

"Trans is an identity and  life experience, not a set of stereotypical character traits that you can just emulate."

By Charlotte Molloy

Dante “Tex” Gill was a hard man and cut a mean figure. With his sharp pin striped suit, slicked back short hair, and portly frame he looked every bit the classic American Gangster that he was.

Single handedly, over the course of two decades, Gill built up a criminal empire of Brothels disguised as “massage parlours”, raking in millions of dollars for himself on the mean streets of 70s Pittsburgh.

With a string of cute blonde trophy wives and girlfriends, and several near successful assassination attempts on him by rival Mafia gangs in the city, the man has earned the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with infamous rogues like Al Capone in the organised crime hall of fame.

So who does Hollywood think should play this infamous machismo rogue in his upcoming biopic?

Tom Hardy?

Hugh Jackman?

Nope – Scarlett Goddamn Johannson!

You see there is one minor detail I left out of Texs’ story. He was transgender. As in… he was assigned female at birth.

For most of us, that fact is a bit of a non-issue and we can understand that despite it, he identified as male. But no. According to the privileged white male elites that continue to dominate Hollywood that minor detail automatically means that “Tex” needs to be played by a biological woman who is the complete opposite to him in terms of appearance and life experience.

I realise that with an astronomical makeup and costume budget there should be no issue with making Scarlett look like Tex, but this problem is more than just skin deep.

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This casting choice is really problematic for two reasons: firstly, for the message it sends to the world.

By casting a cisgender woman to play a transman, both Johansson and the people who hired her are implying that our transgender identity is invalid. They are basically saying that “Tex” didn’t count as a man.

As a community, we are under fire every day from the media, governments, and religious groups who consider our identity to be invalid. In certain US states we can’t legally use the toilet.  Christian couples who think having a transgender girl in their child’s primary school class will “confuse and pollute their child’s mind” get a fair hearing on national television. Germaine Greer is allowed to open her mouth without consequence. The societal perception that we get is so bad that according to Stonewall’s 2017 “School report” almost 50% of us attempted suicide at least once during our teenage years.

Movies have a deep impact on societal norms and values. Think of how much better a quality of life trans folk, particularly children, could have if Hollywood started validating our identities and working to give us a more positive reputation in the world. By which I mean, if they just simply… (wait for it) hired trans actors to play trans roles.

I mean, it’s not like there is any kind of shortage of trans actors in the entertainment industry to actually take up these roles either. Laverne Cox and Jamie Clayton have been killing it on Orange is the New Black and Sense 8 for several seasons now. Daniela Vega won 6 Best Actress awards for her role in “A Fantastic Woman.” There’s some fantastic trans talent out there if Hollywood could be bothered to look.

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The second reason that I would say Johansson is a poor choice for the role is her obvious lack of understanding of what it means to be trans, which is really crucial if they are to do the role any justice.

When asked to comment on her inappropriateness for the role, Johansson told reporters to speak to the agents of Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Eddie Redmayne. All male actors who got a big pat on the back from the academy for playing transwomen in Hollywood blockbusters in the past few years.

As a someone who has experienced life as a trans person, I can safely say that these portrayals seriously lacked the depth that only an actual trans person could bring to the role.

Despite their apparent best intentions, Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lilli Elbe’s trans experience in the Danish Girl came across as little more than an uncontrollable fetish for frilly dresses. Last time I checked I didn’t elect to make every aspect of my existence one hundred times more just because I got a sexual kick out of wearing skirts!

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The narrative also focused more on how emotionally difficult it was for Elbe’s wife than Elbe’s true feelings. That’s fair. I am not saying that having a trans relative isn’t hard for some families, but how did the supporting actress get a more nuanced and developed role that than the sodding lead character? If this was a college paper they would get a terrible grade for spectacularly missing the point of the question the point of their film.

Just because Jared Leto’s bum looks better in a mini skirt than mine does doesn’t mean he truly understands what it means to be a trans woman like I do. His experience of being a transwoman was getting a Golden Globe, mine was my own mother telling me she didn’t love me anymore.

Trans is an identity and  life experience, not a set of stereotypical character traits (like being a mobster or a pirate) that you can just emulate.

As such, Johanssons’ performance would not do Tex justice. Until Hollywood understands that only trans actors can truly do justice to trans roles, silver screen trans narratives will continue to be missing something and the world will be a harsher place because of it.

My advice to Scarlett: Stick to playing Black Widow. Your range isn’t as great as you think!

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One comment

  1. You are absolutely right! I’m cis gendered, but cannot understand why Hollywood doesn’t make any attempt to tell trans stories with trans actors. It gives completely the wrong message, as you say, a ‘look how inclusive we are’ statement without actually being inclusive. I hope this will change, and soon! Also, considering the backlash Johansson faced over playing a Japanese character in Ghost In The Shell, this seems like another thoughtless choice on her part.

    Like

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