Scarlett’s Choice

Rhys Fehrenbacher from They

Scarlett’s Choice

In July 2018, Hollywood star, Scarlett Johansson announced she would not appear in the film Rub and Tug.

This film was to be a dramatic biopic recounting the life of Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a transgender man and underworld figure in 1970s Pittsburgh. Johansson’s casting as Gill and her later withdrawal from the project following pressure from the transgender community has re-ignited the ongoing discussion about whether it is acceptable for cisgender actors to appear in transgender roles.

Hollywood cinema has an unfortunate track record of excluding minority groups from accessing its vast influence as a medium for cultural representation. The transgender community is no exception, with mainstream cinema often mishandling the telling of transgender stories.

On the rare occasions that transgender characters do appear in mainstream film, they are often presented in ways that do not foster understanding and acceptance. It has been common practice for transgender people to be portrayed as villains, victims, or objects of ridicule. Critically lauded films such as Boys Don’t Cry, The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Danish Girl, although well intentioned, have also faced criticism for reinforcing the stereotype of transgender people as victims.

This would be less of a concern if, conversely, transgender actors were given the opportunity to appear in cisgender roles.

Scarlett Johansson’s casting in Rub and Tug provides another reminder that cisgender actors continue to be hired to play transgender characters. This would be less of a concern if, conversely, transgender actors were given the opportunity to appear in cisgender roles. As this rarely occurs, it is reasonable for transgender performers to campaign to play the few suitable parts available to them.

An argument often presented in defence of these casting decisions is that there are no transgender actors with the box-office clout needed to ‘carry’ large-scale Hollywood movies. This rationale leaves transgender actors in a frustrating Catch-22 situation. It may be correct that currently there are not enough transgender actors to headline films, but the status-quo is unlikely to change if cisgender actors continue to be offered transgender roles. A basic solution would be for Hollywood studios to cast transgender actors in roles they can play with the wisdom of their life experience.

Another criticism of casting cisgender actors in transgender roles is that it is tacit acknowledgement that transgender life is merely a game of ‘dress-ups’. The falsehood that transgender people are merely ‘in disguise’ can place them at risk of violence, discrimination and social isolation. A transgender person is not play-acting. For them, there is no ability to remove an actor’s costume and be ‘normal’ again. In accepting transgender roles, cisgender actors should carefully consider whether they are perpetuating this harmful stereotype.

In justifying the casting of cis gender actors in transgender roles, it is argued that it is an actor’s job to inhabit the life of a person different from their own, and that actors should be able to play any role if they are sufficiently skilled in their craft. In theory this is true. However, there is a significant difference between playing a role and playing an identity. A major benefit of hiring transgender actors to portray their own life situations is that they do not have to play ‘transgender’, they only need to play the character. This will result in authentic and compelling performances.

Reducing transgender people on-screen to their ‘trans-ness’ deprives this community of the opportunity to share their hopes and previous struggles. Given Hollywood’s history of excluding minority narratives, transgender people within the film industry should strive to self-produce and perform in entertaining and innovative projects. Through thoughtful screen representation, the lives of transgender people can be positively impacted. Most importantly, transgender audiences will be able to join the rest of society in seeing their lives truthfully reflected on screen.

Written for Queer Screen by David Blanco

Main image: Rhys Fehrenbacher from They, from MGFF18.

Interested in transgender stories? You might like to come along to Bixa Travesty, an intoxicating, pulsating and politicised documentary centred on performance artist and inspiring transwoman, Linn da Quebrada. Linn’s provocative work explores gender, the body and what it means to be a queer woman of colour in Brazil.