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Scarlett Johansson 'Rub & Tug' row: Why can't minorities represent their own truth?

Scarlett Johansson is under fire from the LGBT community after the announcement that she's been cast to play the role of a transgender in the upcoming film 'Rub & Tug'
UPDATED FEB 11, 2020
Scarlett Johansson (Source: Getty Images)
Scarlett Johansson (Source: Getty Images)

Actress Scarlett Johansson's role in the upcoming 'Rub & Tug' has left the 'Avengers'  actress in the eye of the storm. Johansson is under fire from the LGBT community after the announcement that she's been cast in the film to play the role of a transgender, because, well, she isn't one. The movie is based on the life of 1970's crime kingpin Dante "Tex" Gill. A transgender from Pittsburg, Gill rose in the crime ranks dominated by men at the time and ran several brothels disguised as sordid massage parlors. He was born as Lois Jean Gill but identified as a man later in life.

An infamous mobster, he was misidentified as a cross-dresser during the '70s and the '80s. While some consider him a gangster, there are others who call him a transgender revolutionary. The thin line between reality and fiction is blurred in the case of Mr Gill (as he liked being called).

One thing is for certain — he's a big name and his legend just got bigger after Johansson was announced to be playing it. Misrepresentation of a personality like that appears to be the concern of the transgender community. They are tired of watching cisgendered stars playing roles they feel they should be. Cisgender is used to define people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

Johansson's statement after she found herself at the forefront of the controversy only added fuel to the fire. She reportedly told Bustle, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment." It's not hard to guess why it was disappointing. Johansson has been an outspoken feminist for her entire career and this statement only seemed to be her way of shaking off responsibility. She famously told at the Women's March, "I did not vote for you. That said... I want to be able to support you, but first, I ask that you support me." 

There's no argument about the fact that the backlash shouldn't just be directed at Johansson. It takes more than one to make a film. The film is directed by Rupert Sanders and written by Gary Spinelli. The outrage, however, isn't unjustified.

Afterall, if A-listers do not contribute to the change, who will? Scarlett had a choice, either to push her already flourishing career further and make a couple of millions or stand for a cause — and her choice is clear as day. Earlier, ScarJo's casting in the Hollywood remake of cult-classic Japanese anime 'Ghost in the Shell', as Major Kusanagi, had also come under fire for being a prime example of Hollywood whitewashing.

This, however, isn't the first time that cisgendered actors have portrayed transgender characters on the big screen. Most of them, at least the ones Scar-Jo has mentioned, have even won awards and accolades for it. Jared Leto famously won an Oscar for his performance in 2013 ' Dallas Buyers Club' as Rayon.

Jeffery Tambor won Emmys and Golden Globes for his role as a trans woman in 'Transparent' although he was later dropped after harassment claims and Huffman proudly bagged a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for her turn as  Bree Osbourne aka Stanley Schupak in the 2005 film 'Transamerica'.

From Elle Fanning in '3 Generations',  Hilary Swank in 'Boys Don't Cry', Eddie Redmayne in 'The Danish Girl' to Michael Caine in 'Dressed to Kill', cisgendered actors have played the role of transgenders while there is no dearth of transgender talent.

It is not a myth that visibility leads to fame. Transgenders are more than just men in wigs. As actress Jen Richards put it after actor Matt Bomer was cast to play a trans woman in 'Anything', "Every time a cis man gets applauded for bravely portraying a transgender woman on screen, every time he picks up an award for it while sporting a tuxedo, we’re reinforcing the belief that, at the end of the day, a trans woman is still really a man."

This is a conversation that Hollywood needs to have. Everyone deserves a chance to represent their own truth. That being said, the casting decisions made by the people behind the lens and on the board of producers is quite understandable. After all, it is a money-making business.

Transgender actors are not yet seen as bankable stars. Producers are hesitant to part with millions of dollars for the sake of making a statement. A major part of the revenue also comes from overseas where sentiments about these issues tend to vary. In an ideal world, it shouldn't be so. So what is stopping them from having an iron clad PR strategy? There have been films that have been successful even when the faces have been relatively unknown.

The classic example is the 2008 film 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Set in the slums of Mumbai with Dev Patel and Freida Pinto as the main stars went all the way to win the Oscar and make $377 million roughly worldwide. While Danny Boyle was a part of the reason why the film drew in eyeballs, it was also the campaign surrounding it that made people go to theatres to watch the film.

Similarly, all it takes is one big break and to shatter the glass ceiling transgender actors have to be given the opportunity to do so. Only those who live the life really know what it's like and, in my opinion, that would enrich a project further. If 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones was played by someone in a fatsuit instead of Gabourey Sidibe, would it still be as moving and as mind-blowingly dramatic as it is? 

It all comes down to is how Hollywood chooses to progress. Is it okay with making money and continuing to give its seal of approval to repression? Or will it be brave enough to take the plunge so that minorities have a shot at coming to the forefront? It remains to be seen.