Scarlett Johansson surprised fans Monday after it was announced she'd be taking on the role of crime boss Dante "Tex" Gill, a transgender man, in the new movie "Rub & Tug."
The true-life film focuses on Gill, who became notorious for running a string of massage parlours that fronted prostitution businesses in Pittsburgh in the '70s and '80s. Although Gill was assigned female at birth, he assumed a male identity, used male pronouns, and dressed in a masculine manner, according to an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Since the casting announcement, Johansson has been heavily criticized for taking the role away from a trans man, especially at a time when Hollywood is trying to overcome its problems with casting and representation.
We have to stop hiring non-trans actors to play trans characters. In my opinion, it's equally as traumatic & offensive as black-face. It also shows how lazy, unwoke, and complicit in transphobia you are. #CASTAUTHENTICALLY! https://t.co/3WW1cOzrEE— Steven Canals (@StevenCanals) July 3, 2018
Do you know how fucking disrespectful it is that Scarlett Johansson is playing a real trans person that existed. It's disgusting and despicable and everyone involved in that production should be fucking ashamed.— ashley michael 🤖 (@ashleymvillers) July 4, 2018
Hire. Trans. Men. To. Play. Trans. Men.
Trans actresses Jamie Clayton (of "Sense8" fame) and Trace Lysette (of "Transparent") also shared their frustrations on Twitter:
Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU #RupertSanders@NewRegency#ScarlettJohanssonhttps://t.co/RkrW8MeGcG— Jamie Clayton (@MsJamieClayton) July 4, 2018
Oh word?? So you can continue to play us but we can't play y'all? Hollywood is so fucked... I wouldn't be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that's not the case. A mess. https://t.co/s8gBlBI1Sw— Trace Lysette (@tracelysette) July 4, 2018
Clayton and Lysette were both cast in trans roles for their respective shows. And the only other high-profile trans actor in Hollywood is Laverne Cox, who also plays a trans woman in "Orange is the New Black."
Executive editor Meredith Talusan of them., explained the injustice on her site: "Our society already fundamentally values cis people more than trans people ... And because cis people are much less likely to have social or economic obstacles thrown their way, they also enjoy far greater access to Hollywood in general."
"It has never been ethically or politically justifiable for cisgender people to play trans roles," she continued. "And as long as we live in a society where trans people see a fraction of the opportunities afforded to cis people, it will continue to be deeply unjust when cis actors steal parts from trans talent."
Johansson's response to the criticism sparked even more outrage. Speaking to Bustle on behalf of Johansson, her rep said, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment."
Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in "Transparent."
Tambor, Leto and Huffman are all cisgender actors who have played transgender characters before. In fact, Leto and Huffman were both nominated for Oscars for their roles in 2013's "Dallas Buyers Club" and 2005's "Transamerica," respectively.
As for Tambor, he played a trans woman in the web series "Transparent," which premiered in 2014, and has won an Emmy for his role (although he was fired from the show following harassment claims earlier this year).
Many outraged people took to Twitter to make it clear that just because cisgender actors have taken on trans roles before doesn't justify Johansson's decision to play Gill:
i can't believe scarlett johansson's response to why she took a role as a trans man was "other people did it first so it's not my fault" like ??? in what world does that make sense ??? also the director she's working with needs to hmm find a new profession send tweet— beefy vegan (@cadetdex) July 4, 2018
Yeah, I'm gonna avoid Scarlett Johansson movies moving forward after her response. Even if this topic were complex (and it's not: trans people should play trans people), flippantly dismissing concerns over this new role really says a lot about her views regarding trans people.— Charlotte Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) July 3, 2018
Many noted on social media that this isn't the first time Johansson has taken a role away from an underrepresented group.
Scarlett Johansson is playing a trans man in her next movie because her ultimate career goal is to take an acting job from a member of each and every marginalized group.— Faith Choyce (@faithchoyce) July 3, 2018
Scarlett Johansson has proven time again that she is not much of an ally when it gets in the way of her personal advancement. I hope this new movie will be rewarded in the same way as GitS - mediocre reviews and a box office failure.— Hanna Ines Flint (@HannaFlint) July 3, 2018
In 2016, the 33-year-old actress was accused of whitewashing when she agreed to play Japanese character Major Motoko Kusanagi in "Ghost in the Shell," which is based on a manga series of the same name.
what we could've had pic.twitter.com/CjVJkPI4OE— J⃒A⃒N⃒⚡️@ Audiotistic (@Hikaru_Jan) April 14, 2016
In response to the backlash, Johansson told Marie Claire last year, "I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive."
However, many movie-goers did take offence, causing the film to bomb at the box office.
While it's unknown whether Gill underwent gender reaffirming surgery in his lifetime, his obituary makes it clear Gill identified as a man and "wanted to be known as 'Mr. Gill.'"
Additionally, Gill's cousin Barry Paris described the crime boss as "an anomaly for her day, someone who had to hide her sexuality as a single woman in the transgender community, which at the time was so underground it had yet to acquire that label."