Scarlett Johansson is playing a trans man – here's why a SA trans woman thinks it's a big deal


Channel24 reports that cisgender actress Scarlett Johansson will be reuniting with her Ghost In The Shell director Rupert Sanders to play a transgender man in the new film Rub & Tug.

The movie is based on the real-life story of transgender massage parlour owner Dante “Tex” Gill. 

Gill also identified as male so a cisgender female actress being cast to play the role is quite problematic for a number of reasons. 

Many people on Twitter have raised their concerns about the casting choice (and have also poked fun at the fact that this is yet another inappropriate role for the actress):

Trans actress Jamie Clayton had this to say about Scarlett getting the role:

Other Twitter users also expressed their disappointment

The glaring problem here is representation. And Scarlett’s reaction to the outrage just made it all worse. In an comment issued to Bustle via a representative, Scarlett said: "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment."

Juanita Van Zyl, a trans woman and activist, spoke to W24 about her outrage about the choice of casting: “Cis people think we are overreacting because they are ‘friends’ and ‘allies’ and they are simply telling a story to make a positive contribution to the transgender community. But are they really?"

"I fight daily to break down the stereotype that we are ‘men in dresses’. Having a cis man play a transgender woman gives that exact perception to the audience."

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Juanita says that the fact that these stories keep cropping up and history keeps repeating itself is proof of the fact that so called “allies” are not listening to transgender people and their concerns. “We have been complaining about cis actors playing transgender roles for years and yet not one director or writer listened or cared to make changed to the benefit of the transgender community,” she says.

So why exactly is it problematic when a female cisgender actor plays a male transgender role or vice versa? 

Juanita replies: “From my perspective as a transgender woman, I fight daily to break down the stereotype that we are ‘men in dresses’. Having a cis man play a transgender woman gives that exact perception to the audience. Similar stereotypes are true when it comes to trans men being portrayed by cis women. Because the star is a cis woman the audience sees the trans man as nothing more than a woman. These views play a role in the thousands of transgender murders across the world because cis people don't see us as real men and women.” 

"Transgender men are men. Transgender women are women.”

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Juanita tells us about the term ‘transface’ that has come up in recent years and how it’s been “… used to describe the practice of cis people playing transgender people in movies because the movies or trans characters are often offensive, insensitive and problematic.”

Juanita says there are lots of transgender actors willing to play transgender roles and they should be given this opportunity.

“In the rare event that you can't find a transgender actor, it would be better to cast a cis man as a transgender man and a cis woman as a transgender woman to break down stereotypes. Hollywood needs to listen to transgender voices. Let transgender people play transgender roles in movies. Let transgender people play cis roles in movies. Transgender men are men. Transgender women are women.”

We also spoke to Dr Eli Rosen who is a sex educator and healthcare activist at Sexy Smarts to talk to us about why Scarlett’s casting is problematic:

They said: “the issue of Scarlett Johansson (a cisgender woman) playing a trans man in a movie, which she is the producer of and working with the director who worked with her on Ghost in the Shell in which she played an Asian character is just one more example of a longstanding problem in the movie industry.”

"Both these scenarios dehumanise trans people and reduce the trans experience to a commodity that exists for the entertainment of cis people."

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Dr Rosen also points out that there are many talented trans actors who are being overlooked for acting roles playing either trans or cis characters and that choosing a cis actor to play a trans character further limits the employment opportunities of actors who would offer a far more nuanced performance of the trans experience. 

They also say that the mainstream movie industry seldom has trans writers creating trans characters. “This leaves the portrayal of trans people riddled with harmful stereotypes which are just further amplified by the clueless performances of cisgender actors.” Says Dr Rosen. 

“It's time for the movie industry to work towards meaningful inclusion with regards to diversity. "

Trans stories created by cis writers often concentrate on the trauma, humiliation and violence against trans folk instead of creating a story with well-rounded characters who actually have an accurate representation of the trans experience.

“This reduces trans folk to trauma porn at the worst and the titillation of a freakshow at best. Both these scenarios dehumanise trans people and reduce the trans experience to a commodity that exists for the entertainment of cis people. Often these movies get rave reviews about how deep and insightful they are and win multiple awards from cis people, with complete disregard of any critique or outcry from the trans community about how inaccurate or damaging the portrayal is,” notes Dr Rosen. 

READ MORE: Genderqueer, trans or pansexual - what does it all mean?

Casting a cisgender person in the roles of trans characters also reinforces the stereotype that trans people are playing at being trans. “This idea of trans people faking or acting their gender is used as the basis of violence, denying trans people basic services such as healthcare, and barring trans people from accessing public spaces like toilets.”

Finally, Dr Rosen ends off with “It's time for the movie industry to work towards meaningful inclusion with regards to diversity. Scarlett Johansson isn't showing an incredible range of acting talent by playing Asian and transgender roles, she's just showing how utterly ignorant and privileged she is that she thinks her acting is going to do justice to stories she has no right to be telling.”

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