Well, that took long enough. 11 days and loads of backlash, to be exact. Scarlett Johansson has now officially withdrawn from the upcoming biopic Rub & Tug, in which she was set to portray a real-life trans man.
Last week, news broke that Johansson was reuniting with her Ghost in the Shell director Rupert Sanders to once again erase another marginalized community. In Rub & Tug, the Marvel star would’ve played Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a trans man who ran underground massage parlors in Pittsburgh’s red light district in the 1970s. The trans community, including myself, quickly pushed back against the casting, which is harmful to trans representation for numerous reasons.
In an exclusive statement to Out magazine, Johansson said she is exiting the project. She also issued a sort-of apology for her initial response to the backlash – a statement directing the blame to other cisgender actors who have played trans roles, like Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman. See her full statement below:
In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project. Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive. I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues. According to GLAAD, LGBTQ+ characters dropped 40% in 2017 from the previous year, with no representation of trans characters in any major studio release. While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film. I believe that all artists should be considered equally and fairly. My production company, These Pictures, actively pursues projects that both entertain and push boundaries. We look forward to working with every community to bring these most poignant and important stories to audiences worldwide.
Based on that, it sounds like Johansson did what few actors do, especially cisgender actors who have played (and won awards for playing) transgender characters in the past: she listened. That in itself is pretty incredible, and I’m honestly a little surprised she’s dropped out. Whether she genuinely has invested time and energy into learning about the trans community’s concerns, or just threw a GLAAD statistic her publicist sent her into a statement, we don’t know. But I still feel hugely optimistic and grateful that she listened and made the right decision. This alone is proof that when a minority community pushes back, Hollywood will actually listen. It’s unknown if Johansson is also withdrawing from the project as a producer, but since she mentions her production company’s diversity efforts in the statement, I hope that if she stays on board she’ll actually help cast this role accurately.
However, from that statement, it doesn’t sound like she entirely understands the concerns about a cis person in a trans role. Yes, equal opportunities for trans actors is massively important, but the problem with this type of casting is that it also has damaging consequences in the real world by reaffirming inaccurate and dangerous stereotypes about trans people. Check out the video ScreenCrush produced with GLAAD about this very topic, which features nine trans actors breaking it down.