Apparently Scarlett Johansson didn’t get the memo about how problematic it is for actors to play characters of different racial and gender identities. Despite the whitewashing controversy around Ghost in the Shell, Johansson is reteaming with her Ghost director Rupert Sanders for another problematic portrayal.
Johansson will lead Sander’s Rub & Tug, a drama about Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life figure who was a massage parlor owner in 1970’s Pittsburgh. The actress will play Gill and produce the New Regency film alongside Joel Silver, which has a script by Gary Spinelli (American Made). Gill has a fascinating story, which included running an empire of massage parlors that served as fronts for prostitution in Pittsburgh’s red-light district, feuding with the mob, and serving seven years in prison for tax evasion. But there’s a major problem with how Sander’s film is being described by other news outlets, most likely a result of how Spinelli has written Gill’s life story: Gill was a transgender man. Johansson is a cisgender woman.
All three trades, Deadline, THR, and Variety, announced Johansson’s casting by describing Gill as a woman who dressed like a man, one author using more incorrect (and ignorant) language describing Gill as “sexually ambivalent.” (Note: Gender identity is separate from sexuality.) However a quick Google search reveals that Gill lived as a transmasculine person.
While it is often tricky to know the exact language a historical figure used to describe their identity, especially for a trans person who’s no longer living, we can find the most information in the way they described themself in written documents (such as journals or letters), or in the press. Gill’s obituary, published in 2003 by Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette, states it pretty clearly: “In all the old newspaper stories about Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, she was always ‘the woman who prefers to be known as a man,’ or some variation of that description, and she sure looked and acted the part.” The obit goes on to describe how Gill “may even have undergone the initial stages of [medical transitioning] that made her appear more masculine,” and that Gill “insisted she was a man” who wanted to be known as “Mr. Gill.” Based on that alone, it’s pretty obvious that Gill did not identity as a woman, as Johansson’s film seems to suggest. Did Spinelli simply ignore this for his script?
UPDATE: Johansson has issued a statement on her casting. A rep for the actress told Bustle in response to the backlash:
Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.
Not only does this confirm that Johansson’s project will depict Gill as trans, but that she seems to have no concern for the trans community and the many concerns about a cis actor portraying a trans character. Let’s not miss the fact that she names three cis actors who won and/or were nominated for awards for playing trans. Someone must be desperate for their Oscar, no matter who it offends.
Rug & Tug isn’t the only problematic project on the way for the trans community, but one of two films in the works where a historical transmasculine figure is being misrepresented as a woman, and played by a cisgender actress. In an upcoming biopic, Rachel Weisz is playing Dr. James Barry, a Victorian trans man and surgeon known as one of the first to successfully deliver a C-section baby. Yet in interviews Weisz has insisted Barry wasn’t trans, but a woman in disguise. (And in case you need a refresher on why it’s problematic for cis actors to play trans characters in the first place, check out the video below.)
All of this opens up a much bigger discussion about how we interpret history through a modern lens, especially the history of a much-maligned and oppressed community. But as a trans person myself, I can tell you it’s clear from just a little research that both Gill and Barry didn’t identify as women. It’s especially worrisome that Hollywood is about to distort their stories and further erase trans identities from the screen. This, among many reasons, is why we need trans and gender nonconforming people consulting on projects, and especially, writing these scripts themselves.