Having backtracked on an earlier statement, actress Scarlett Johansson has opted to withdraw from Rub & Tug, a film in which she was to play Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man, following outrage from the LGBTQ+ community. While other high-profile actors, like Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor, have recently played transgender roles, there’s a sense that Johansson has something of a target on her back following accusations of whitewashing for the decision to cast her in 2017’s big screen adaptation of Japanese manga series Ghost in a Shell.
Although the outcry to cast a transgender actor comes from a good place, I’m not entirely sure if pressuring Johansson to quit the role is particularly beneficial. Obviously, the issue of under-representation in cinema is both vital and needs to be addressed. The recent debut of FX drama Pose, which featured the largest-ever cast of transgender actors in recurring roles on a television series, has shown that imperative steps are being taken. But, unfortunately, cinema and TV are two very different mediums.
TV series go through rigorous selection policies – including the filming of a pilot – which offer far more security in terms of popularity once it eventually hits the airwaves. Conversely, film is a far more binary medium, where studios can live or die on the success of a single film, and the star power of an actor is essential to both securing funding and guaranteeing a return at the box office.
It’s reminiscent of the outrage that surrounded the rumoured casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet in 2016, when thousands of people signed petitions demanding a Middle Eastern actor be cast in his place. The sentiment was admirable, but the release of the remarkable film Embrace of the Serpent – which featured a relatively unknown non-white actor in the lead role – the same year made less than £45,000 at the UK box office. Granted, it didn’t get an enormous release, but the biggest difference people can make in fixing the problem of underrepresentation in cinema is to actually pay money and buy cinema tickets.
It’s unfortunate that there’s arguably no transgender actors that have the box-office pull of Scarlett Johansson, and I am aware that this is part of the problem, but casting a less well-known actor will probably see the film have a smaller release, and subsequently a smaller box office return. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be the case; but we don’t live in a perfect world, and the film industry is about as imperfect a world as you could ever imagine. I might be wrong, but I sincerely doubt that her performance would have been a stereotypical parody; the days of Mickey Rooney putting in bucked teeth and doing a goofy Japanese impression in Breakfast at Tiffany’s are long behind us. But addressing the problem of under-representation is a process that will take time, and I’m not sure if broadsiding the production of a film that would have told the story of a transgender person to a wide audience has helped expedite that process at all.
Ash Carter is LeftLion’s Screen Editor. Want to get involved in the section? Drop him a line with an “ayup” and a writing example at firstname.lastname@example.org