Scarlett Johansson criticised for accepting transgender role

Backlash led by trans actors who argue such decisions take opportunities away from LGBTQ+ community

Scarlett Johansson faced a storm of criticism this week after it was reported that she would play a transgender man in a movie, a year after she drew scrutiny for taking on a role that was originally Japanese.

The newly announced film, Rub & Tug, is based on the real-life story of Dante "Tex" Gill, who ran a string of massage parlors that were fronts for prostitution dens in the 1970s and 1980s. The online backlash was led by transgender actors, who argued that such casting decisions take opportunities away from members of marginalised communities.

"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," actress Trace Lysette wrote on Twitter, referring to cisgender people, or those who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

"Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived," added Lysette, who is a transgender woman and plays one on the TV series Transparent, about a character who comes out as transgender.


Representatives for Johansson did not respond to emails requesting comment. The actress faced further anger online after the website Bustle published a statement from an unidentified representative for Johansson that said, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment."

Those actors are cisgender but have played transgender characters: Tambor as a transgender woman on Transparent; Leto as a transgender woman in the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club; and Huffman as a transgender woman in the 2005 film Transamerica. Leto won an Oscar for his performance, and Huffman was nominated for one.

‘Ghost in the Shell’

"To you people out there, please give transgender talent a chance," Tambor said in 2016 after accepting an Emmy for his role in Transparent. "Give them auditions. Give them their story." Tambor left the show last year after Lysette and another transgender woman, Van Barnes, accused him of sexual misconduct. Some of the criticism of Johansson took note of her starring role in the 2017 live-action US film adaptation of the Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell, in which she played a character based on the series' Major Motoko Kusanagi, with her hair styled in a black bob. That film was directed by Rupert Sanders, who will also direct Rub & Tug.

The studios behind Ghost in the Shell, Paramount and DreamWorks, said before the film's release that the movie represented "a diverse array of cultures and countries." Many did not agree. Transgender advocates point to casting decisions like those on the television show Pose on FX as examples of casting that represents the community reflected in the show. Pose focuses on the lives of LGBTQ people and stars five transgender women who play transgender characters.

"I want this show to do more than just present a talented cast of trans actresses," Ryan Murphy, who created Pose, told Janet Mock, a writer and producer for the show, according to a column she wrote for Variety. "I want Pose to be uplifting and to give others who have not been given a chance a real opportunity to tell their own stories."

In the column, Mock described her experience as a transgender woman, and her desire to change how such women were portrayed. "When girls like us flitted onto my screen, we were seen through the narrowest lens, either as points of trauma, treated as freaks, or mere punchlines," she wrote. "And I knew with Pose, I would hold the pen." –New York Times