Scarlett Johansson Withdraws from ‘Rub & Tug’ Transgender Role Amidst Controversy

July 15, 2018

Scarlett Johansson has changed her mind and “respectfully withdrawn” from playing the role of a transgender man in response to an ongoing streak of casting controversy. The Tony Award-winning actress was set to portray the role of Dante “Tex” Gill in Rupert Sanders’ upcoming movie Rub & Tug. Dante was the sharply dressed, cigar-chomping owner of a Pittsburgh massage parlor that fronted as a prostitution ring in the 1970s and ‘80s. Born a woman, Dante identified as a man and reportedly prefered to be called “Mr. Gill.”

Once the news came out that Johansson had accepted the complex role, the star came under fire for accepting a transgender part when she’s not transgender herself.

Initially, Johansson defended her decision; two weeks ago, her representative released a statement on Bustle saying, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” The three listed stars in fact portrayed leading transgender roles in the TV series Transparent, and the films Dallas Buyers Club and Transamerica, respectively. In essence, Johansson’s point was that Hollywood has a history of cisgender actors portraying trans characters–and to much acclaim at that.

A fierce backlash on social media ensued with many people arguing that transgender actors are rarely, if ever, cast in cisgender roles, so at a minimum they should be given the opportunity to play the trans characters. Transgender actress Trace Lysette who plays Shea on Amazon’s Transparent wrote, “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.” (On a side note, Lysette along with others on the set of Transparent accused Tambor of sexual harassment.)

Lysette continued calling out cisgender actors who portray transgender characters, tweeting, “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.”

Some people defended Johansson, arguing that too many rules are being set if gay people can only portray gay characters, straight actors can only play straight characters, and trans actors can only portray transgender roles. “Guess Paddington should have used a real bear too, huh?” one person tweeted. Others acknowledged Johansson’s star power and her ability to bring in vast audiences. Indeed, as of May 2017, the Black Widow star is the highest-grossing actress of all time in North America in nominal dollar terms.

Amidst all the controversy, it’s clear that Scarlett did some homework and soul searching on the matter. Indeed, she withdrew from the role and released a statement to Out magazine revealing her thoughts behind her decision. She wrote:

“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.”

Among the many people applauding Johansson’s change of heart was GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis who called it a “game changer.” Others have responded to Scarlett’s withdrawal with less enthusiasm and more questions. In other words, the controversy continues.

But Johansson is no stranger to controversy. Scarlett also caused a stir when she was cast as the Major in Rupert Sanders’ science fiction action film Ghost in the Shell. The Major is a character who was originally a Japanese girl. Critics said the casting choice to use Scarlett whitewashed the character and served as a lost opportunity for an Asian actress to take on the role.