The transgender community is not happy with the news of Scarlett Johansson playing a trans character in her latest film. The outrage over Johansson portraying a trans man is understandable. However, this debate isn’t as black and white as it appears on the surface. NME reports that the actor is set to play Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life massage parlour owner in 1970s and 80s Pittsburgh in Rub &Tug. Born Lois Jean Gill, Dante identified as a man. He ran mafia-protected massage parlours, which were fronts for prostitution. The current project is being helmed by director Rupert Sands. Ironically, Sands and Johansson were accused of “whitewashing” their previous film together, the anime remake of Ghost In The Shell.
Diversity Vs An actor’s right to portray any character
Yes, people from the transgender community don’t get many opportunities in films and television, and there is an immediate need to create more roles for them. They are not alone, the outrage over lack of diversity in gender, racial representation is gripping Hollywood by its neck today. People of diverse ethnicity have long accused Hollywood of “whitewashing” ethnic characters. We can no more overlook how diversity is marginalised in Hollywood films, in the name of creative liberty.
In 2016, Marvel Studios faced immense backlash for “whitewashing” Ancient One’s character in their film Doctor Strange, by casting actor Tilda Swinton in a role of a person with an Asian ethnicity. Similarly, Hollywood seems to choose people of cis-gender to portray transgender characters on-screen.
This doesn’t mean that the actors who take up such roles, don’t do justice to them. Most of them have received rave reviews for their performances.
It is legitimate for members of the trans community to feel hurt that even the roles stitched for trans actors are outsourced to cis actors. But if you see it from an artist’s perspective, isn’t acting all about portraying an identity which isn’t your real one? Shouldn’t the only qualification an actor needs, is being good at his/her job?
Once you start putting boxes around creativity, it will never stop. We won’t have any more Barney Stinson or Sheldon Cooper, two popular straight characters played by artists who are homosexual in real life. Or Hillary Swank’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Brandon Teena in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. Or Jared Leto’s portrayal of a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) which won him an Oscar.
One of the most poignant on-screen love story- Brokeback Mountain had two straight men depicting a homosexual romance. Yet it moved us to tears, only because Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger poured their hearts into their roles.
No one can say that these actors failed their characters.
The fight to diversify Hollywood must never stop. Everyone deserves equal opportunities, on the basis of talent and not any entitlement. But let us all be a bit lenient towards these actors as well. Let us not take the very thing which makes acting so enjoyable away from them. As much as it is the right of the LGBT community to gain equal footing, their struggle to obtain it should not come at the cost of constraining good actors. Such restrictions will only end up curtailing opportunities for everyone.
If you take the fluidity of moving between two fictional characters, none of which are even close to their own identity, then what will the actors be left with?
pic credit- Cinema Blend
Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are author’s own