Recently acclaimed cisgender actor, Scarlett Johansson, sparked media controversy for accepting the role of a transgender man in the upcoming film project, Rub & Tug. Following critical backlash from the LGBTQ+ community for accepting the role, Johansson has since then dropped out of the role.
“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,” she claimed.
“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.”
While the LGBTQ+ community is relieved at this development, there are those to question the controversy. Many ask why in a world based on make-belief a cisgender actor cannot play certain roles.
In the past, transgender characters in cinema have often been played by cisgender actors. Examples include Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. However, several voices within the transgender community have find this tendency to cast cis actors in trans roles problematic. Many believe the trend enforces a system of cis privilege and discrimination against transgender performers.
Jen Richards, a transgender actress and activist, has been vocal about the value of authentic representation. She has stated the problems that arise from casting cisgender men as transgender women in media. “First, there’s the practical/economic one. It denies actual trans women opportunities, jobs, resources, which hurts entire community.”
For many performers who come from marginalized backgrounds, Hollywood has demonstrated explicit biases of favoring those whose skin and bodies do not challenge the status quo of “white, male, cisgender, etc.”
For transgender individuals, who already face major discrimination in terms of medical access, legal protection, and general public safety, the exclusion of transgender actors from opportunities to represent themselves in the media only hinders them financially and socially within mainstream society.
To create a story about a marginalized person without involving that community’s participation is appropriation. Authentic representation requires contributions from both behind and in front of the screen from people who identify as part of that community. This was seen in Pose, which boasts the largest cast of trans actors ever represented within one show.
On cisgender actors who have been awarded for playing transgender women, Jen Richards states, “Cis audiences reward them because they see being trans itself as a performance.” She then added,
“Trans actors rather perform THE STORY, not our gender.”
So, for those who question the controversy of cisgender actors being cast as transgender characters, please ask yourself the difference between playing a role and playing an identity on screen. Understand the value of representation for those who are not yet able to see their authentic stories seen on screen.