The real Dante “Tex” Gill, sporting a three-piece suit and a mean mug, was the archetype of masculine swagger. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood sex symbol Scarlett Johansson playing such a character, especially one described in their own obituary as “short and dumpy,” but that is exactly what she intends to do in “Rub & Tug.” Johansson’s casting announcements cited Gill as a woman who dressed as a man, but Screencrush writer E. Oliver Whitney pointed out that Gill was most likely a transgender man.
Johansson’s casting prompted harsh rebukes from the trans community, which has repeatedly complained of seeing their stories co-opted by cis people in Hollywood. Johansson told Bustle through a representative: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”
It’s a statement that has echoes of “let them eat cake,” and her clueless comment suggests she’s every bit as out of touch as Marie Antoinette. While all three of those actors were lauded for their roles at the time, the Oscar-nominated Huffman starred in “Transamerica” 13 years ago; Leto won his “Dallas Buyers Club” Oscar in 2014; and the Emmy-winning Tambor (“Transparent”) is a hot mess who — even when he was still lauded — was starting to get serious blowback for his portrayal. The world has changed, radically, and what was acceptable (and successful) then, isn’t now.
By referring to three trans roles, she tacitly acknowledges Gill’s trans identity, eliminating any plausible deniability on her part. But if Johansson is hoping for her Oscar moment with a movie called “Rub & Tug,” she is in for a rude awakening — and she slept through the last five years of trans film and TV.
She clearly missed the underwhelming response to The Weinstein Company’s 2015 “3 Generations,” in which Elle Fanning pouted her way through a trans teenager’s transition (domestic box office: $156,000). Or “Anything” in 2017, which starred Matt Bomer as a caricature of a trans woman (domestic box office: $19,000). Both movies were also critical failures, and faced significant criticism well before their release. Although it didn’t help the movie much, “Anything” executive producer Mark Ruffalo acknowledged his mistake. “To the Trans community. I hear you,” Ruffalo tweeted. “It’s wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.”
However, Johansson passes over accountability in favor of passing the buck. Her curt and flippant response not only reveals her indifference toward the very people whose stories she seeks to mine, but also an overweening ignorance of Hollywood history. Movies are known for their disregard of marginalized groups, from the minstrelsy of Al Jolson, to Mickey Rooney’s Oscar-nominated Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” to Emma Stone as hapa Hawaiian Allison Ng in “Aloha.” However, Johansson’s commentary has all the sophistication and naiveté of a child pointing fingers when caught in the act: “He did it first!”
All of this piles onto the massive failure that was the tone-deaf “Ghost in the Shell,” which cast Johansson in the lead role of a Japanese manga adaptation. (The director was Rupert Sanders, who will also direct “Rub & Tug.”) “Ghost in the Shell” received terrible reviews and lost somewhere between $60 million-$100 million.
Adding insult to injury, Hollywood offers so few roles for trans people. In response to the “Rub & Tug” casting, trans actresses Trace Lysette (“Transparent”) and Jamie Clayton (“Sense8”) both said the most insidious element of this casting trend is that the coin doesn’t flip both ways. “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,” Lysette said.
2018 has been a banner year for trans storytelling in Hollywood: “A Fantastic Woman” became the first film starring an out trans actress to win an Oscar; FX debuted “Pose,” a TV show about trans people of color that stars actual trans people of color; and Silas Howard’s “A Kid Like Jake” took on childhood gender variance with the nuanced artfulness only a trans director could provide. It’s heartening that certain people in Hollywood are starting to listen to trans people, and are stepping aside to let trans people tell trans stories. In her flippancy, Johansson made one thing painfully clear: She isn’t one of them.