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Scarlett Johansson Is Apparently Portraying A Trans Man In Her New Role & We’re Trying To Figure Out ~Why~

Scarlett Johansson has an extensive professional resume. From portraying Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) in numerous Marvel-affiliated films to Kay Lake in The Black Dahlia, she is an experienced actress. Throughout her years in the entertainment industry, Scarlett Johansson has also become well-versed in controversy. With her upcoming production, Rub & Tug, Johansson will bolster her problematic professional ventures by portraying a transgender man—when, as we know, she isn’t a transgender man herself.  

Variety reports that Johansson will take on the role of Dante “Tex” Gill (aka Mr. Gill) in the movie Rub & Tug, which is currently in pre-production. The biopic follows Mr. Gill, who was a known transgender man who organized several NSFW massage enterprises in the 1970s (among other things).

Details in Mr. Gill’s obituary report that Mr. Gill was a transgender man. According to the Post-Gazette’s 2003 obituary, “In all the old newspaper stories about Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, she was always ‘the woman who prefers to be known as a man,’ or some variation of that description, and she sure looked and acted the part.” Although the language is a bit outdated, it seems implicitly clear that Mr. Gill knew who he was and wanted to be known and seen as a man.

The Post-Gazette added that Mr. Gill “may even have undergone the initial stages of [medical transitioning] that made her appear more masculine.” Combined with the fact that Gill, “insisted she was a man” and wanted to be called “Mr. Gill.” Due to contextual gaps in history, we don’t know the extensive details around Mr. Gill’s life or how he extensively defined his unique identity. However, if Mr. Gill was adamant about being a man, then he was a man. Insinuating that Mr. Gill was anything other than a man is as troubling as using someone’s deadname.

Casting a ciswoman, like Johansson to portray a transgender man isn’t only insulting—it’s also dangerous. Attempting to have a woman portray a man erases Mr. Gill’s trans identity and his masculinity. However, seeing a woman portray a transgender man also perpetuates the concept that Mr. Gill wasn’t a man, and that misrepresents his entire life and a vital aspect of his identity.

Since news circulated that Johansson is taking on this inglorious project, media outlets have already used Mr. Gill’s impending film portrayal as a way to distort his life. Deadline is one of a few publications that have repeatedly misgendered Mr. Gill in their coverage of Johansson’s new role. Deadline essentially, and wrongfully, whittled down Mr. Gill’s identity as a woman who enjoyed cross-dressing as a man.

Yet, Mr. Gill was not a cross-dresser—he was a man. Johannson’s role as Mr. Gill could have consequently swayed multiple publications into mislabeling Mr. Gill’s identity and therefore a critical part of his life. Coupled with Johansson’s role and the media’s misrepresentation of Mr. Gill’s identity, this film, and the proceeding coverage, can regress representation.

Representation matters. Misrepresentation matters, which is why representation is meaningless until it’s executed in a healthy and respective manner. Unhealthy or blatantly incorrect representation can actively negate positive productions like Pose that show the reality of what it’s like to be trans and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.  

The Johansson effect on how the media misinterprets members of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t the first turbulent tide in how media as a whole portrays members of the trans community. Problematic predecessors, like Rachel Weisz, have also influenced media into mislabeling trans men—ultimately changing these real people’s non-fictional narratives into something fictitious.

After initial media coverage of Weisz’s role in a future film about James Barry, publications mislabeled Barry as a gender fluid doctor. But, James Barry was actually a transgender man—which shows how, like Weisz and the book that inspired the Barry-themed film, Johansson’s role as Mr. Gill can literally change history (or at least people’s perception of history). Substituting historical context with false substance can have damaging consequences on present-day transgender people because it devalues their experiences and lives—thus, propagating a cycle of continued abuse and harassment that’s already (unfortunately) rampant in the trans community.

While publications like Slate have suggested solutions to Johansson’s problematic casting call, casting a cis man as Mr. Gill would still be a problematic misrepresentation of Mr. Gill’s life, just in a different way.

Cisgender men don’t have the same lived experiences as transgender men. According to CNN, there are a plethora of trans men who could have been cast for the role of Mr. Gill. Though these hypothetical, albeit infinitely more mindful, casting choices are just a dream for how Mr. Gill could have been represented on-screen, Johansson, unfortunately, doesn’t seem fazed by her public backlash.

Following the criticism, a spokesperson for the actress provided a statement to Bustle from the actress herself. “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,” Johansson included in her statement.

Her comment obviously refers to Tambor’s role as a trans woman in Transparent, Leto’s role in Dallas Buyers Club, and Huffman’s role in Transamerica. Aside from her defensive comments, Johansson is dangerously self-aware of her harmful portrayal of Mr. Gill.

Denouncing her problematic affiliation by claiming that it’s acceptable because other actors have misrepresented trans people in their respective productions seems to show that she’s aware of the issue with her involvement, but she doesn’t appear concerned with rectifying the issue.

Naturally, Johansson’s neglectful response only sparked more criticism, particularly from Marvel fans. One Twitter user writes, “Emily Blunt is the Natasha Romanoff we deserved.”

Whereas another user tweeted, “We could’ve had her as Black Widow! But no! We got smirk face emoji instead!”

The Twitterverse commentary stems from the fact that Emily Blunt (pictured in the tweets), was originally considered to play Black Widow. But, Blunt declined the role, the Independent reports.

Given that Johansson is anticipating her solo Marvel film, Black Widow, the snarky virtual banter from Marvel fans could indicate some potential protest from the Romanoff-themed movie that’s ambiguously slated sometime in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). And Marvel fans aren’t the only ones using their platforms to vocalize their dismay regarding Johansson’s role and subsequent comments.

Sense 8 actress Jamie Clayton tweeted about the ongoing Rug & Tug controversy, writing, “Actors who are trans never even get to audition for anything other than roles of trans characters. That’s the real issue. We can’t even get in the room.”

Trans men and trans women are routinely dismissed from non-trans roles and the entertainment industry as a whole. But, the casting decision to cast a cis woman as a trans man shows that trans actors are still excluded from telling their own stories. Outside of Hollywood, members of the trans community often suppress their gender and their transition to avoid discrimination at their current vocation and from prospective employers, a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality reports.

Discriminating against trans people, by definition, is transphobic. Discrimination can take on many forms, but Johansson’s role as Mr. Gill and her response to this justified backlash are indicative of the following transphobic ideologies:

  • Misinterpretation of trans people identities. The film innately falsifies Mr. Gill’s identity by casting a woman to portray him.
  • Avoiding trans people. The film overlooks qualified trans men actors, which by consequence creates a conundrum because the film is about a trans man but it doesn’t include a trans man.
  • Discrediting a trans person’s pronouns and/or identity. The movie indirectly fueled the already existing cycle of pronoun and gender identity misuse in the media and beyond.

Granted, this isn’t an exhaustive list of how this upcoming production discriminates against the trans community. Still, Rub & Tug isn’t the most dubious item on Johansson’s repertoire, she’s also portrayed other troubling roles.

Johansson’s brand of taking on controversial roles that appropriate other people’s identity predates this latest transphobic blunder. The Playlist notes that Rub & Tug director Rupert Sanders and Johansson previously collaborated on another offensive production: Ghost in the Shell. If you’re unfamiliar with Sanders’ production of Ghost in the Shell or the original anime and manga series, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a canonically Japanese woman. However, Johansson portrayed Major in the film adaptation, even though she isn’t Japanese.

Needless to say, Johansson’s role as Major greatly contributed to the overall whitewashing of the Ghost in the Shell movie. Sanders’ model to erase Major’s race (among other things) stripped the production of the original respective anime and manga series’ cultural significance. The problematic profession duo has experience in appropriating Japanese media while simultaneously omitting the culture that created Ghost in the Shell. Their combined history could have additional implications when it comes to Mr. Gill’s life.

Above all else, Johansson’s role as Mr. Gill does something more heinous than hijack his identity and replace his livelihood with an entirely different script: it also transforms trans peoples’ lives into glorified inspiration porn. Deadline notes Johansson’s role as Mr. Gill is “her most challenging role since Lost in Translation.” However, acting out a misconstrued version of someone else’s identity isn’t a challenge.

The real challenge lies in how trans men and trans women are consistently overlooked for roles in the entertainment industry while simultaneously being more susceptible to violent attacks, homicide and suicide.

There are uncomplicated ways to prevent future problematic casting calls and to, hopefully, put the era of misrepresented characters, tropes and biopics behind us. Beyond just listening to the members of the trans community (and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole) and the issues that they face, the entertainment industry needs to actively do something to amend these problems. Listening is crucial to change, but playing the passive listener doesn’t inspire change. Casting directors can start influencing this necessary, positive change by casting more transgender actors and actresses.

Chelsea is the Health Editor and How She Got There Editor for Her Campus. In addition to editing articles about mental health, women's health and physical health, Chelsea contributes to Her Campus as a Feature Writer, Beauty Writer, Entertainment Writer and News Writer. Some of her unofficial, albeit self-imposed, responsibilities include arguing about the Oxford comma, fangirling about other writers' articles, and pitching Her Campus's editors shamelessly nerdy content (at ambiguously late/early hours, nonetheless). When she isn't writing for Her Campus, she is probably drawing insects, painting with wine or sobbing through "Crimson Peak." Please email any hate, praise, tips, or inquiries to cjackscreate@gmail.com