A couple of casting choices have come under scrutiny in recent weeks. Primarily the decision for Scarlett Johansson to play the role of a transgender man in a film titled Rub & Tug, which was to be a biographical film about someone who ran a brothel out of a massage parlour in the 1970s. Due to online backlash, Scarlett Johansson has stepped down from the role.
Johansson has made several statements over the last week, with the latest being an apology for what she’d said in the original statement, and that she’s learned a lot from the trans community.
The second controversial cast is for a film that has already been made, and is currently playing in cinemas, and that’s Dwayne Johnson as an amputee in the action/explosion schlock that is Skyscraper. The argument from critics here is that an actor with the same disability as Johnson’s character should’ve been cast in the lead role.
One of these casting decisions has justified outrage, while the other shows a complete lack of understanding of how Hollywood works.
So let’s start with Rub & Tug (as is always the way), which now has reports that it may not get made, due to the studio not being able to cast an already established star. Whichever studio or production company is currently in charge of this movie is missing out on an opportunity to make headlines and award ceremonies — two things that movie producers care about more than representation.
It’s still considered a risk to not cast an appropriately sized “star” in your non-franchise film, and I understand why. That’s how the industry has worked for over a century; Stars are draws, they’re ticket sales. However, the studio coming out and stating that Rub & Tug might not get made, shows an ignorance to the current social climate.
Now, more than ever, do we need representation of minority groups in the film industry. Especially — it would appear — trans actors. The fact that an A-list, or even B-list trans dramatic actor doesn’t come to mind for this role, says all that needs to be said. Star power only rises through actors being in successful films, and how can stars be born if trans actors aren’t given the opportunity to smash or flop at the box office.
I would encourage the studio in charge of Rub & Tug to continue to produce this film with a trans actor in the lead role. I’m sure you can find someone talented enough. Promote the film as you would’ve done if it had been Johansson in the lead role, and let the public decide whether or not it’s a step in the right direction.
I’m not saying that cisgender actors don’t have the ability to play trans characters, or that trans actors can’t also play cisgender roles, just as any talented actor has the ability to play a character with any sexual orientation that’s not their own. If we lived in an equal society, everyone would be able to pretend to be anyone else for a living.
But the fact is — we don’t, and when society at large has a clear lack of understanding to the sensitivities of a marginalised group, clearly shown by casting someone in a role that makes that group feel uncomfortable, then obviously we have a lot to learn.
I’ve seen people compare this casting decision to blackface, and — personally, I don’t think that’s accurate. I think race is a different issue entirely here, and to compare the two is potentially dangerous. Blackface from white actors is always meant to belittle and demonise a group of people, whereas cisgender people playing trans roles aren’t actively looking to cause offence, they’re just misunderstanding how representation works. It’s the difference between active venom-filled prejudice, and a lack of awareness.
I think that if we balance the scales of the industry for a few decades — to the point where trans actors are always getting trans roles, and prominent trans actors are then starting to land cis roles — then any talented actor will be able to go back to playing any LGBT role.
Acting is about becoming someone else, and that craft is considered mastered when you become a character completely different from yourself. It’s just that representation is crucial right now, in order to educate a culture and eliminate this lack of awareness.
Back when I was seventeen I watched Boys Don’t Cry for the first time. In it, Hilary Swank plays a transgender man. Now, until I saw this movie I held misinformed view of what it meant to be transgender. I had incorrectly assumed it meant transvestite or drag-queen. This film, in which a cisgender actor plays a trans man, helped to educate my understanding of the trans community, and the potential struggles involved with transitioning from one sex to another.
This film was made in 2000, if it had been made in 2018 I’d have wanted to see a trans actor take on the role. Hilary Swank is amazing as Brandon Teena, and I’m sure Scarlett Johansson’s performance would’ve been good too — but the point is that we need to better represent a community “behind the camera”, and not just in front of it.
Now, very briefly, let’s look at the outrage surrounding Dwayne Johnson being cast as a disabled man. To put it simply, if this had been a biographical film about an amputee struggling through everyday life, who eventually makes it to the Olympics — then a person with that disability should be cast, to help balance that scale of representation in Hollywood.
However, Skyscraper, is not the hill to die on folks. This is a project that will have had Dwayne Johnson in mind from day one, where the plot doesn’t matter and the explosions are timed perfectly to satisfy audiences. If Johnson had not been in this film, it wouldn’t even exist — nobody would be talking about it.
Biographical films (like Rub & Tug) are one of the many genres which audiences will go and see, regardless of who had been cast. Action/CGI movies rely heavily on the lead casting choice to even secure funding.
We do need better representation in Hollywood, and that’s not just for what we see on our screen. The cast and crew should be as diverse as the people who’re applying for those roles and positions. We’re falling short, but we’re also starting to do better.
Today is Thursday, July 19th and ‘Films to be Buried With’ is absolutely a podcast you should be listening to.
I’m not transgender — so if you are, please let me know if I need to be educated in regards to what I’ve written here.