Why Scarlett Johansson was wrong to bow to the online mob

Scarlett Johansson playing a transgender man is not the modern equivalent of blackface writes Donal Lynch


Scarlett Johansson had previously appeared to defend her decision to accept the part (Ian West/PA)
Scarlett Johansson had previously appeared to defend her decision to accept the part (Ian West/PA)
QUIT: Scarlett Johansson pulled out of playing transgender man Dante ‘Tex’ Gill. Picture: PA

It’s difficult to picture Scarlett Johansson as a man. Tiny, voluptuous and very feminine, she lacks the slightly androgynous qualities that made actresses like Felicity Huffman and Hilary Swank so successful in transgender roles. But Johansson is also a very good actress, who has won Baftas, Tonys and film critic awards.

It might be reasonable to think that her casting as Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a transgender man who ran a string of massage parlours in 1970s Pittsburgh, might really have worked. Perhaps it would have further raised awareness about transgender issues. Perhaps, as it did for Swank and Huffman, the role of a transgender person, might have finally nabbed her the Academy Award. That Johansson was thinking this too was shown by the statement she put out about the film in which she referenced both of these actresses.

Now she and we will never know if she could have pulled it off. After a torrent of criticism and accusations that she was ‘taking’ roles from transgender actresses, Johansson, who was initially defiant, last week pulled out of the film. She said she was “grateful to be part of the debate” regarding depictions of transgender lives in film and added that she believes “all artists should be considered equally and fairly”.

The outrage around the choice of Johansson for the role was not quelled even by this move, however. When Business Insider published a rather tame piece, in which it was argued that actors make their living from playing people whose identities are different to their own, the backlash was so intense and so immediate that the publication pulled it from their website, saying that it did not meet their ‘editorial standards’.

This was another depressing development for American journalism – why not leave the article up and simply publish an eloquent rebuttal to it, many wondered. The whole sequence seemed to suggest the debate around transgender issues is now over, drowned out by the silent scream of online outrage.

This is a shame because it gave the impression of censorship and also because the original article failed to fully engage with the argument some trans activists made about why a cisgender actor playing a transgender part is, at this moment in particular, a problem. Of course actors play identities different to their own, the argument goes, but when the actor is assuming the part of a member an embattled minority struggling for recognition and rights, then the whole thing can be redolent of blackface. And once that kind of accusation was made it was no surprise that Johansson ran for the hills. She has decades of career ahead of her and could not risk being on the wrong side of history.

This was unfortunate because there was a better case to be made about why she was right for this role. She might have argued that gender identity and race, while similar in that they are both an inherent part of a person, are not exactly the same thing. Race is something that is visible to others from the moment a person is born. A black person does not have the luxury of passing as one thing or another until they are ready for their true self to be known. Their identity is defined externally, by others, long before they grapple with it themselves.

Gender identity, by comparison, is something in a person’s heart, mind and soul, which may well be invisible or only partly visible to others. (As with the gay rights movement, this fact has impeded the progress of trans rights, because it has made many trans people invisible in mainstream society.) This internal quality makes gender identity, like sexuality, something that better lends itself to depiction by an actor, even one who does not share that gender identity or sexuality. This is why roles like Swank in Boys Don’t Cry or Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain have survived all of the recent developments in the LGBT movement, to still be regarded as classic and towering performances. Even with the hindsight and ‘wokedness’ of more than a decade of progress, they contain none of the condescension or marginalisation of blackface.

The other argument against Johansson as Dante Gill, is that the role could have gone to a transgender actress, feeds into a right-wing narrative that the progress of minority rights automatically entails dispensing with meritocracy. There is no transgender actress who has achieved what Johansson has achieved and none have her ability to carry a film to a big box office opening. This might appear unfair but it is no more or less unfair than the fact that Johansson’s great beauty and incredible screen presence are big parts of what made her such a star. The social engineering of choosing a no-name transgender actress over her should surely, at this point be secondary to the strong transgender narrative she was due to embody. For all the debate around transgender rights, there was not a single major studio release which featured a transgender character in 2017. This, again, is a bigger part of the problem, but it shows that some activists may be misunderstanding the point in history we are at.

More than anything, however, Johansson’s removing herself from the film gives succour to the army of online warriors who are sure that their feelings of offence trump all other possible arguments. The message it clear: the right pitch of indignation can get films cancelled and articles pulled. This sets a dangerous precedent, and the sad thing is that it may actually end up harming the very cause it supposes to champion.

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Sunday Independent

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