Hollywood has a problem with accurate minority representation on screen. This is a statement that needs to be made all too often, one that can be followed by a list of the incomprehensible number of offenses, from Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Emma Stone’s Allison Ng in 2015’s “Aloha.”
From recent controversies behind “Ghost in the Shell,” “Doctor Strange,” “Death Note,” “The Great Wall” and on and on, Hollywood is finally picking up on the fact that people are not happy about roles originally for people of color being given to white people. These outcries are what made the actor Ed Skrein, who is not of Asian descent, step down from playing an Asian character in the upcoming “Hellboy” reboot. Of course, that doesn’t mean that change is fast and imminent — this year’s “Annihilation” was also confronted with whitewashing characters written with Asian and Native American ancestries. But the conversation on better minority representation has started.
When Scarlett Johansson played a whitewashed version of Major Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” a film based on a popular Japanese manga and anime series — the film provided some thin reasoning for a white woman playing an Asian character — many people believed her role should’ve gone to a Japanese actress. So why is the recent Johansson casting controversy even more divisive?
Johansson was recently announced to play Dante “Tex” Gill in “Rub & Tug,” a biopic based on the real-life transgender man, and it seemed that the fickle people of the internet broke into two camps. One side agreed with actresses Trace Lysette and Jamie Clayton, who are both transgender themselves, that Hollywood needs to stop giving transgender roles to cisgender actors. The other side voiced its support for Johansson, stating that she’ll provide the film with the name recognition that transgender actors don’t have.
But these arguments in support of Johansson’s casting detract from the underlying issue: transgender actors are among the most disenfranchised minorities in the entertainment industry. If gender shouldn’t be a factor in casting, then why aren’t transgender actors given the same opportunities for cisgender roles? In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Lysette recalled being told to keep the fact that she was transgender a secret when she auditioned for cisgender female roles.
The conversation should start with the fact that most transgender actors are only cast in transgender roles, and there are not many transgender roles to begin with. According to GLAAD, or the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, there were only 16 regular and recurring transgender characters across all platforms of television in the 2016-2017 season, and out of 2017’s 109 film releases from major studios, there were zero transgender characters. In 2016’s major films, the only transgender character was cisgender actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All in “Zoolander 2,” whose androgyny was more of a punchline than a challenge to gender norms.
Since transgender actors are rarely considered for cisgender characters, there are very few roles for them to play. They don’t have the same opportunities to break into the industry, let alone reach the statuses of actors such as Johansson and provide the name recognition that supporters of Johansson claim is so necessary.
When approached about the controversy, Johansson’s representatives gave out the short, blasé statement, “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” All three cisgender actors named in the statement have received critical acclaim for playing transgender roles.
The stark refusal to recognize the criticisms of the “Rub & Tug” role by citing others who have played similar transgender roles is problematic. It pretends that there wasn’t also controversy with Leto’s role and ignores the fact that Tambor himself appealed for more transgender actors to be given auditions and said he “would not be unhappy were (he) the last cisgender male to play a female transgender (character) on television.” The statement by Johansson’s representatives also lacked forethought, considering both Leto and Tambor have sexual misconduct allegations against them, with some against Tambor made by Lysette herself.
Johansson representatives also unfairly discounted the change that has happened in recent years. Felicity Huffman’s “Transamerica” came out in 2005, the same year Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson played the Arabic character Ra’s al Ghul in “Batman Begins.” If the latter would receive backlash today, why would the former not?
To be fair, the responsibility to promote better transgender representation doesn’t fall solely on Johansson. It falls on the producers, the executives, the director and the countless others behind the casting process. Rupert Sanders directed “Ghost in the Shell” and will direct “Rub & Tug,” yet he hasn’t responded to the most recent controversy. As of late 2016, Sanders still sticks by his casting decision for “Ghost in Shell.” With this film, there is a chance to change the narrative, to stop ignoring the problem of minority underrepresentation under the guise of casting bankable actors for box-office success.
So Hollywood, before descending into another decadeslong problem of perpetuating underrepresentation by giving the few roles of a marginalized population to people who are not marginalized, take a note from the whitewashing conversation and realize that it applies to other minority communities. Cast more transgender actors in complex, meaningful roles that may lead to better exposure for the community as a whole. After all, transgender people deserve better representation than an eyebrowless Benedict Cumberbatch in a wig.