Phony Casting Ethics Controversies Reach A New Low: Scarlett Johansson and “Rub & Tug”

“Tex” Gill and Scarlett


I have to congratulate the political correctness bullies and hypocritical casting ethics scolds, I really do. I thought that their absurd  caterwauling over the casting of Scarlett Johansson to star in “Ghost in the Machine”  was as ridiculous and contrived as casting ethics complaining could get. Not only have they topped themselves with their attacks on “Rub & Tug,” they are unfairly targeting Johansson again. Impressive.

You may recall that the previous casting controversy involving Johansson occurred last year when she was cast as the lead in “Ghost in the Shell,” an adaptation of a Japanese anime tale. Then, her crime was supposedly “white-washing”: since the character was originally Japanese, it was somehow wrong to cast the white actress to play her. This, of course, is an outrageous double standard, because minority actors have been calling for Hollywood to be open to casting them in roles traditionally played by whites for decades. As I wrote in the post about “Ghost in the Shell,”

“…movie makers can’t win. If a black actor isn’t cast to play a white character in the source material, Hollywood is engaging in bias by eschewing “non-traditional casting,” which is necessary to remedy de facto segregation and prejudice in movies. If Charlton Heston is cast as a Mexican, as in “Touch of Evil,” it’s “whitewashing”—prejudicial and racist casting of whites to play non-whites. Of course, when Morgan Freeman, an African American, is cast to play a dark-skinned Semitic character in “Ben Hur,” nobody calls that “blackwashing,” for there is no such thing as blackwashing. Casting Denzel Washington as a white character from “The Pelican Brief”: great! Who doesn’t like Denzel? Casting Denzel as the white hero of “The Magnificent Seven” in the remake, when the white hero was non-traditionally cast with the sort-of Eurasian Yul Brenner in the original, was also great, because—who doesn’t like Denzel?  Casting  Andy Garcia, a Cuban-American, as member of the Italian Corleone family in “Godfather III” was also fine and dandy, but not the casting of sort-of Eurasian Brenner as the King of Siam in “The King and I,” (even though he won the Tony and the Academy Award for an iconic performance)—, especially with all those great Thai musical comedy stars available. So that was–what, “sort-of-whitewashing”?

All right: how about a musical conceived with the novel conceit of having the Founding Fathers played by young black and Hispanic performers? Is that non-traditional casting? Minority-washing? Is it racist to stay with the original (brilliant) concept and tell white actors they can’t audition to be Hamilton, Jefferson, and Aaron Burr? Of course it’s not racist. After all, those actors are white. Screw ’em.

Are you seeing a theme here? Neither am I. What matters in casting a play, film or writing an adaptation is whether the final result works: How well do the actors play their roles? Is it entertaining? Does it make money?

Now the casting of Johansson as an originally Japanese character in a Japanese manga comic and animated film is being attacked as racist. Whitewashing, you know. No, in fact the words applicable here are “adaptations,” “movies,” “cultural cross-pollination” and “commerce.” 

Do you sense a bit of pique on my part? Correctomundo, and that was a year ago. I’m far more disgusted now, perhaps because I just spoke at the Smithsonian about the manufactured controversy over the supposedly “racist” Gilbert & Sullivan masterpiece, “The Mikado.”  The latest attack on a Johansson role, however, takes the cake.

Try to follow this with care, because it almost shorted out my nervous system.  In “Rub & Tug,” the “Avengers” actress plays Dante “Tex” Gill, a massage parlor owner who was born female as Lois Jean Gill, but “identified as a man,” whatever that meant in his particular case. Writes the justifiably confused New York Daily News, “It’s unclear what pronouns Gill used or if they identified as transgender.” “They”? What ever Gil was, I think we can agree that he or she was only one person.

Now Scarlett’s supposed offense is that she is a biological woman who identifies as a woman in real life playing a biological woman who didn’t. This is approximately as much of a casting ethics breach as a Democrat playing a real-life Republican. The theory, I assume, is that there are transgender actresses who don’t get a lot of opportunities to play transgender characters, so Johansson unethically snatched away (no pun intended) a role that they apparently think they had a right to.

Here’s a typical expression of the complaint, from trans actress Tracy Lysette,

“Oh word?? So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all? Hollywood is so fucked… 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. A mess..And not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived… so twisted. I’m so done…”

Well said…huh?

Let me try to untangle that mess of emotional non-logic. If trans actresses want to be considered for “cis” roles, and there is no reason in the world why they shouldn’t be, if they can play them convincingly and well, then they cannot attack a “cis” actress for playing a trans role. It’s pretty simple: this door swings both ways, or it doesn’t swing at all. Limiting the casting of a character who was a biological woman identifying as a man to trans actresses  is a step away from unbiased and creative casting, not toward it.

Lysette’s complaint doesn’t even make sense from her own muddled perspective.  Tex Gill was a biological woman who identified as a man; Lysette is a biological male who now identifies as a woman. Playing the role of Gill, Scarlett Johansson will be a biological woman identifying as man who was really a woman identifying as a man—just like Johansson. As a biological man now identifying as a woman, Lysette is less qualified than Johansson for the role. Also more qualified than Lyssette for the part: a male actor. I would have cast Russell Crowe. Maybe Melissa McCarthy. Rosanne, perhaps.

My brain hurts.

But Johansson wasn’t cast because she is “cis.” She was cast because she’s 1) a big star, 2) a terrific actress, and 3) more likely to sell tickets to the film than any current trans actress alive. Those are all legitimate considerations. There is absolutely nothing unethical about giving Johansson the part based on them, or for Johansson to accept it.

The actress’s response to the attacks on her playing Gill was not exactly deft, responding through her representative,  “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”

Well, that’s not a rebuttal, but then Scarlett isn’t an ethicist, she’s an actress. Those were all “cis” actors who played trans characters in other productions, and the response amounts to an “everybody does it” rationalization, and a cry of “Why are you picking on me?” The right answer is,

“I’m a professional actor, and I can play a wide range of characters who are completely unlike me in every way. If you are actors, you should be able to do the same. If I can play you better than you can, then I might get the part, and if I am offered it, I’m going to take it, just as you would if you were cast as me in “The Scarlett Johansson Story.” The only limitations to what roles an actor can play should be their ability and talent, not their DNA or life choices. That’s what you should want too, assuming you have the ability and talent to succeed in this business. Be a professional, and grow the hell up.”

44 thoughts on “Phony Casting Ethics Controversies Reach A New Low: Scarlett Johansson and “Rub & Tug”

  1. My understanding is that people think the role should be played by a trans man, born female and identifies as a man now. Or, barring that, a male actor. Their argument is that casting an actress encourages people to think trans men are women who are pretending to be men.

    The trans actress was complaining on behalf of both sides of the trans community.

    Though it is amusing to watch people who’s lives are so invested in self-identifying labels rush to slap labels on people from the past without their input because they didn’t have the “right” labels to be properly classified for outrage.

    • If that is the argument, why didn’t any of the four articles I read about the story mention it? Why didn’t any of the trans actresses? Do you know if there are any established actors who fit that description? I don’t, but if there are, there aren’t many.

      • I don’t know of any, I heard that trans women outnumber trans men something like three to one in general, and that’s in an already tiny population.

        And I’m not sure why articles aren’t explaining it, except maybe for the reason you mentioned (no one would be able to think of an alternative.) I know where I read it on The AV Club/Jezebel the commenters understood the issue right away, but that’s their bread and butter. It does kind of feel like “well if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you.”

        • I heard that trans women outnumber trans men something like three to one in general

          Now is that ‘males pretending to be a woman’ outnumber ‘women pretending to be a man’ three to one?

          So if I got that right, men are once again taking advantage of women (appropriating their gender identities) in greater numbers than women doing so to men? Does that make these men the bad guys? How does that play with intersectionality?

          My head hurts trying to understand these new fangled ideas for ‘man’ and ‘woman.’

  2. Idiots, is what they are, First there are not a lot of trans actors male or female that, will pull in the cisgender audience that these projects need to build understanding. (Sorry Laverne Cox is brilliant and if you did not see her canceled show I am sorry.) in the 60’s through the 80’s gay actors were afraid to take gay roles as it was a sure way to being stereotyped.. and hurting your carreer. Those straight actors that choose to represent us were bravely aiding us. We have more out. Actors today because of those straight allies. And boy are some of the new breed good, and can play straight too, but we always have. The point is in the quest for trans representation, things are happening, but when a big name. Is going to help give your moment the notice the movement needs, what you say is thank you! Unless your box office draw is big enough to make the difference. These days you can find plenty of gay actors to take big roles, gay or straight, as an actor or actress your goal should be to play cis or Tran, gay or straight no matter what as long as you can convincingly do so. Right now the trans community is looking to increase visibility and acceptance if a cis gender STAR will help get the discussion going god bless! Thank you Tom Hanks, Thank you Billy Crystal, thank you Eric McCormack, if you gentlemen and countless other Straight actors had not had the courage, we would not have marriage equality.

  3. Is Hollywood is slowly self destructing?

    Pretty soon social justice warriors are going to demand that all previous practices of casting in Hollywood be thrown out with the trash and every role in everything done in Hollywood must be type cast regardless of skills and marketability. Maybe this could lead to a few career changes for some of us around here. Heck maybe I, a slightly above average skilled theater actor, could get cast in a leading role in a Hollywood big screen production about the making of Zoltar Speaks; maybe (insert her actual name) could get cast in the leading role about Spartan still being Spartan, etc. etc.

    They’d have to pull the old movie Oh, God! off the shelves because George Burns couldn’t portray God anymore. The Dike movies would all have to be pulled because John Wayne wasn’t really a cowboy; son on and so forth. Destroying old movies could “sorta” be like social justice warriors tearing down historical statues.

    Who could possibly be type cast in the role of Thor the hammer-wielding god of thunder?

    Is Hollywood is slowly self destructing; I think the answer is yes for many reasons, of which this might be just one.

      • “The Dike movies…”

        That could make for a good movie if played *cough* straight. A stout woman with a dutch haircut rides into town and makes a beeline for the brothel. When she’s leaving the next morning–being seen off by very happy sex workers–townfolk come to her for help. Billie the Kid has been raiding in the area. The woman listens to the story but refuses.

        Cut to Billie dividing up the loot with her men, bragging that there’s no one who can stop them…

        Later on we can have some sexual tension between Billie and the strange woman, a whole Batman and Catwoman thing and at the end, a lingering kiss just before Billie escapes leaving her boys to be rounded up.

        Too bad I don’t like westerns and so don’t know the whole formula well enough to write the story.

          • Y-Yes, mix some of that with some of Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White a hint of The Seven Samurai and just a tiny dash of Batman. It’d work for anyone that has a feel for westerns.

            The western part is the real problem. If you moved the setting to something like Bujold’s Chalion, one could end up with a story like L-J Baker’s Lady Knight but more so.

            *scribble scribble*

            Already have half an outline for this November but maybe next year.

            One feels guilty plotting out a lesbian story when there’s so few gay-male genre leads but it’s just easier. Non-traditional roles give you more to work with. Stable lad dresses as a chamber maid to get close to the handsome squire has unfortunate implications when woman puts on trousers and carries a repeating rifle or sword doesn’t.


        • I don’t believe any intelligent person really “doesn’t like Westerns” unless they haven’t seen the right ones. I have a list of Westerns to remedy this problem—even taught a course from it. Let me know, and I’ll pass it along.

          • Lucky for you I’m not an intelligent person.

            My mother raised me on Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who. When Old Westerns would come on I’d find something else to do. People talked funny and wore funny hats and if they rode horses why didn’t they carry swords, swords are cool. The Beastmaster had sword and Luke Skywalker had a sword and She-Ra had a sword and the Rats of NIMH had swords in the cartoon even if they didn’t in the book. Bilbo had Sting.

            The only western I liked was The Quick and the Dead. I do have a used Louis L’Amour book around here somewhere, still unread, um, it is The Walking Drum though. Swords…

    • “Is Hollywood is slowly self destructing; I think the answer is yes for many reasons…”

      I have to disagree with you there, Z.

      There’s nothing slow about it. The self-destruction is coming at a rapid and seemingly increasing pace.

  4. I don’t know if this will help, but “Johansson” means Son of Johan in Swe . . . no, of course it won’t help. Nothing will. Major Kusanagi, for instance, originated in manga way back in ’89 and has gone through so many incarnations in comics, anime, games, graphic novels, the manga themselves and international re-drawing to suit any artist who has the skill and imagination to re-create this cyborg! (unlike Warner Bros. with Harry Potter items, Masamune Shiru’s original artwork is apparently not copyrighted, or else nobody cares), that the idea of arguing for a “real” Japanese appearance is ridiculous. Here’s what she looked like originally; check out the two illustrations on the 2nd page and you have three different “races” and “sexes” suggested. The fuss is as PC, inane, and as futile as ever.

    What’s more – and not in the least surprising – is that the fuss is on this side of the Pacific. “the original Tokyo-based publisher of the Ghost in the Shell manga seems totally cool with it. …” he says, And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place. [Repeat that last sentence until it sounds like the truth it is]

    What’s happening now with the “Gill” character is more of the same. If I were transgender I’d have that uncomfortable feeling of being shadowed and pressured right now, of having gotten on the bus identified as an independent, intelligent, adult human being …. and gotten off at the wrong stop in progressive nannyland, trapped in a leaky boat in the middle of a deep, dark lake with these left-handed people patting me on the head, saying over and over, “now, you poor underprivileged They, you. You just take hold of this pole — don’t worry, it’s free; everything’s taken care of now — and we’ll teach you how to fish.”

    And then I waked up (can’t say ‘woke’ cuz I ain’t), knowing the name of the next movie I was not going to see.

  5. So we should have serial killers only be played by real serial killers, child abusers by real child abusers, FBI agents by real FBI agents, Presidents by real Presidents, PTSD victims by real PTSD victims, cannibals by real cannibals, etc., etc. Ad infinitum, ad nauseem.

    It’s called ACTING, stupid!

    • Could not be done, in the first place. Those talents, that cast… just could not be duplicated.

      Of course, if you tried, somewhere there is an easily offended SJW who would find something to bellyache about.

      • I think Julie would be in the clear. She’s a straight woman playing a straight woman who pretends to be a gay man playing a woman. It’a story about acting., not actual LGTB characters or people.

        Robert Preston is another story. Was he a straight actor playing a gay man? Preston was “happily married” for a long time, but he always set off my gaydar, and apparently a lot of others’ too. My guess is that he was, like so, so many other Hollywood leading men, closeted, and thus was a gay actor playing a gay character (and very tastefully, too.) Since this was supposedly known in the gay community, Preston wouldn’t get any criticism if he did the movie in 2018.

  6. Going in I thought that the controversy was going to be that an extremely conventionally-beautiful woman was being cast to portray an extremely unattractive woman who identified as an extremely unattractive man. Talk about whitewashing history.

    Also, how is a message-parlor owner an important part of anyone’s historical “narrative?” That’s setting the bar pretty low.

  7. They is a chosen pronoun of quite a few transgender folx on both sides of the gender divide (there’s discussion of several more sides than 2, as well). My grammar girl brain still finds it jarring, but it’s often what someone prefers rather than s/he. I’ve encountered it in person and it’s a regular mention in my day job trainings (for an insurer/healthcare provider) to make all people be at ease.

  8. Tracy Lysette (unknown actress) is outraged that Scarlett Johansson (well known actress) was cast in a role where she is “mimicking what we have lived”? I wonder how Tracy defines acting.

  9. Taking this logic to its (absurdist) conclusion, we could only have superheroes play superheroes because no mere mortal could “represent”. At least the number of Marvel, DC, Disney (Star Wars) etc. movies would dwindle (or would they?).

    There seems to be new casting and whitewashing stories every day. See too:

    And finally, Johansson seems to be a popular target of the progressive left at least since when she preferred to continue to support SodaStream in apparent conflict with Oxfam, where she had an ambassador’s role.

    SodaStream employed Palestinians in an occupied territory factory and Oxfam was opposed. That product boycott resulted in the company having to close the factory resulting in the Palestinians losing their jobs. Is that a win or a loss for the progressive left?

  10. 1. There are bigger fish to fry.

    2. There are about as many established Trans actors in 2018 as there were established Negro actors in 2018.

      • My apologies. Please feel free to call me out for typos or any other errors. This time I got in first. I may not notice next time.

        You get my point though. There’s a reason there aren’t more than a few hundred experienced Trans actors, and none who are well known. It’s the same reason as the situation in 1918. One difference – there are more lead roles involving trans characters now than lead roles involving coloured folk back then.

        Yes, it’s an issue that needs addressing. We have far bigger fish to fry though.

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