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…”
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.”