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Arts & Life

Scarlett Johansson Faces Backlash Over Film Role As Transgender Man


Actress Scarlett Johansson is taking a lot of heat for choosing to play Dante Tex Gill in an upcoming film about his life, "Rub & Tug." Gill ran massage parlors in Pittsburgh allegedly as fronts for prostitution during the 1970s and '80s. He was a transgender man. As you can imagine, this decision by Johansson to play Gill has set Twitter on fire. And it gave rise to commentaries with headlines like "Why Scarlett Johansson Playing A Trans Man Is Not Only Offensive But Unnecessary." That one, published in Slate, was written by Evan Urquhart, who joins us now. Welcome.

EVAN URQUHART: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So when you first heard about this news, what was your reaction?

URQUHART: I feel pretty angry. I thought we'd been through this over and over again. But here we are again with a cisgender woman playing a transgender man.

CHANG: Cisgender being the term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

URQUHART: Yes. And as far as we know, that is how Scarlett Johansson identifies.

CHANG: Scarlett Johansson has responded to all her critics with a statement from her representative that read (reading) tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment. These are all cis actors who played trans characters. Why wasn't there this amount of outcry when Jeffrey Tambor chose to play Maura in "Transparent?"

URQUHART: There absolutely was. I mean, I think in "Transparent" there was definitely some deference given to the fact that the writer had a parent who was trans herself and identified as part of the queer community. Like, I think there was some - little bit of leeway given, but there's - it certainly has been extremely controversial that Jeffrey Tambor is playing a trans woman. The Jared Leto role was definitely controversial. There has been outcry over this for years.

CHANG: So explain that a little more. Why is it deeply offensive to you when a cis actor is chosen to play a trans character?

URQUHART: So casting male actors to play trans women and female actors to play trans men really reinforces the idea that trans men are really women who are pretending to be men and tricking people into thinking they're men as opposed to the truth, which is that transgender men are living authentically as themselves. And we look like men and we feel like men, and we are perceived as men, and there's no reason, like, women should be playing us.

CHANG: What about crossing racial or ethnic lines? Scarlett Johansson got a lot of blowback also when she played an Asian woman in "Ghost In The Shell." Does that situation feel different to you in any way, when an actor plays someone of a different race?

URQUHART: That doesn't feel different to me. And I think she got a lot of flak and rightfully so for that time, too.

CHANG: I mean, I guess the pushback to all of this is just when you're acting, you are being someone you are not in real life. So I guess what I'm asking you, Evan, is where do you draw the line between what roles are OK and what roles are not?

URQUHART: So for me, I do think the visual piece is important and also who the actor is when they're doing press outside of the role. So if there's a huge disconnect between the person they're portraying and who they are when they're doing press, I think that's something that people see and they react to on sort of a subconscious level. And I think with transgender people playing cis gender people, Hollywood very often really wants us to look as if we don't pass, as if we don't look like any other man or woman.

CHANG: I want to touch on the financial reality in all of this. Scarlett Johansson is a huge star. She's a box office draw. Do you think studios have a responsibility to balance this sensitivity that you think they need to balance with just the need to make profit?

URQUHART: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I absolutely think they do have a responsibility to balance that. That's why in my article I suggested Robert Downey Jr. would be great to play a trans man. He's got that bubble butt. He's...

CHANG: (Laughter).

URQUHART: You know, he's kind of quirky. Like, I think he would be extremely plausible with minimal coaching and no makeup as a trans man. And he's a big name.

CHANG: Evan Urquhart writes about trans issues for Slate. Thank you very much.

URQUHART: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.