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Scarlett Johansson bows out of trans drama Rub & Tug after controversy

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Her decision to leave plays into a larger conversation about trans representation

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While the internet is often dinged for coming together and stirring trouble, there are times when the social-media rallying is used for good. This week, outcry convinced Scarlett Johansson to bow out of her latest movie, Rub & Tug, and from a macro-view, it sounds like the right decision.

Under the direction of Rupert Sanders (both previously faced backlash and calls of whitewashing after Johansson was cast in Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell adaption as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese woman), Rub & Tug was set to cast the actress as Dante “Tex” Gill, a Pittsburgh gangster and transgender man. The casting of cisgender (individuals who identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth) as trans individuals is not a new phenomenon, and neither is the backlash that follows — Matt Bomer, Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, and Elle Fanning have all been criticized by members of the trans community for filling roles that an actual trans actor or actress could have filled.

Advocates and trans actors were quick to call out the casting, citing misrepresentation of trans individuals and the scant work for trans actors. Many simply questioned why a trans man couldn’t be cast to play Gill or highlighted the representational issues that occurred once again concerning both the actress and Sanders:

The controversy intensified when Johansson defended her casting, telling Bustle: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,” referencing Tambor’s role on Transparent, Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club, and Huffman in Transamerica.

By offering up other examples of cisgender actors who have played trans individuals, Johansson attempted to normalize and justify her casting. In the eyes of many fans and actors, the response reinforced the fact that cisgender actors are consistently cast over trans actors for trans roles. Among those who spoke out was Trace Lysette, a trans woman and activist who plays Shea on Transparent and called out the double standard in which cisgender actors are consistently cast in trans roles and not vice versa:

Today, Johansson announced that she was stepping down from the role following the backlash and after coming to an understanding of why the She told Out Magazine:

I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues. While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.

Many are interpreting Johansson’s decision to leave the film as positive, showing a greater awareness of the need for authentic trans representation in Hollywood following the controversy. Trans representation in film is especially low: GLAAD’s 2017 Studio Responsibility Index noted zero trans-inclusive films from major studios in all of 2017 (a decrease from 2017, in which there was one film). Television isn’t much better — out of 239 regular and recurring LGBTQ characters across broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms for the 2017-2018 television season, only 17 (5%) are transgender.

Despite a generally positive response to Johansson’s decision (which GLAAD praised in a tweet), the entire incident left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths, just as news broke about the director of Marvel’s standalone Black Widow film (which Johansson will star in). People have called for a Black Widow standalone since Johansson’s iteration of the character debuted in Iron Man 2, but a string of casting controversies — playing a canonically Japanese character in the Ghost in the Shell adaption, reportedly maintaining a friendship with Woody Allen, and taking on Dante “Tex” Gill’s story — have tempered excitement over the announcement.

Johansson deciding to step down from Rub & Tug opens up the role for a trans actor to be cast and portray the life and history of Dante “Tex” Gill, a trans figure of history whose story demands attention. In the interim, there have been other victories in trans representation: this week, Pose was renewed for a second season at FX. Described by Raquel Willis as “the TV series queer and trans people of color deserve,” the musical dance series takes place in 1980s ball culture and focuses on the relationship between ball houses Abundance and Evangelista. It features trans individuals both on screen and behind the scenes. As example of a show written by trans women for trans women and featuring trans women, Pose is an example of excellent and authentic representation. In the wake of Johansson stepping down, Rub & Tug has the chance to be the same.