Critics and fans have been reeling from a bad case of scandal déjà vu after Scarlett Johansson, who drew significant backlash for playing a Japanese character in last year’s Ghost in the Shell, signed on to play the trans/gender-nonconforming Dante “Tex” Gill in Rupert Sanders’ forthcoming Rub & Tug. Well, the agony is over, folks: Johansson has officially vacated the role.
Johansson explained her decision in a statement to Out:
In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project. Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive. I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues. According to GLAAD, LGBTQ+ characters dropped 40 percent in 2017 from the previous year, with no representation of trans characters in any major studio release. 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. I believe that all artists should be considered equally and fairly. My production company, These Pictures, actively pursues projects that both entertain and push boundaries. We look forward to working with every community to bring these most poignant and important stories to audiences worldwide.
This is a welcome and surprising change, given that Johansson staunchly held onto her Ghost in the Shell role (and the movie then bombed) and given that trans/GNC roles in Hollywood are almost exclusively given to cis, gender-conforming, straight actors. The Rub & Tug casting news sparked a lot of controversy about whether Gill, the Pittsburgh mobster Johansson was set to portray, was a trans man or a gender-nonconforming lesbian. Given Gill’s 2003 death and the rapid pace at which language surrounding gender identity has transformed in just the last decade, it’s impossible to say whether he would have identified with either label as they’re used today, but he was someone assigned female at birth who presented to the world as a man and wanted to be addressed as such (a practice that has, historically, been used by both lesbian-identified women and transgender men). Johansson, as a thin, beautiful, very gender-conforming woman, was a wrongheaded casting choice for Gill regardless.
While this is certainly a victory for LGBT on-screen representation, one can’t help but balk at the prospect of a mainstream Hollywood director like Sanders taking on such a loaded bit of history. Here’s hoping today’s news opens up the Gill role to someone who actually identifies with the trans and gender-nonconforming experience. We’ll keep you updated on Rub & Tug as the film develops.