Dante “Tex” Gill was a crime boss in the 1970s who ran a fleet of illegal massage parlors. His outposts were a front for a prostitution in Pittsburgh’s red light district. He battled the mob and wound up serving seven years in prison for tax evasion. A natural pick for a biopic, and Hollywood is on it: Plans for the wow-they-really-named-it-that flick Rub & Tug are underway.
Just one hitch: Gill lived his life as a trans man. Attached to play him in this feature film is cis woman Scarlett Johansson.
Several culture reporters and trans actors have spoken out against Johansson’s casting, lamenting that trans roles so consistently go to cis actors. (See also: Eddie Redmayne, rewarded with an Oscar for his portrayal of Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl; Elle Fanning as Ray, a transgender teenager undergoing a female-to-male transition; and at least a dozen others.)
Trace Lysette, actress on Transparent, was among those highlighting the cis/trans casting double-standards:
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. https://t.co/s8gBlBI1Sw
— Trace Lysette (@tracelysette) July 4, 2018
As did Jamie Clayton, star of Netflix’s Sense8:
Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU #RupertSanders @NewRegency #ScarlettJohansson https://t.co/RkrW8MeGcG
— Jamie Clayton (@MsJamieClayton) July 4, 2018
One possible explanation is that Johansson does not consider Gill to be trans, which is a problem in and of itself that does not portend all that well for the movie. This is not a mistake she would be alone in making: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Gill a “lesbian” and “an overweight Brentwood woman who dressed like a man in suits and ties, wore short hair and sideburns and preferred to be called ‘Mr. Gill.'” That story, published in 2014, refers to Gill throughout with female pronouns, as does the paper’s obituary for Gill, who died in 2003. Though the obituary details the lengths to which Gill went to be known as a man — “she wore men’s suits and short hair, she talked tough and she may even have undergone the initial stages of a sex change that made her appear masculine” — it is described in a mocking, dismissive tone, and the piece refers to Gill as a woman to the end.
As Screen Crush notes, “All three trades, Deadline, [The Hollywood Reporter], and Variety, announced Johansson’s casting by describing Gill as a woman who dressed like a man, one author using more incorrect (and ignorant) language describing Gill as “sexually ambivalent.”
As has been noted elsewhere, one person who was not confused about Gill’s gender identity was Gill.
Johansson responded to her critics through representatives to Bustle: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”
That’s… one way to approach it! Maybe a bit flippant, considering the context? And Jeffrey Tambor’s representatives are probably a little busy right now. (For what it’s worth, Transparent creator Jill Soloway has since said that, were she to make her show today, she’d cast a trans woman in the role of Maura.)
One might imagine that Johansson would want to tread extra-carefully in this department, as she was recently the subject of an ethically-similar casting outcry for playing Motoku Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, a character who originated in Japanese manga. Ghost in the Shell and Rub & Tug share a director: Rupert Sanders.
At the time, Johansson defended what many critics, including the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, called the “whitewashing” of her part by saying she “would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously.”
Making the decisions of Sanders and Johansson even more confusing: Ghost in the Shell tanked at the box office, losing tens of millions of dollars, in part because it couldn’t overcome the whitewashing backlash.