Scarlett Johansson's Film Exit Puts Struggle For Trans Actors In Spotlight

Activists hope the star's decision will "kick-start" a move diverse casting standard.

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Scarlett Johansson’s decision to pull out of a film role playing an American gangster who was born a woman but identified as male could kickstart a drive to get more transgender actors on screen, film insiders and LGBT campaigners said on Monday.

Hollywood star Johansson had agreed to play Dante “Tex” Gill in the film “Rub & Tug”, but last week said she had decided to leave the role after realizing the casting was “insensitive.”

Her initial casting sparked a backlash on social media as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community criticized the lack of opportunities for transgender actors.

“Trans exclusion in the media is endemic and not something that’s going to change without pressure on the industry,” said Lily Madigan, a transgender activist and women’s rights official for Britain’s opposition Labour Party.

“My hope is the attention brought to the issue by this recent event will be enough to kick-start a more diverse casting standard,” Madigan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hollywood has long favored casting non-transgender actors in gender fluid roles, including Jared Leto who won an Oscar for playing a transgender woman in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and Jeffrey Tambor who has nabbed several awards for playing a father who transitions to a woman in the television series “Transparent.”

Juno Roche, an author and transgender rights campaigner said there would be “absolute outrage” if a white actor was cast to play a black person.

“It just seems completely illogical,” she said of casting of Johansson as Gill, a real-life crime kingpin who used a massage parlor as a front for prostitution during the 1970s and 1980s.

None of the 109 movies released by Hollywood’s seven biggest studios in 2017 included a transgender character, according to data from U.S-based LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

“One of the issues we tend to have is people who are openly trans only being considered for trans role,” said Ian Manborde, equality and diversity organizer at Equity, a Britain-based trade union for actors and performers.

“The issue is that some people (who have transitioned) might not want to identify or self-identify as trans. There is still a stigma within the sector,” he said, adding that Equity planned to advise industry employers on how to treat transgender actors.

Filming has yet to begin on “Rub & Tug” and no replacement for Johansson was immediately announced.

“I can now only hope that the part goes to a trans person or – at the very least – someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQI (queer and intersex) community,” said Rebecca Root, one of the only openly transgender actresses in Britain.

From the Johansson controversy to Chilean actress Daniela Vega becoming the first transgender presenter at the Oscars and a Cannes Film Festival award for “Girl” - about a transgender teenage girl’s quest to become a ballerina - this year has seen debates on transgender representation in film come to the fore.


Reporting By Hugo Greenhalgh, Editing by Kieran Guilbert Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org