Recently, Scarlett Johansson made news after it came out that she will be playing a trans character in an upcoming movie. This is the second controversial casting news that Johansson has been a part of in the last couple of years (the first being her role in the 2017 film Ghost In The Shell, where she played a character that had been an Asian woman in the book the movie was based on).
And while this isn’t the first time that Johansson has been at the center of a casting controversy, this also isn’t the first time that a cisgender actor will be playing a trans character. Matt Bomer, Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, and Hilary Swank are just some of the most notable actors to do so. But just because it’s been done before (and with some critical acclaim), doesn’t mean it’s right.
One of the biggest issues with casting both straight and/or cis actors to play LGBTQ characters isn’t that straight, cis folks shouldn’t try to better understand what it’s like to be a part of the LGBTQ community nor that straight, cis folks aren’t able to bring their best to a role like this. In theory, the idea that the best person for the job should be chosen is a very valid one but in practice, that is not how it works in Hollywood and society at large. As Meredith Talusan wrote in a recent article for them:
Our society already fundamentally values cis people more than trans people, considers them automatically more worthy and attractive, bestows upon them no end of privileges, whether in their freedom from trans discrimination, job opportunities, better access to education and healthcare, as well as overwhelmingly greater representation in media.
Talusan goes on to also point out that many famous trans actors in the industry today were able to gain popularity and experience through trans roles. Laverne Cox is one such actor whose career was greatly influenced by her role as a trans woman in the hit Netflix show Orange Is The New Black. So by giving some of the few openly trans roles in different productions to cis actors like Scarlett Johansson, trans folks are less able to break out into an industry that already favors them less than their cis counterparts for all kinds of roles.
Additionally, casting straight/cis actors to play LGBTQ characters reinforces several different but equally problematic narratives. One is that LGBTQ people look and act in a certain way and straight/cis folks are objectively able to tell who is a part of the queer community. These two things are interconnected and highly problematic because they both reinforce the notion that being a part of the LGBTQ community is a universal experience/stereotype and that straight/cis people are the experts in a community they are not a part of.
Dylan Marron is an actor, writer, and digital creator, often known for his role as Carlos on the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale and for hosting another popular podcast called Conversations With People Who Hate Me. Back in March of 2018, he tweeted about why gay (and trans by proxy) actors should be cast to play gay/trans characters, ending the thread with this tweet:
But for all us gay boys who were told that we were “too gay” to get roles in big Hollywood movies it’s hard to not feel some type of way when we see straight boys applauded for playing the parts we were, quite literally, born to play.
— Dylan Marron (@dylanmarron) March 18, 2018
So often, LGBTQ actors are told that they don’t fight into the stereotype that straight/cis folks have about LGBTQ folks. This can mean being ‘too gay’, as Marron has been told, or not looking like a trans person to cis people (as if they are the end all experts in how trans people look). And to have cis actors play trans roles only adds into that narrative.
At the same time, Zack Ford wrote about the problematic aspects of casting cis actors in trans roles a couple years ago, saying in particular:
It also feeds into misunderstandings the general public might have about who transgender people are, particularly when cis men portray trans women.
Essentially, casting cis men as trans women can lead to public misunderstanding about what it means to be trans and could cause some to falsely believe that trans women, for example, are really just men pretending to be women. (An incorrect assumption of course). This narrative, whether people realize it’s happening or not, can have very real and exceptionally violent outcomes for many trans folks, especially trans women.
When Matt Bomer was cast as a trans women back in 2016, actress Jen Richards was one of the most visible critics of this decision, even before the news publicly came out (as she was considered for a smaller role in the same production). In one important Twitter thread, she laid out exactly why cis men playing trans women in roles can be dangerous for trans women.
In that thread (which you can read here), Richards tweets that in addition to the loss of economic opportunity for a trans person, having cis men play trans women only adds to the false assumption that trans women are really men. This false assumption then only adds to straight men’s insecurities and anxieties about being with trans women, as they think being with a trans woman essentially (but incorrectly) means being with a man and doing so makes them gay/less masculine. That, in turn, is a “failure” on the individual man’s part. Straight men might take those anxieties out on the trans women they’re with, often with violent measures.
If you want to truly be an ally to the trans community and help these stories be told (because more trans stories in various mediums do need to be told), the best course of action is to let trans people work both in front of and behind the camera. Ryan Murphy, for example, worked with many trans folks to create the new fx show, Pose, and was very intentional about this.
It would also help to apologize when you fuck up (something that everyone can do), which isn’t something that happened when Matt Bomer was cast as a trans woman. Johansson’s comment to Bustle about the controversy (which was, essentially, that she’s not the only one to take on a trans role as if that’s the problem) was also problematic, as it shifted the blame and responsibility off her. As I’ve written before, that doesn’t make it right and those same actors should be held accountable as well.