Scarlett Johansson continues problematic streak, will play a trans man

Scarlett Johansson continues problematic streak, will play a trans man

July 4, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan

A year after Scarlett Johansson’s appearance in 2017’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, in which she played a canonically Asian woman and sparked a conversation about whitewashing in Hollywood, the actor has made yet another questionable decision: next year, she’ll be starring in Ghost director Rupert Sanders’ Rub & Tug, a biopic based on the real-life story of massage parlor boss Dante “Tex” Gill. Deadline broke news of the deal shortly before Variety and then The Hollywood Reporter confirmed it; all of the major trades, however, managed to misgender Gill, despite the fact that he was, by his own account, transgender.

Dante “Tex” Gill

Judging by the industry’s ongoing refusal to allow LGBT people to play themselves and their stories out on-screen, the film promises to be yet another entry in Hollywood’s oh no, baby, what is you doin’? list, but it doesn’t come without precedent. Gill was and continues to be misgendered in nearly every mention of his life. A frankly transphobic 2003 obituary in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, noted that “she was always ‘the woman who prefers to be known as a man,’ or some variation of that description, and she sure looked and acted the part… For years, according to police, Ms. Gill ran a string of parlors as fronts for prostitution, all the while insisting that she was a man and telling everyone she wanted to be known as ‘Mr. Gill.’” In another Post-Gazette piece from 2014 in the paper’s photo archives, the reporter adds more detail about Gill’s remarkable life, but still misgenders him.

That mischaracterization has been integrated into press for the film as well. Referring to Gill as a “massage parlor queen” in its headline, Deadline reported that the movie is the “fact-based story of a woman who flourished in a male-dominated business of massage parlors and prostitution by essentially taking on the physical identity of a man.” Variety wrote that “based on a true story, the film will focus on a woman… flourishing in the male-dominated business of massage parlors and prostitution.” The Hollywood Reporter described the film as “a drama about a real-life sexually ambivalent massage parlor owner.” While some of the language used by the trades may have come from the studio — which is itself worrying — that doesn’t excuse the apparent lack of research by ScarJo or director Rupert Sanders.

Scarlett Johansson has been working in Hollywood since 1994; 24 years later, she’s one of the most recognizable actors working in the industry today. That’s long enough to know how erasure works in film — how stories told about marginalized groups usually end up casting straight, cis, white actors like Johansson to play those characters — especially in the wake of the backlash she received for Ghost in the Shell, for almost the exact same reason. That execs not only cast Johansson in this role, but also did not research the character sufficiently enough to realize he vocally preferred male pronouns (and according to his obituary, “may have” even taken steps toward physically transitioning) is the entire problem. All parties are complicit here in furthering the disenfranchisement of LGBT people on-screen: the studio for offering the role to Johansson, Johansson for accepting it, and the screenwriter and producer for misgendering the character in the first place.

In the case of trans narratives, advancing stories like these has distorted our historical understanding of trans people; in the movies, women pass as men out of necessity, becoming successful in a traditionally masculine role, and then, after the ordeal is over, coming out again as women. That’s also an erasure. (Look no further than Mulan. This kind of story goes way further back.) As Alex Myers wrote in Slate:

Of course, for those living in a misogynistic culture, passing as a man absolutely grants privilege. That’s an inescapable fact. But that doesn’t mean that access to this privilege was always the motivating factor for a woman to live as a man. Telling these progress narratives erases the presence of transgender people from the historical record. Instead of seeing women who lived as men, instead of understanding how society at the time forced them to resume their lives as women once their “disguise” was discovered, the narratives create a more comforting tale, insisting that these women never really wanted to be men at all.

Tex Gill would seem to fit pretty neatly here. During his life, Gill ran a string of massage parlors, which authorities believed were “little more than brothels,” and was eventually taken down by the IRS for tax evasion. He spent seven years in prison. According to the Post-Gazette, he started in the business to care for his mother Agnes, who died of cancer in 1973. “[He] was very tough. A lot of fun. [He] drank a lot. [He] partied a lot. [He] could recite poetry endlessly. Irish poetry,” Gill’s former lawyer told the paper (also misgendering him, of course). His cousin said “[He] was personally gentle and nonviolent, and [he] made a nice corrupt life for [himself] in a nice corrupt American society.”

Per Deadline, Rub & Tug’s “emotional core” will come from Gill’s relationship with his girlfriend, Cynthia — according to his obit, the real Gill married an unnamed woman in Hawaii, whom he later divorced — but it remains to be seen whether Sanders and Johansson will depict that relationship on-screen as a romance between two women, or one between a heterosexual trans man and a heterosexual woman. As queer viewers know all too well, there’s a massive difference between the two.

Sanders’ film went to auction, and the production company New Regency won worldwide rights to Rub & Tug over five other bidders. That means five other production companies didn’t care to do their research on the character at the heart of the story they were throwing money at; it’s only more evidence that Hollywood is still doing a terrible job of handling trans people and trans issues.

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