Thursday, July 5, 2018

Hollywood, bigotry, and Scarlett Johansson. . . .

Ok, it has been a long time since I last blogged, but my life in the past year has been a bit crazy and disjointed. Furthermore, I have found the current political climate so depressing that I have had difficulty talking about. I keep in touch with current events, but increases in racism, hate, and downright wilful ignorance is just debilitating sometimes. I was recently reinvigorated a little bit by the victory and voice of Alexanria Ocasio-Cortez and people like her, so it is not all doom and gloom. But, as many of you know, it's pretty dark out there at the moment.

The issue that has dragged me back to my keyboard is the recent controversy surround Scarlett Johansson and her agreement to play the trans man Dante "Tex" Gill. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have a non-binary, trans daughter, so I have a vested interest in the issue. However, while I am a cisgender male, I am a staunch ally of trans people, and it is as an ally that I write this.

Though I admit that it is a complicated issue, I think it is deeply problematic for Ms. Johansson to be cast in this role. My concern has nothing to do with Johansson's acting ability, about which I don't feel qualified to speak. Nor do I think that no actor should ever be able to play another identity. I also understand that an argument can be made that Johansson's high profile in such a part can bring trans issues to public attention in positive ways. Johansson is a top-level Hollywood star and is not only bankable but will but a lot of people in seats.

Yet, having said that, I think that the potential payoff here is outweighed by the way such a act can reinforce the marginalizing of trans people. Hollywood has a long history of this marginalization. From the conception of film as an art form, Indigenous people, for example, have been played by white, sometime high-profile, actors like Chuck Connors who stared in the 1962 film Geronimo. The idea of Connors as Geronimo might seem absurd to us today, but in the early 60s no one batted an eye (at least not white people). While I hope that the trans issue will be handled carefully by Johansson and the rest of the film's staff, I believe that the same thing is essentially going on here.

Many people think the controversy surrounding this decision is "silly," and that trans people are being too sensitive. I have heard people suggest that "the whole point of acting is to play someone you are not," so it doesn't matter. However, if you take this argument to its conclusion, it holds little weight. Many people today would be uncomfortable with Johansson playing a Native American. This is because there is a long history of racism against Indigenous people, they have been brutalized and marginalized at all levels of society, and their exclusion from the narratives of film has been part of that marginalization. There are plenty of good native actors who can play the parts of native people and putting a white person in such a role would seem offensive and anachronistic. Furthermore, it is vitally important in our struggle against racism that Indigenous people start playing a central role in telling the story of themselves, rather than having other people do it for them.

The point is even more clear if we take a more extreme example. If Scarlett Johansson donned black-face and played the role of, say, Billie Holiday in a film, there would be near universal condemnation. The very idea is absurd. But the absurdity of the idea is a result of decades of work by activists around the issues of racism and the marginalization of African-Americans. I would say that it doesn't seem absurd to many people for Johansson to play a trans man because the vast majority of people still don't know much about trans people, their difficult struggle for acceptance, and the terrible bigotry that they still face. If such issues were more widely known and understood, I think most people would think that it is inappropriate for a woman to play a trans man.

There are many people who try to marginalize the controversy surrounding this issue by saying that there is a long history in theatre of people playing other genders. This is a misleading argument. There is, of course, a long history of men playing women in theatre, but this is mostly because for much of our history women were not even allowed on stage. This fact shouldn't compel us to ignore the problem of a woman playing a trans man. Rather, it should remind us how sexist the history of theatre is and how insensitive people have actually been to issues of equity and equality in the arts. Furthermore, a long tradition is not a good argument for continuing to ignore what is right and wrong. In actual fact there is also a very long history of white people playing racialized people in theatre (it goes back at least 600 years, maybe longer), but no one would use this as a justification for the use of black-face.

I am sure that there are many excellent trans male actors out there who would love to play this part. And the fact that the part has been given to a woman must surely be a reiteration of the marginalized status of trans people. Like indigenous people or African-Americans, trans people need to be given the space and support to tell their own story. It is sometimes a sad story full of pain and struggle, but it is an important one and one that can uplift us all as we seek to support any and all marginalized and oppressed group. 

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