Not Your Performance

Scarlett Johansson is in the news again.

The actress and sometimes singer faced heavy criticism after she — a white woman — played an Asian woman in the live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” in 2015.

She decided to follow up “Ghost in the Shell” with a story called “Rub & Tug” about a transgender man, Dante “Tex” Gill, but killed the project after intense backlash from trans activists. It’s worth noting that Johansson looks less like a husky, dark-haired transgender man than she looked like any version of “Ghost in the Shell’s” cybernetic character, Major Motoko Kusanagi — and that’s saying something.

Johansson was initially defiant over the backlash, pointing to other then-recent films that included cisgender men in transgender female roles, such as Jared Leto as Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club” and Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in “The Danish Girl.” Apparently, Johansson was unaware that the trans community, too, panned these portrayals.

Now, hot off the heels of what may be her last ride in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow — at least within the Avengers — Johansson is complaining again.

In an interview with As If magazine, Johansson said, “You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job,” Johansson told the magazine.

Johansson added, “I feel like it’s a trend in my business, and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions.”

As soon as the interview started making the rounds, Johansson walked back these remarks a bit, saying on CNN that, “I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That is the point I was making, albeit didn’t come across that way,” she said.

“I recognize that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cisgender actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to,” added Johansson. “I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included.”

I find it darkly humorous that Johansson decided to speak out about the perils of “political correctness” between the announcements of Halle Bailey taking the role of a fictional mermaid and Lashana Lynch playing second fiddle as “007” alongside Daniel Craig’s likely-final spin as James Bond.

Bailey and Lynch have already faced a firestorm over being Black and playing fictional roles widely considered to be fair skinned — an assumption “defaultism,” where it is simply assumed that an attractive, cis, straight, Caucasian performer would be the default for practically any role. Meanwhile a performer who doesn’t fit those conditions is considered more of a “niche” performer, only viable for a role constrained to their exact physical being.

Now, sure, if Johansson feels that she should play a birch or a marmoset, that’s her business. I’m not going to stand in her way. I will, however, call her out on the thinking “political correctness” drove people to criticize her choice to play “Tex” Gill.

“Rub & Tug” had Johansson as an executive director, and I have little doubt that the studio felt it was “politically correct,” that the lead go to her. That she wielded her power to kill the project when popular opinion turned against that casting decision, to me, proves that point.

While she could decide that she still deserves that part, or any other trans part, I would hope she understands she is not making a film for transgender people, but is making a movie designed for cisgender eyes. Her very presence, playing the role of a trans man, would “other” the film’s main character.

For better or worse, I have seen decades of cisgender people playing transgender roles, and while a small handful of those earlier films provided role models for my own transition, I can certainly look back at every last one of them and see gaping flaws. That was, after all, all we had.

It’s different now. While there are still not enough trans performers on screen, we now live in an era where “Pose” shows several trans and nonbinary performers depicting LGBT life in the ’80s and ’90s. We have Laverne Cox, who rose to fame with her role in “Orange is the New Black” and now appears in film, television and any number of celebrity circles. And we have Jamie Clayton on the now-canceled “Sense8” and Jen Richards as Anna Madrigal in “Tales of the City,” both on Netflix.

We are in a time when transgender people are taking transgender roles, or, heck, even cisgender roles. We need more of this. After all, where is the brilliant trans masculine actor who can fit into Tex’s shoes? That person should share Tex’s story, not Johansson.

Johansson can play any number of characters — including presumably all the flora and fauna of the forest — but she is never going to be able to represent the life of a transgender person as well as a transgender person. As good an actress as she is, her performance of “Tex” Gill would be as hollow as Redmayne’s or Leto’s transgender takes.

Gwen Smith wonders if Jackie Chan is available to play Scarlett Johansson in a biopic. You’ll find her at

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