The controversy over casting cisgender actors in transgender roles may have finally reached a turning point, if the current uproar over Scarlett Johansson’s casting as transgender man Dante “Tex” Gill is any indication.
After several news outlets and social media users called out the actress for agreeing to portray Gill—a massage parlor-owning Pittsburgh crime lord— in the film Rub & Tug, Johansson issued a dismissive statement to Bustle via a representative: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” (Tambor, Leto, and Huffman are all cisgender, or non-transgender, actors who have played transgender characters.) That insensitive response has only fueled the justifiable anger over her casting.
By some measures, this is what progress looks like, however messy: Not long ago, an A-list cisgender actor like Johansson wouldn’t even feel the need to rudely defend taking a transgender role; they would just play the part, collect the Oscar, and move on. But in terms of the media treatment of transgender men, passing this already-low benchmark is too little—and it is happening so very late.
It was only last month, after all, that Donna Minkowitz, the journalist whose 1994 Village Voice story on murdered transgender man Brandon Teena informed the Hilary Swank film Boys Don’t Cry, looked back on her own coverage in a powerful essay about her past “transphobic ignorance.”
Minkowitz, like Boys Don’t Cry, did not fully accept Brandon Teena’s male gender identity at face value: Minkowitz wrote in 1994 about the man’s “true gender” and his “femaleness”; the award-winning 1999 film was received by critics who largely understood it to be about a tragic young woman who thought she was a man.
Roger Ebert, for example, wrote in his review that the motto of the film should be “Girls just wanna have fun,” calling Brandon “a lonely girl who would rather be a boy.” (“She is not a transsexual, a lesbian, a cross-dresser, or a member of any other category on the laundry list of sexual identities; she is a girl who thinks of herself as a boy,” Ebert continued.)
That false impression, of course, was not helped by the fact that a cisgender woman, Swank, had been cast in the role. A transgender male actor would have not only lent authenticity to the part, his presence at premieres and interviews would have forced the entertainment press to at least reckon with his identity more seriously. It’s easy to speculate about the dead; it’s harder to call a transgender man a “woman” to his face.
But now, nearly 20 years after Boys Don’t Cry, that exact same dynamic is repeating itself with Johansson’s part in the story of Dante “Tex” Gill.
In breaking the news on July 2, Deadline referred to Rub & Tug as 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.”
The article also referred to Dante by his birth name and used female pronouns to refer to him, calling Gill “a larger-than-life character who took on the mob through her empire of illicit massage parlors... all the while cross-dressing and leaning on her allies in the gay community to help grow her empire.”
That, sadly, aligns with how the press understood Gill when he was still alive. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette referred to Gill as a “lesbian” and as a “woman who dressed like a man suits and ties, wore short hair and sideburns and preferred to be called ‘Mr. Gill.’”
Gill was most active in the ’70s and ’80s, eventually serving a prison sentence for tax evasion in the ’80s and ’90s. But after he died in 2003, details included in the Post-Gazette obituary strongly suggest that Gill was not a masculine lesbian woman, but a transgender man. The obituary, still misgendering the dead crime boss, notes that “she may have even undergone the initial stages of a sex change that made her appear more masculine.”
“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 that she wanted to be known as ‘Mr. Gill,’” the obituary notes.
Most painfully, the obituary says that Gill “sure looked and acted the part [of a man]”—and indeed, that’s probably because he was a man, living at a time when there was too little public understanding of what it meant to be transgender.
Fortunately, this time around, there are more LGBT voices in entertainment writing to push back on inaccurate descriptions of Gill—and on Johansson’s casting.
Writing for ScreenCrush, E. Oliver Whitney noted that “a quick Google search reveals that Gill lived as a transmasculine person,” criticizing the trades for not doing enough homework on his story. And Them’s Meredith Talusan pointed out the hypocrisy of Johansson citing past cisgender actors playing transgender parts to defend herself: “Using Hollywood’s ills to defend those same ills is no justification at all.”
By now, responding to all of the defenses of casting cisgender actors in transgender parts has become almost a rote exercise for those of us who have done this so many times before: Why is it a bad idea? Because it encourages people to see transgender women as really men, and transgender men as really women.
Does that mean straight people can’t play gay people? No, because sexual orientation and gender identity have different relationships to personhood; we don’t call cisgender gay people by different pronouns just because they are gay.
The most frustrating misconception of all, though, relies on the notion that box office success matters more than respecting someone’s identity: Isn’t it important to attach a big name to a transgender story? Yes, but you can do it like the FX series Pose is doing: Cast a recognizable actor like James Van Der Beek in a supporting part, and fill out the cast with relatively unknown transgender actors who have talent to spare. After all, the only way for unknown transgender actors to gain notoriety is to actually cast them.
Case in point: Transparent star Trace Lysette and Sense8’s Jamie Clayton are now being mentioned by name in headlines at outlets like Variety for their criticisms of Scarlett Johansson’s forthcoming project. If Lysette and Clayton hadn’t been cast on those shows, it’s almost certainly the case that this week’s headlines would have glossed them as “transgender actresses” instead.
But we can’t expect Hollywood to change its tune so quickly—especially when it comes to telling the stories of transgender men specifically.
High-profile representation of transgender women has been increasing of late, with films like Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl, but an increase in quantity doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in quality.
One day, the casting of cisgender men as transgender women in those award-winning films will feel as dated as 1992’s The Crying Game, with its “shocking twist,” does to modern LGBT-friendly audiences. Hollywood, it seems, has long been more interested in male-to-female transition than the opposite.
In fact, most filmgoers would probably be hard-pressed to name another memorable portrayal of a transgender man in a major film besides Boys Don’t Cry.
Notably, Elle Fanning, a cisgender actress, played a transgender boy in the 2017 family drama 3 Generations. That film was also criticized for its casting choice, with the director subsequently defended the use of Fanning in an interview with Bustle, saying, “I didn’t find or know of a trans actor who could play the role in the same way that Elle could.”
But that’s roughly equivalent to saying that you cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Jackie Robinson because you don’t know any good young black actors: In both cases there are indeed viable choices who belong to the marginalized group in question, even if they have less name recognition than more privileged or experienced choices.
Besides, the star power in 3 Generations—which also featured Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon—did not translate into success anyway: The film grossed less than $200,000 domestically.
Hollywood had a chance with Rub & Tug to move the needle forward for storytelling about transgender men. By all accounts, Dante “Tex” Gill cut a fascinating figure in Pittsburgh. That is exactly the kind of onscreen LGBT media representation we need to see more of: a fascinating, imperfect figure whose identity is part of—but not the entirety of—his story. But Rub & Tug looks to be squandering that chance.
This time around, though, it won’t take 20 years for it to seem like an artifact. It will be dated on arrival.