While the topic of gender fluidity is embraced by the Hollywood machine, the entertainment industry still struggles with the ethics of casting for non-cisgender roles. The push for inclusion and progress, with regard to roles of a certain race or gender, is being made by a major sector of the business; the dilemma is whether to prioritize casting well-known actors, or to cast talent whose own personal identity fits best to the character’s.
For side-liners it’s easy to say that the latter priority should always come first, and that Hollywood should stop glorifying celebrity culture and act ethically in its every move. Unfortunately, the film industry’s livelihood is based on box office numbers, and there are very few things that attract audiences as much as a superstar actor. As long as a project does not face intense public scrutiny, I can guarantee that most executives, casting directors, managers and even directors will always go with the most recognizable face. This has happened for years, leaving ethnic, gay and other minority actors out of a job, failing to receive the chance to portray roles that represent themselves and their communities. Whether you have Marlon Brando playing Emiliano Zapata in Latino-face in Viva Zapata! (1956), or Jared Leto acting as a transgender, HIV suffering woman in Dallas Buyers Club (2014), the movie industry will typically hire an established celebrity over an actor who may better represent a particular role.
The public has never had as much say in the moral workings of the world’s biggest entertainment machine as it does today, and outsiders think differently about the gender problem. Casting decisions are not so easily rammed through without criticism. Thus, the departure of Scarlett Johansson from New Regency’s Rub and Tug, a drama following the life of Dante “Tex” Gill (a crime kingpin from the ’70s who lived as a trans man), is a thoroughly modern occurrence. After news broke that Johansson (who is not transgender) would portray Gill, the immediate social media backlash that followed no doubt played a part in the 33-year-old actress dropping out of the project only a week after the casting announcement.
A mostly positive response resulted from Johansson’s choice to drop out of the transgender role, though of course there are those who believe cowing to a mob in the name of political correctness is the bigger problem. The Hollywood Reporter published a video in which trans authorities such as Alexandra Grey and Rhys Ernst speak on the importance of Gill being represented by an actor of proper orientation. And while this might not be a moment of reckoning for Hollywood (as the video describes), Johansson’s departure shows that while mistakes are still being made and diverse representation remains an issue, those affected will embrace those who are willing to listen to the community and work toward change.