This week saw some controversy arise with the just-announced biopic “Rub & Tug” starring Scarlett Johansson as a transgendered man who ran a Pittsburgh criminal empire fronted by massage parlors in the 1970s.
The project marks a re-teaming of Johansson with filmmaker Rupert Sanders, the pair having worked together on the live-action anime adaptation “Ghost in the Shell” last year which itself was hit by issues surrounding the choice to whitewash its central Asian character lead.
Following criticisms raised about “Rug & Tug,” Johansson’s rep responded with a surprisingly pithy dismissal but did point out numerous other notable cisgender (non-transgender) actors like Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman who have won awards for playing transgender characters.
This weekend Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, who directed trans actress Daniela Vega in the Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman,” came out in support of Johansson in an eloquent statement to THR:
“It’s true [that] cultural representation has been scarce so far. And it’s also true that the gesture of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender role can be aesthetically or ethically debatable — but it should never be prohibited.
When I decided to cast Daniela Vega to play Marina in A Fantastic Woman, it was an act of artistic freedom, not political correctness. I wasn’t telling the world that transgender roles should be played by transgender actors. I was only doing what I felt was right for my film.
Whenever the decision to cast Daniela Vega is interpreted as an authoritarian gesture, a gesture that tells people what to do, I always raise my hand and say ‘No.’ I’m not commanding anyone to do anything, I’m exercising my artistic freedom.
If I said transgender roles should only be played by transgender actors, I would be implying that Daniela Vega shouldn’t play a cisgender role. And I believe she has every right to play a man or a woman.
I sympathize with the drama of transgender actors who have little chances of exercising their craft, but I’ll never make myself available to join or empower any idea that aims to restrict one of society’s most precious assets, which is the freedom of its artists.
When artistic freedom is threatened, that’s a sign that society is becoming authoritarian, or moving towards behaviors and procedures that start to smell like fascism.”
Others such as notable transgender actresses like Trace Lysette (“Transparent”) and Jamie Clayton (“Sense8”) have criticised the choice on Twitter, specifically calling out the lack of opportunity for transgender women and men to play cisgender roles.
At last report “Rub and Tug” was aiming to begin production early next year.