The Rub & Tug brouhaha — from the initial casting of Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist trans crime boss Dante “Tex” Gill , through to her subsequent exit from the project — provides an excellent snapshot of contemporary Hollywood. A world where bottom line is still everything and where social media bestows fans and foes with far more power than ever before.
The pre-production buzz of a film — notably so centred on leaks about casting decisions — gets filmgoers excited about an upcoming title. Nowadays though, it’s also the time when critics and commentators sharpen their claws.
Rub & Tug was not ScarJo’s first brush with a casting backlash. When she was crowned as the lead in Ghost in the Shell (the live-action adaptation of the Japanese juggernaut) hoopla ensued. Outrage over “whitewashing” was virulent and likely played a small part in the film’s underwhelming box office performance.
So how did we spend a week or so back in that same dark place? Were Silver Pictures unaware that casting a cis woman in a trans role would ruffle feathers? Surely if pundits were unwilling to accept her as a cyborg, then mocking her mercilessly as a trans man would be inevitable.
The studio knew — of course they bloody knew. They knew but they didn’t care enough. Silver Pictures took the gamble that ScarJo’s star was bigger than any Twitter chatter and that enough ticket-buyers would pay to see her open an envelope.
Silver Pictures just didn’t count on the backlash going mainstream; on the revolt leaving the back blocks of Twitter and being reported on by every newspaper and every culture website.
The Ghost in the Shell palaver began in April 2016 with leaks about ScarJo’s casting as Motoko Kusanagi. There was outrage, sure, but back then Donald Trump hadn’t been elected, hadn’t yet sent out his venomous midnight toilet tweets calling for an end to trans soldiers, and the world was looking forward to America’s first female president. This time around though, Trump is in the White House and rather than him quelling the identity politics debates that marked — and arguably marred — the Clinton campaign, a resurgence of civil rights politicking has occurred. The left have mobilised louder and prouder in direct response to a world leader unabashed about his contempt for difference.
ScarJo’s early response to criticism over her casting — that those concerned should direct their worries to “Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps” — overlooked that Leto was in Dallas Buyers Club in 2013, Huffman was in Transamerica in 2005, and that using Tambor as part of any defense strategy has severe limitations. The world has changed in the last few years, notably so under Trump. Pointing to the past to defend herself left ScarJo with slap-face and ultimately led to the demise of the project.
On this occasion, the Twitterverse won. Trans activists and trans allies got what they think they wanted. It’s a victory however, that I think is largely superficial, will likely result in another trans story not being told, and has ultimately curtailed nuanced conversations about the workings of Hollywood, the limitations of Hollywood, and the problems with audiences looking to the multiplex to have their self-esteem buoyed.
Regardless of what minority or historically marginalised group we belong to — gay, trans, fat, non-white, disabled, old — we’ve been underrepresented. On the surface therefore, Rub & Tug might have been a golden opportunity to give the role to an insider. Given the extent to which trans people are marginalised, giving a trans actor a part in a film about a trans person seems fair. Fair, sure, but is it Hollywood?
Hollywood is capitalism, it’s a dream factory, and its sole mission is to cater to the largest number of us willing to pay $20 to see a film. Social engineering isn’t part of its mission statement, Hollywood doesn’t operate like a public broadcaster, and it certainly doesn’t care whether you leave the cinema feeling better about yourself.
Doing the “right” thing, therefore, and giving a trans actor the job — a trans actor who’s insufficiently familiar to audiences to open a multi-million dollar film at a multiplex — is beyond the remit of a commercial enterprise.
A gamut of options of course, exist outside of ScarJo and a lesser known trans actor — commentators for example, have proposed that at least casting a cis man in the role of Dante “Tex” Gill would have been the more appropriate choice. Maybe. And maybe we need to ask ourselves whether Hollywood is the vehicle to tell all our stories or whether in fact, we should be telling our own.
Hollywood’s mission to fill cinemas will always exist in conflict with those of us keen to see diversity and broader representations on screen. Campaigning to shame actors out of roles is one option, so too is producing media ourselves instead of expecting Hollywood to be our mouthpiece.
Lauren Rosewarne is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and has written nine books on gender, sexuality, politics and pop culture.