Scarlett Johansson and Minority Representation on Film

A few days ago, Scarlett Johansson was announced as the lead in a new movie called Rub & Tug about Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who owned a massage parlor and became involved in mob crime. The casting of a cisgender actress to play a transgender man has generated an angry buzz, only heightened by a Johansson rep’s reply to it: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment” (cisgender actors who have played transgender characters onscreen). In the wake of this conversation about what it means to have a minority character represented by someone outside the group, I thought this would be a good time to talk about this subject in film history.

When the Hays Code first came into being in 1930, the code explicitly forbade miscegenation onscreen, which was defined as “sex relationships between the white and black races.” This applied not only to what was depicted on film, but also in who was allowed to play which parts, opposite whom. If a leading man was black, for example, the leading lady also had to be black. If he was Asian, the leading lady had to be Asian, if he was white, the leading lady must be white. In order to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, starring the celebrities that would make them the most money, the studios were frequently pushed to put actors in blackface or yellowface, thereby creating films that was marketable–but outrageously offensive. Films such as these were frequently picketed by the NAACP, but for many years the studios found the picketing a small cost compared to the box office revenue from the films, and they had little motivation to do anything about the racially charged nature of the films coming out of Hollywood.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 10.50.53 PM

[IMAGE: Anna May Wong in a jeweled headdress, looking off camera.]

Meanwhile, careers were suffering. Anna May Wong, one of the few leading ladies of Asian descent in Hollywood in the 1930s, left for Europe out of frustration with the anti-miscegenation laws that governed how she could work onscreen. In Europe, she made a huge splash with such films as Piccadilly and Pavement Butterfly, but after her return to the United States when she signed a contract with Paramount, she could only be paired as a leading lady alongside Sessue Hayakawa–while Asian and Asian-American roles opposite white actors had to go to other white actors. Instead of procuring her onscreen roles, Paramount gave her a job as a tutor to teach white actors how to “act Asian” for their parts. The final straw came when the role of Chinese farmer O-Lan in The Good Earth went to Luise Rainer opposite Paul Muni. Wong had had it with Hollywood, and from then on only acted in low-budget films to finish her contract with Paramount, in later years donating her profits to United China Relief.

In 1942, the NAACP succeeded in its efforts to convince Hollywood to stop creating stereotypical characterizations of minorities, and to hire more African-American talent, but the anti-miscegenation laws continued. The role of Julie LaVerne in the 1951 version of Show Boat, a story that deals with the interracial relationship of a white man and a singer with African-American ancestry, was given to Ava Gardner instead of Lena Horne. In 1951, you could depict an interracial relationship–but not with an actual interracial couple.

Lena Horne sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, in the movie Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)

Fortunately, these rules are now long gone in the movies. But their influence still echoes, in the desire to stick with already-established personalities who will bring profit to the movies, rather than prioritize authentic casting. While it is now widely recognized that white actors cannot play characters of color, the same understanding does not yet exist for transgender characters or disabled characters. When the movie Wonder came out last year, starring Jacob Tremblay as a young boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome, I couldn’t help but think how many kids with Treacher Collins would have loved to star in a movie about a child with their disability. Or how many aspiring young actors with the syndrome could have played that role to perfection, and were denied a chance at employment. Like the limited opportunities afforded minority stars in the days of the Hays Code, this tendency to procure big names over authentic casting is costing many actors their livelihoods, and the right to tell their own stories.

Children-of-a-Lesser-God-02-1

Marlee Matlin made her screen debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986), and won the Best Actress Oscar as a deaf actress playing a deaf role. She remains the only deaf performer to have won the award.    [IMAGE: Marlee Matlin signs in the dinner scene from Children of a Lesser God]

There is no dearth of transgender actors in Hollywood. The cast of Transparent, using authentic transgender casting, has earned numerous accolades and awards. Its stars, most previously unknown, have become veritable names in the industry. Had the producers of Rub & Tug managed to look beyond the reflex appeal of Scarlett Johansson and take a risk on an unknown transgender actor, they almost certainly would have found one, able to tell his own story truthfully and honestly. But as long as Hollywood plays it safe, continuing to recycle its moneymaking stars with no attention to authenticity, we will continue to see mere imitations and stereotyped portrayals on the screen, and miss out on witnessing potentially spectacular untapped talent.

There is an oft-repeated phrase in the disability rights community that has made its way into the LGBT rights movement–“Nothing about us, without us.” The producers of Rub & Tug would be wise to take that into consideration.

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6 responses to “Scarlett Johansson and Minority Representation on Film

  1. I consider acting to be the art of appearing authentic while being inauthentic, and the greater the difference between real and unreal — while appearing real to the audience — indicates the better actor. A male actor persuading me he is a woman fascinates me, and if he could persuade me to believe he was an animal, all kudos to him! But all too often we are simply given a man in a cheap gorilla outfit…
    If the varieties of our acting world (I detest the word minorities since its rootword is minor) had fair opportunities to cinematic roles, I for one would not be offended if a male actor won a female role over a female actor or an able bodied actor won a role over an actor with a mobility challenge, as example. What bothers me much more is the non specific role that defaults to a white male due to casting bias and simple lack of imagination.

  2. I agree. If we lived in an ideal world where there were no inequalities in opportunity or inherent dominance of one group over another in society, anything should go. But as long as there are inequalities, representation and visibility are important. There’s a wonderful disabled comedian named Maysoon Zayid, who says “Until I can play Beyoncé, Beyoncé can’t play me.”

  3. I am still angry at Scarlett Johansson for taking the lead role in Ghost in the Shell (and at DreamWorks for casting her in it). In the original manga and the anime based upon it, the character is Japanese. There are plenty of lovely Japanese and Japanese American actresses who have could played that role. It is not as if Hollywood is bustling with lead roles for Asian actors.

  4. Asian leading men and women are so rarely seen in Hollywood. I can count on one hand the number of Asian stars I’ve seen in a non-stereotypical leading role in Hollywood in the past 20 years. Scarlett Johansson gets their roles. It’s not that they’re not there—it’s that they’re not being given work because they’re not names…and they’re not names because they’re not given work. It’s a catch-22. Hollywood has a real problem with realistic depictions of Asian-Americans onscreen.

  5. Martin Freedman

    Thanks for view of reality. Marty

  6. Thanks for reading, Marty. Hope to see you soon!

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