Tag Archives: transgender

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.

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[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.


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.


DEFYING TRADITION: Yiddish Literature On Film–Part 2: YENTL (1983)

In 1982, 11 years after the filming of Fiddler On the Roof, Barbra Streisand set out to film Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, a story about a young woman who poses as a man in order to study Talmud. Written in the 1950s by Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, the original story sheds light on gender inequality in Orthodox Judaism and the forbidding of women from participation in religious life, as well as issues of gender dysphoria and a transgender character.

Yentl cuts her hair in preparation for posing as a man.

Yentl, a smart, passionate young woman (with “the soul of a man”) who has been instructed in secret by her rabbi father (who has told her that “even heaven makes mistakes,” implying that Yentl may be transgender), decides to cut her hair and pose as a boy in order to avoid marriage and continue her studies after her father’s death. Yentl, as “Anshel,” is accepted into a yeshiva where no one knows her true identity as a woman. There she meets Avigdor, another passionate scholar, and she falls in love with him–though he is oblivious to her true sex. She learns that Avigdor has been rejected by the woman he is in love with, Hadass, because Avigdor’s brother had committed suicide. As an act of revenge and to be as close to Avigdor as possible, “Anshel” marries Hadass. The only person to ever learn that “Anshel” is really Yentl is Avigdor, toward the end of the story…but ultimately, Yentl decides to abandon her identity as a woman and live completely as a man.

This differs greatly from the narrative in the 1983 film. Much to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s chagrin, Barbra Streisand’s film was a multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster musical, subject to the moral codes that Streisand and her company thought the general public would accept. This required an almost complete overhaul of the original ending, and the ending of the movie sees Yentl returning to life as a woman and moving to America in search of greater religious freedom. The exploration of Yentl’s gender identity crisis, and the themes of gender fluidity that punctuate the original story, all but disappear from the film version of Yentl.

In essence, Bashevis Singer’s story was too progressive for a public still wrestling with the concepts that Bashevis Singer puts forth so confidently in Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. This was the height of the AIDS crisis in America, and LGBT issues were just beginning to be recognized and dealt with on a national level. A mainstream, high-budget film about a character who may be considered a trans man was certainly not on the horizon, and as such, the film version of Yentl weaves a completely different narrative. Where in the story, Yentl finds her greater freedom in remaining a man and continuing her religious studies, in the movie she finds herself returning to life as a woman and venturing to America to find greater gender equality. It is a narrative that fits nicely with a mainstream American moviegoing audience in 1983, but ignores or outright negates a very important issue worth exploring.

Knowing Barbra Streisand’s take on LGBT rights, I have a feeling that if she were to have waited to make Yentl and instead have had it released alongside such contemporary films as The Dallas Buyers Club, it would have been a completely different movie and perhaps it would have been more to Bashevis Singer’s satisfaction. But as it is, Yentl is a feminist movie that speaks to the place of women in Jewish religious and social life. And in that sense, taking Yentl for what it is as a film regardless of the original source material, the movie is a success.

Thank you for reading!