For the Culture: Scarlett Johansson plays everything but the empathetic star

William Evans

Just because something is an easy target doesn't mean it can avoid getting objects volleyed at it.

Recently, Scarlett Johansson — ScarJo if you nasty — stepped away from an announced starring role in “Rub and Tug,” the story of Dante “Tex” Gill, a crime boss and transgender man. Johansson experienced a similar controversy just last year when she starred in “Ghost in the Shell” as Major, a previously Japanese character.

The actress didn't help matters when she responded to initial “Rub & Tug” criticisms with a tone-deaf defense, releasing a statement that said, in part, “Tell [critics] they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment,” naming three cis actors who have portrayed transgender characters onscreen.

Johansson is a talented actress by any measure, but she hasn't been terribly empathetic when taking on these roles, or in handling the criticism that comes with her choices. As a repeat offender, she became an easy target for both jokes and outrage. But she's not alone in this practice — not by a long shot.

Every few weeks, there seems to be a new white, cis person cast as a character who is either not cis, or not white. The most damaging part of this practice is the opportunities it strips from the actors who should be represented in those roles. Transgender actors had virtually no roles in any noteworthy Hollywood film last year, and Laverne Cox can't play every transgender woman written into a script.

What made this an even more difficult hill for Johansson and company to climb is the roaring success of the FX series “Pose,” a LGBTQ+ centered drama set in late 1980s New York City. The show has garnered both high viewership and critical acclaim while boasting an almost entirely POC queer cast — including several transgender actors in transgender character roles. Similar to “Black Panther” and the forthcoming “Crazy Rich Asians,” it combats the stereotype that stories driven by marginalized characters and performers don't sell, or can't warrant enough public attention to be sustainable.

But even to make these kinds of situations about the bottom line is slightly disingenuous, since it's also about the comfort level of those who don't share these identities. It's the deal-with-the-devil compromise in which moviemakers frequently engage. On one hand, Hollywood gets to appear bold in telling a challenging story. But on the other the industry consistently plays it safe, casting easy-on-the-eyes, A-list actresses like ScarJo in the leading roles.

What bravery. What courage.