Representation Matters: Rub and Tug Edition

Upcoming movie Rub and Tug (planned release in 2019, directed by Rupert Sanders and written by Gary Spinelli more info here,), seems like it could be well timed in a world dealing with the realities of trans identities and also grappling with sex work and prostitution. While the two subjects may not seem inherently linked at first glance, both the recent history of the trans and LGBTQ movements, such as the Stonewall riots, link the two. Rub and Tug is poised to unite them in a way that could be both genuine and insightful. The movie’s main character, Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, was a trans man who lived and breathed the sex work world. However, there’s also much that could go wrong, and at least one possibility has already nearly come to pass. I am, of course, talking about Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Gill.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Scarlett Johansson. I think it’s incredibly impressive that she has managed to gain a reputation as an action actor. No mean feat for a woman in Hollywood. I was skeptical of some of her previous roles, A Ghost in the Shell (2017, also directed by Rupert Sanders), but overall I enjoy her work.
However, much like with A Ghost in the Shell, at some point casting should reflect the character. I’m all for blind-casting with some projects. But there are some things that aren’t ready for blind-casting by simple virtue of having not gotten to experience true-to-form casting. And trans characters are definitely in that category. Sure, there are trans actors playing trans characters on screen (Laverne Cox as Sophia Burnette in Orange is the New Black is one example), but there are few roles that trans actors are cast for. Certainly, as Jamie Clayton (of Sense8, and a trans actress) pointed out, “Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM.”  source. If trans actors were getting cast in cis roles (cis being the term for individuals whose gender identity and assigned-gender match) this would be less of an issue. But they aren’t. Trans actors are getting cast for some trans roles, and no cis roles. So when the field is narrowed even further by a cis actor taking on a trans character, of course there is going to be some controversy.

But, as a genderqueer person, I think the graver insult is that Scarlett Johansson was fundamentally a woman playing a character who worked very hard to live and be seen as a man.

It would have been less insulting, in my option, for Gill to be played by a cis-man than a cis-woman. Logistically that also poses challenges, makeup would be necessary for pre-transition Gill, if any such scenes are planned, but makeup would be necessary to turn gorgeous and petite Scarlett Johansson into an older heavier trans man. I would have been accepting of two actors playing Gill, pre and post transition, but even this runs into problems of asserting that pre and post transition are two different people and identities when, for many trans folks, the perception that gender transition also changes who the person fundamentally is is still a problem. Transitioning just means that the outside portrayal of the person looks and is allowed to act more like the internal version of that person. Other key defining factors and interests usually are unaltered, or if they do change it’s better laid at the feet of character growth and development rather than the person’s change in appearance.

At the end of the day I also think that it was a betrayal of the character himself to cast a cis-female as Gill. Gill was a man who managed to define himself for himself, and those around him, as a man at a time when the language and understanding for trans-ness wasn’t there. Moreover, he did it as a criminal and a pimp, where the people surrounding him aren’t exactly likely to be easy to convinced of his identity. Particularly not when Gill was an ex sex-worker himself. The force of character and of will that would have been necessary to do this is immense. And if we want to portray this person in our media I think it is incredibly important to do so in a way the man himself would have been proud to see. Not a woman in makeup and a costume, but a man forging a path for himself in a difficult and unforgiving, not to mention criminal, world.

I’m grateful that Johansson quickly decided to withdraw from the project after the controversy came to light. But the mere fact of her original casting makes me nervous for the movie as a whole. It has an opportunity to bring a conversation about transness and the connection between transness and doing sexwork out of necessity and lack of other options, to the fore. It has an opportunity to bring discussions about why the Nordic Model of addressing sexwork isn’t a positive or effective way of addressing either the legality or minimizing the risks of sex work. And it has a chance to humanize the people who do sex work, by choice or out of necessity. I hope that the movie does these things and does them well. But I worry, given the tone-deaf choice of this casting, and the controversy of Rupert Sanders’ casting Johansson in A Ghost in the Shell, that this is not the director, nor the time, to tell this story. Rub and Tug has a chance to do something incredibly important and valuable here, but I fear it may become yet another freakshow spectacle profiting off minoritized identity and the same sex and depravity sells model we’ve seen too many times before, and may yet see too many times again.

What do you think?