Bad Representation or No Representation?

The double-bind of being trans in Hollywood.

It’s hard being a woman in Hollywood. Only 0.5 of the last 20 Marvel movies have been about someone of your gender, and even then, she was an afterthought to Paul Rudd, because apparently the cinematic universe really needed nail down representation for dudes who seem like an approachable and 40% fuckable social studies teacher before they gave any branding or merchandise to a girl.

If you’re a woman in Hollywood, you often have to choose between playing a sexist, uninteresting role and not working at all. If you want to change that, and get a film of your own produced, you have to withstand years of tense meetings with overbearing men, which could turn into assault at any moment. If, god forbid but statistics foretell, you do get assaulted, you’ll be pilloried for coming forward and your abuser will, at most, go to therapy and then come back, rejuvenated, to say some hand wringing shit about how it is to even talk to ladies in the post-#MeToo era.

For every inch forward there’s a mile lashed back. Even when you get an acclaimed, celebrated role in a film that sells well, it’s usually in a reboot of a men’s film, usually in a role that was originally a man’s.

So maybe, in some universe, Scarlet Johannson could be forgiven for believing that she could snatch the role of a transgender man, Dante “Tex” Gil, in a film about his life and exploits as a hard-drinking, pornography-peddling, handjob-parlor-running racketeer.

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Let me tell you a little bit about Dante Tex Gill. Born in 1930 outside of Pittsburgh, Gill adopted a male name and began wearing men’s clothing before he turned 18. This was, perhaps not incidentally, the first time he was arrested for prostitution. Gill initially made a living doing sex work, then moved up the ranks of Pittburgh’s crime world, distributing porn, paying off corrupt cops, and serving as the muscle for a prominent local mobster, George Lee. When Lee died, Gill took ownership of one his erotic massage parlors, handling finances, organizing STI tests for the ladies in his employ, and using brute force as well as lie detector tests to shake down clients and workers who weren’t coughing up Gill’s slice of the handjob industry pie.

Gill also was fat, and handsome in a world-weary, masculine way. Every Marvel fan has been rubbing their beave to Thanos lately, saying he’s Daddy, but he’s a fucking purple bedazzled amateur. Dante Tex Gil was fucking #Daddy okay.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: a person all the way back in 19-dickety-2 was a transtrendered? Yes, really, some of us were not created through exposure, in our formative years, to spiky-haired androgynous video game protagonists. Trans people gosh darned existed throughout history! The same year that Gill was born, the Institute of Sex Research in Germany performed one of the first-ever gender confirmation surgeries, on Lili Elbe, the subject of the film The Danish Girl. Throughout Germany at the time, trans men and women were receiving hormone replacement therapy and increased societal acceptance…until this crazy thing happened and all their books and records got burned and all their patients were sent to death camps by this super weird group of angry dudes who were, like, an early precursor to Reddit users.

Trans people have always existed. Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut was a trans man. Joan of Arc was probably trans. Someone in the band The Barenaked Ladies is definitely trans, trust me, the lyrics to “What a Good Boy” and “Alcohol” prove it, please come to my graduate seminar on the topic.

And yet in Hollywood years, trans people are so new and unfamiliar that they cannot be found. Like ghosts or sexual assault accusations that result in arrests, trans people were impossible to locate when Transparent, The Danish Girl, The Dallas Buyers Club, and Boys Don’t Cry were being cast. And many of the cisgender actors in those films never caught any shit for putting on trans-face. So why wouldn’t Johannson want a bite of that award-bait?

And listen, we know ScarJo has some range. In Lost in Translation she played somebody who had read a fucking philosophy book at least once in her life! And she’s done so many fucking Marvel movies guys, each one with a different fucking haircut for some reason! So let’s just let her have one more haircut, right? A nice flattop? And a suit?

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Johannson as The Major in Ghost in the Shell.

Of course, this isn’t her first time stealing a marginalized identity for the chance to don a new haircut. Last year, she starred in a film adaptation of the anime Ghost in the Shell, snatching the role of The Major, an East Asian woman, into her grubby little white paws.

And, as a dipshit who watched so much anime as a child that bigots believe I was “turned transgendered” by it, that’s one appropriation I’m not gonna let slide. You can get a short haircut and pretend to have gender dysphoria all you want, but as soon as you co-opt Asian cultures more egregiously than my ignorant 13-year-old anime-watching self did, you’ve crossed the fucking Rubicon, in my book.

Predictably, the announcement that Johannson would be playing a trans man was met with vociferious outrage, just as Ghost in the Shell was. This time, though, Johannson chose to withdraw from the project. Perhaps because the financial failure of Ghost in the Shell had left her gun-shy. Maybe because the criticism of white trans folks sunk in more that the criticism of East Asian people. Maybe because Johannson tried binding her breasts realized that shit is way more unconformable than an asymmetrical wig.

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Regardless, when Johannson announced this week that she was withdrawing from the project, the backing of her production company went with it. As did the support of the film’s director, who’d also directed Johannson in Ghost in the Shell. The film’s prospects are now grim. When forced to choose between finding a trans actor and having a film get panned for insensitive casting, the producers of this film elected to not make a movie at all.

This week, coincidentally, a prominent TV showrunner sent me, the author of this piece, a treatment for a new show about a trans teenager. The script was…not great. The script portrayed nonbinary people as flighty and confused. The actor playing the trans teenager is probably not gonna be trans.

But I still read the script and gave meaningful, sensitive feedback. Because when forced to choose between having a bad narrative and no narratives at all, I elected to have a bad one.

It’s hard to be a woman in Hollywood. It’s virtually impossible to be trans.

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This piece was originally read live at The Paper Machete, Chicago’s Live Magazine.

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