Transgender Artists Applaud Scarlett Johansson's 'Rub & Tug' Exit

Scarlett Johansson

Hollywood's transgender community responds to the star's withdrawal from a project centered on a trans man.

There's not always a lot of distance between celebration and relief.

Less than 24 hours after FX announced a second season of the transgender-centric TV series Pose — the groundbreaking show created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals that features the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ characters ever for a scripted series — Scarlett Johansson announced that she was exiting Rub & Tug, a film in which she was set to star as Dante Tex Gill, a transgender man. 

The A-list actress issued a statement to, offering that she had "decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project" following ethical concerns about her participation as a cisgender actress. "Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive." 

At the time Johansson's casting news broke Friday, close to a dozen transgender actors, filmmakers, artists and activists were in The Hollywood Reporter's Los Angeles office for a discussion about representation in the entertainment industry. All who were interviewed applauded her decision to step aside from the project ("You are awesome!" said Buck Angel) and many expressed relief that the public outcry on behalf of the trans community had been heard and acted upon. 

"Scarlett deciding to pull out was a good example of listening to the community and that was the right thing to do," said Rhys Ernst, an Emmy nominated producer and director known for his work on Transparent, This Is Me and the upcoming feature Adam

Rub & Tug tells the story of Dante “Tex” Gill, who operated a massage parlor and prostitution business in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and '80s. When the film project was announced on July 2 with Johansson on board, there was an immediate backlash online, both on social media and in various news outlets. The consensus was that the role should have gone to a trans performer.

Rain Valdez, an actress and producer whose credits include Transparent and Lopez, was moved to tears. "It says a lot about Scarlett Johansson. That actually makes me a little emotional because it's not an easy industry for trans women. It's not an easy industry for trans men," she said.

Actress Alexandra Grey (Transparent, Code Black, Chicago Med, When We Rise) echoed that sentiment and went a step further. "We're broken. It hurts us sometimes when we see cis actors portraying our stories and winning Oscars and winning Emmys" when trans actors don't have the same opportunities, she said. Jared Leto won a best supporting actor Oscar for his work in 2013's Dallas Buyers Club, while Jeffrey Tambor has won TV's biggest prize for playing Maura Pfefferman on Amazon's Transparent

Jen Richards, known for creating the series Her Story and being the first transgender actress on a CMT series for her work on Nashville, analyzed Johansson's well-received statement, one that included a troubling statistic from GLAAD about representation. "LGBTQ+ characters dropped 40% in 2017 from the previous year, with no representation of trans characters in any major studio release," she said. "While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film."

Said Richards: "I'm going to assume what she says in the statement, which is clearly very well-crafted by a team of very smart people, was nonetheless in earnest."

Zackary Drucker, an artist, cultural producer and filmmaker who has worked on Transparent, said she's hopeful this is a turning point in Hollywood. "We are so troubled and so ravaged by feeling ignored, by feeling exploited, by feeling that our stories are not our own," she said.

To those who feel that the controversy and criticism grew from the transgender community attempting to police who should and shouldn't be allowed to act in whatever project they choose, Grey said that's not the case. "What we're saying is that actors should have the artistic freedom to play any roles. We're not saying that you can't portray these characters. We're saying we just want to have the opportunity as well to go out for any types of roles," she said. "We'd like to be invited for anything that you got." 

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Reporting by Rebecca Sun, Chris Gardner, Lindsay Weinberg and Bryan White.