It doesn’t seem to take long for Scarlett Johansson to face the public’s wrath. For the actress has arguably taken a number of controversial roles, and has fought back when people challenged her over them. And now, she’s trying to defend herself again – but you could argue that this does more harm than good.
Now while the hubbub surrounding Johansson appeared to have died down, she has faced backlashes in recent years. In 2018, for instance, the actress took the leading role of a transgender character in movie Rub & Tug. And while sections of the public urged her to step down, and let a trans performer step into the role, she fought back.
Eventually, though, Johansson smoothed things over regarding Rub & Tug with her words and actions. But a 2019 interview re-ignited the debate, and placed her at the centre of fresh criticism. And, once again, some disagreed with the actress’s point of view – this time, on Hollywood’s casting trends. On that note, let’s take a quick look at Johansson’s career so far.
For Scarlett Johansson, an acting career just made sense. Indeed, the star grew up in Manhattan, New York, and found her way onto Off-Broadway stages as a child. From there, she started landing film roles in 1990s flicks including North,and The Horse Whisperer . Then, Ghost World followed in 2001, and the early 2000s started to get very interesting for Johansson.
Yes, because those previous parts had Johansson playing juvenile roles. But by 2003, the actress made the leap into more adult acting jobs. That year, she starred in Lost in Translation, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA Award. Also, she earned acclaim for her work in Girl With a Pearl Earring the same year.
Fast forward, and Johansson has since joined the Marvel film series, playing Black Widow in hits such as The Avengers. Furthermore, she starred in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and put out a pair of albums in 2008 and 2009. Staggeringly, she has even won a Tony for her work on a Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge.
But some of Johansson’s film choices of late have drawn her more criticism than praise. And it all started in 2015, when it emerged the actress had got a part in Ghost in the Shell. As soon as word got out, a petition circulated to have Johansson removed from the movie. So what was the reason for such a harsh reaction?
Well, Ghost in the Shell drew its inspiration from a Japanese series of the same name. And the animated show followed members of the Public Security Section 9 special-operative group. Together, they fought corruption, cybercrime and terrorism. And they did so behind prosthetic bodies or cyber brains, as they were called.
In this fictional world, having a cyber brain could be a curse or a blessing. For example, the organ could be hacked and fed false information. But it also allowed users to instantly access an Internet’s worth of information. Moreover, the title reflects that those with cybernetic or prosthetic bodies live in shells – the “ghost” part alludes to their consciousness.
And as soon as Johansson got the part in Ghost in the Shell, the backlash began. According to Time magazine, the petition read, “The original film is set in Japan, and the major cast members are Japanese. So why would the American remake star a white actress?” Now you may think that the campaigners have already answered their own question there. Yes, because it was exactly that – a western remake.
In any case, a year later a promotional image of Johansson as her Ghost in the Shell character resurfaced the debate. A day later, rumors spread via website, ScreenCrush, that the studio had experimented with effects to make Johansson look more Asian. And you can imagine what the reaction was going to be.
Indeed, the story certainly got critics and celebrities talking. For example, actress Constance Wu addressed the rumor in public, calling the use of CGI “particularly heinous,” according to IndieWire. And she added that the practice of making a white actress appear more Asian could be considered “yellowface.” This being the equivalent of “blackface” – “but employed on Asians.”
But Paramount and Dreamworks, the studios behind Ghost in the Shell, denied allegations they had used such technology. According to Time, Paramount said, “A test was done related to a specific scene for a background actor which was ultimately discarded. Absolutely no visual effects tests were conducted on Scarlett’s character and we have no future plans to do so.” So where was Johansson’s voice in all of this?
Well, eventually, Johansson herself addressed the backlash, too. Indeed, she told Marie Claire that it was rare to get a film franchise with a female lead. Therefore, she’d wanted to take advantage of the unique opportunity. And she added that she would never have accepted the opportunity if the studio also had an Asian actress in mind.
As Johansson went on to explain, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that – the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”
But the conversation surrounding Johansson’s choices in Hollywood didn’t end there. In the summer of 2018, news broke that she had earned the lead role in the movie Rub & Tug. Now the film’s director, Rupert Sanders, had also helmed Ghost in the Shell. So once again, their proposed project ruffled feathers, to say the least.
Interestingly, the movie Rub & Tug would follow Johansson in the leading role as Dante “Tex” Gill. And in 1970s Pittsburgh, Gill ran a chain of massage parlors as a front for a prostitution ring. Critically, however, no one knows for sure about Gill’s transition in real life, only that he presented as a man. Nonetheless, Johansson would be playing a trans man in the flick.
And when word got out that Johansson had earned the part, many appeared to criticize the move. Indeed, the actress’s rep tried to quell the debate with a frankly-worded statement to website, Bustle. “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,” the statement read. Sadly, the rebuttal didn’t go down well.
Yes, Johansson’s answer did little to silence the critics – in fact, it made many people angrier. And Out magazine’s Rose Dommu explained why in a 2018 piece. As she pointed out, “Tambor, Leto and Huffman all played transgender characters in Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club and Transamerica, respectively. So in essence Johansson’s defense for being a cis actor playing a trans person is, ‘well they got away with it, so I can too.’”
To add to that, some celebrities and members of the trans community refuted Johansson’s assertion. For example, Trace Lysette, transgender star of the Amazon Video show Transparent, chimed in via Twitter in July of 2018. And she pointed out that cisgender actors, including Johansson, get more opportunities than trans performers.
“So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all? […] I wouldn’t be upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that’s not the case, ” Lysette wrote. But that wasn’t all that the Transparent star had to say.
In a follow-up tweet, Lysette emphasized that cisgender actors often receive awards for playing trans characters. For instance, Huffman earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Transamerica. “Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived,” Lysette said.
What’s more, some actors seemed to agree with Lysette’s claims, too. That’s right, Sense8 cast member Jamie Clayton, who is herself transgender, tweeted, “Actors who are trans never even get to audition for anything other than roles of trans characters. That’s the real issue. We can’t even get in the room. Cast actors who are trans as non-trans characters. I dare you.” Regular Twitter users poked fun at Johansson’s casting, too.
For example, one person wrote, “I do not think Scarlett Johansson is an evil person or has ill-intent, but I do feel that if she doesn’t start hiring some career consultants moving forward, we are 100 percent going to see her play Nelson Mandela in a biopic.” On that note, Johansson perhaps started to change her mind over the fiasco.
Indeed, within days of the backlash over Rub & Tug, Johansson changed gears. Although she initially defended her casting as a transgender man, the actress eventually decided to step down from the role. Furthermore, she shared a statement with Out magazine explaining why she had done so. In fact, she had a lot to say on the matter.
As Johansson’s statement read, “In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project. 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.”
Johnasson continued, “I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues.” Then, she wrote, “According to GLAAD [media monitoring organization], LGBTQ+ characters dropped 40% in 2017 from the previous year, with no representation of trans characters in any major studio release.” However, she did have some regret.
Yes, Johansson wrote, “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.”
And the actress had one last thing to say about opportunity in film. For she added, “I believe that all artists should be considered equally and fairly. My production company, These Pictures, actively pursues projects that both entertain and push boundaries. We look forward to working with every community to bring these most poignant and important stories to audiences worldwide.” Unsurprisingly, this time the reaction was somewhat different.
You’ve guessed it, many people who had questioned Johansson’s initial decision lauded her choice to step down. For you see, GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis considered the move a “game changer,” according to Out. And Jen Richards, a transgender actor and writer, tweeted that Johansson had “realized that despite her intentions this was going to cause harm, and made the right decision to step down. Well done.” As we’ll see, however, that wasn’t exactly the end of the matter.
Because a year after smoothing everything over, Johansson once again alluded to the Rub & Tug controversy. And this time she appeared to have a different point of view than the one she expressed in her statement. Speaking to artist David Salle for an issue of AS IF magazine, in July 2019, her comments instantly made waves.
Indeed, during the interview, Johansson noted that “acting goes through trends,” so Salle asked her which ones she had noticed. And the actress pointed out that there were “certainly trends in casting right now,” possibly alluding to her casting controversy. But the A-lister held off using specifics, and made a general point about the atmosphere of political correctness affecting Hollywood.
As Johansson went on to explain, “Today there’s a lot of emphasis and conversation about what acting is and who we want to see represent ourselves on screen. The question now is, what is acting anyway?” From there, she discussed how Hollywood ought to be casting actors like her in such specialized roles.
“You know, as an actor, I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of the job,” the actress reportedly said. Moreover, she was then asked, “Must you only represent yourself, your gender, your ethnicity, or can you, in fact, play beyond these categories?”
Well, Johansson, according to the interview, said, “There are a lot of social lines being drawn now, and a lot of political correctness is being reflected in art.” What was to follow would leave her in no doubt that she would have to engage the trans community once again. Even if it concerned what appeared to be an honestly held opinion.
So with that, Johansson found herself in the midst of another controversy. As a snapshot, Twitter writer, Dean Van Nguyen, said of her latest comments, “When trans people are ‘allowed to play any person,’ when prominent roles stop being whitewashed, then Scarlett Johansson can have a moan. Until then, please spare us your ‘political correctness gone mad’ b******t.” And with that, just a week after the interview, the actress released a statement clarifying what she had said.
Now the A-lister began by saying, “An interview that was recently published has been edited for click bait and is widely taken out of context.” Johansson went on, “The question I was answering in my conversation with the contemporary artist, David Salle, was about the confrontation between political correctness and art. I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That is the point I was making, albeit didn’t come across that way.”
With that, Johansson touched upon the topic that had caused so much controversy for her the year before. But this time she didn’t defend her ability to star in movies regardless of the role given to her. Indeed, she instead pointed out her privilege as a cisgender, white woman in Hollywood.
As the actress went on to explain, “I recognize that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cis gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to. I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included.”
Indeed, Johansson has and continues to make philanthropy part of her Hollywood legacy. For example, she has been especially vocal in the fight against discrimination, and harassment against women. And the Marvel star still works on the silver screen, in spite of her controversial castings. In fact, as of August 2019, she stands as the third-highest-grossing star at the box office of all time.