Casting Choices Matter
Last August, I wrote about a minor Hollywood scandal involving Scarlett Johansson (Avengers, Lost in Translation) being cast as a transgender man in a still-yet-to-be-released feature film called Rub & Tug (which, it bears repeating, is the most awful title of any film that exists or not, ever). After a significant backlash, she dropped out.
But recently, the controversy flared again, thanks to some ill-chosen comments by Johansson to David Salle for As If magazine, about the dynamics of art and political correctness. She said, “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 my job.”
Before I say much more, I would like to offer a quick shout out to author and activist Ijeoma Oluo, who responded via Twitter, “I vote that we only cast ScarJo as trees or animals from here on.”
To be fair, within hours, Johansson commented on the renewed brouhaha, stating that her words had been “edited for click bait and widely taken out of context.”
Still, she never denied saying them, and after thinking about it for several hours, it’s hard for me to imagine a context that would have made those words okay. All the same, I didn’t really think the whole mess was worth writing about again, until I saw another tweet, this one from journalist and filmmaker Tim Pool, who wrote, “How the f**k are we at ‘Ariel can be played by anyone’ but ‘ScarJo shouldn’t take certain roles’ levels of stupid. Anyone can portray anyone.”
In other words, make up your minds, you liberal snowflakes; you’re either allowed to get your panties in a wad over how Hollywood casts its movies, or you’re not. Heavy sigh. Okay, let’s all have a seat, shall we?
First, I get that the idea that anyone can portray anyone or that’s why they call it “acting.” This seems so painfully obvious that it merits no further discussion. While that argument seems rock-solid, it only takes into consideration the needs and desires of the performers, and completely ignores the impact casting can have on an audience.
The audience of a Hollywood feature film is wide and varied; it includes people of every race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And movies are powerful; they teach us a lot about ourselves, and those who are not ourselves.
Movies could, for instance, teach us that transgender people are striving toward authenticity when they transition into their chosen gender. Sadly, when famous cisgender actors are chosen to play trans roles, movies often teach us the opposite message: that trans people belong to the gender category assigned to them at birth, and the rest is just costumes and makeup.
Johansson previously caught some heat for playing a character originally written as Asian in the film Ghost in the Shell. She didn’t play an Asian woman; rather, the character was now a white woman. Some argued that maybe they couldn’t find an Asian actress who was good enough or they needed a big name to open the movie.
Such arguments ignore the impact on the audience, which basically boils down to the idea that a wildly disproportionate number of stories have a white person at their center.
If some of my white gay readers see no issue with this, just imagine that Hollywood has finally gotten around to making a movie based on Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner. Now imagine Brad Pitt cast as Harlan Brown, and a beautiful young actress cast as his star runner, Billie—because the studio wants the movie to be relatable and gay movies don’t do well in foreign markets. Are you furious yet? If so, then perhaps you see my point.
And now, let’s talk about Ariel. Disney recently caused controversy by announcing the casting of a young black singer/actress, Halle Bailey, as the title character in The Little Mermaid. In case you weren’t aware, the character was originally depicted in cartoon form as a white redhead—well, from the waist up. From the waist down, she’s a fish.
Sadly, when mermaids go to their underwater multiplex to see this film, they’ll miss out on an opportunity to see themselves authentically represented on screen. Except whoops—they won’t, because mermaids don’t actually exist.
Which is why Disney didn’t cast one. However, young girls of every race will now have a chance to see a movie in which the dreams and aspirations of a young black heroine are deemed worthy of their time and attention. And there’s nothing fishy about that. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator and pop culture enthusiast living in Washington DC. He is the co-host of a weekly podcast about old movies; visit his website at www.rewindpod.com.