In 1956 legendary actor John Wayne starred in one of the worst movies of all time. The Conqueror is most notable for two things: First, almost everyone on set got cancer because they filmed downwind of a nuclear testing site. Second, the noted white man John Wayne plays the role of Asian historical figure Genghis Khan.
Retroactively, almost everyone agreed this was a tasteless miscast. Yet, somehow hollywood has forgotten the lessons they’ve learned and is all too eager to ask actors to play people they share no common identity with.
Scarlett Johansson received heavy criticism when she announced that she would be playing trans gangster Dante Gill in an upcoming film. The backlash from the trans community was so heavy that she dropped out of the role and the project is now in limbo. In a recent interview, Johansson asserted that an actor’s job is to play whatever role they are assigned to and that political correctness shouldn’t restrict artistic expression.
When Scarlett Johansson says she should be able to play any “person, tree or animal,” she makes a fine point about the nobility of art and expression but misses the point about the real social implications of casting decisions.
There aren’t many trans actors relative to the number of actors in the industry. I’m not sure if any of them would be considered mainstream, let alone A-list. Therefore, casting a trans person in the main role in a feature film could have allowed a new face to break into the mainstream. The opportunity for breakthrough representation is simply more important, socially, than the desires of one actress. For a trans person, seeing themselves on the big screen could help them feel legitimate and seen, like they can really make it in any industry. Seeing Scarlett Johansson play a trans person doesn’t have that same impact.
If I had a megaphone with the loud end duct taped to the collective ears of every person in art and media, the first thing I would yell is “representation matters.” It matters on conscious and subconscious levels. It matters to every single person when they read a book or watch a movie are able to see themselves in the work and say, “I can identify with that.” It provides opportunities for self-fulfillment and reflection. It makes people feel like they are part of the world and not just background characters or stereotypes.
Hopefully actors and actresses will learn to embrace their roles as influencers and help under-represented groups by lifting them into the spotlight. Until then, I guess they can look forward to Scarlett Johansson single-handedly playing the role of every single person, tree, and animal.
Opinions expressed in The Nevada Sagebrush are solely those of the author and do not necessarily express the views of The Sagebrush or its staff. Vincent Rendon is a student at the University of Nevada and studies political science and journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.