There is so much euphemistic reporting about Scarlett Johansson’s decision to drop out of a film in which she would have portrayed a trans man. Ms Johansson ‘quits role’, headlines tell us. She has ‘stepped away’ from ‘trans role’, we are informed.
It all makes it sound like she had a simple change of heart, or maybe found herself drawn to a different movie project. The truth is rather different. The truth is Ms Johansson was hounded out of the trans role by an intolerant online mob hurling invective at her.
She didn’t merely ‘quit role’ — she ‘quit role’ under pressure from an unforgiving gang of identitarians who think they have the right to tell actresses who they may and may not portray on screen. Here’s a more honest headline for this affair: ‘Woman forced to give up her job by online abusers.’
Ms Johansson had been quite keen to star in Rub & Tug, a biopic of a 1970s Pittsburgh mobster called Dante ‘Tex’ Gill. Born a woman, Gill reportedly adopted the identity of a man — though this is disputed by some — in order that she / he might better flourish in the seedy world of 1970s massage parlours and prostitution.
Ms Johansson is known for taking on quite daring film projects, and she has previously worked with Rub & Tug’s director: the Brit Rupert Sanders. So it made sense, and sounded quite exciting, that she signed up to play Gill.
But it wasn’t to be. Trans activists and their online allies decided that because Ms Johansson is a ‘cis woman’, she has no right to play a trans person. To be ‘cis’ is to identify as the gender you were assigned at birth — yes, identitarians really think we are assigned our genders, rather than, you know, simply being born as actual males or females. For a ‘cis’ woman to play a trans person is akin to a white actor blacking up, some suggested.
Trans agitators and their sympathisers whipped up an online storm, in which they said ‘Johansson doesn’t care about trans people’ and branded the whole project ‘transphobic’. Johansson recanted her implication that it is acceptable for her to play an allegedly trans character, confessed to her ‘insensitivity’, and withdrew from the role. It was a 21st-century version of a forced public apology for heresy.
This tawdry incident speaks to one of the dodgiest trends of our time: the policing of culture by a new set of self-styled moral guardians. The identity-politics crew is forever judging art and entertainment not by whether it is good, but by whether it sends the right political and social message: about trans people, minority groups, intersectionality, and so on.
These are the kind of people who can never kick back and enjoy a film — instead they obsessively count the number of minutes the female characters speak for, in comparison with the male characters, so that they can Tumblr about it later. Or they read a novel and wonder, ‘Where’s the gay character?’. Or they visit an art exhibition and see, not wonderful paintings, but the race and gender of the long-dead artists. ‘So many white men’, they moan.
They are identitarian versions of those stiff Christians who once scoured film or art for gay kisses or overly tumescent penises so that they might yell, ‘Erase this filth!’. Whether you’re policing art for sexual deviancy or for speechcrimes against the identitarian outlook, the result is the same: you are polluting art with politics; you are invading the realm of the imagination with your illiberal moral decrees.
The idea that a so-called ‘cis’ woman cannot play a trans man is just such an act of moral policing. Actors can play whoever the they like. Posh actors play poor characters. Human actors pretend to be aliens. Straights play gays, and vice versa. That’s the whole point of acting: you assume the identity of somebody else.
There’s another worrying thing about the Johansson affair: it suggests trans activism is making it acceptable to hound and shame women. This is a woman who was forced out of work she wanted to do by a furious online mob. And it follows the abuse of Alison Moyet after she tweeted recently that she dislikes the term ‘cis woman’ and prefers to be known simply as a woman. Moyet was so mauled by Twitter identitarians that she deleted and apologised for her tweet: a recanting. And of course there are the ongoing efforts to ban and even physically shut down gatherings of feminists concerned about ‘gender self-identification’.
Harassing and silencing women is fashionable again, it seems. And just because it is being done in the supposedly progressive name of ‘trans rights’ doesn’t make it any better. It still smacks of misogyny. It still smacks of women being told to know their place, watch their words, and stop assuming they can take any job they want.