Let me tell you a story.
In 2015 I attended a screening of The Danish Girl, a film that stars cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, the first transgender woman to successfully medically transition. It's a pretty terrible movie, a glossy representation of a woman through the lens of cisgender male objectification, relying on Redmayne's gifts as a physical mimic to carry a narrative that views Elbe as little more than a man in a dress replicating the mannerisms of women, even if apparently empathetic to that faulty perception. It's a film that means well, but it's poorly researched and cynically cast to perpetuate a trope that transgender identity is a form of crossdressing performance, a pseudo-sexual kink that deserves sympathy but no further understanding.
As I was leaving the theater, I noticed the general reaction from the audience was a positive one. They thought the film was good, a way for them to pat themselves on the back for their apparent lack of bigotry, because of course none of them would treat a transgender person as Lili was treated. But of course, that sympathy only extends so far, as I overheard one woman excitedly say to her friend "I can't think of any other actor who could pull off that sort of role!"
I'm transgender. I haven't medically transitioned, so I pass as cisgender on most days, but that's who I am, whether people see it or not. So that probably was what caused me to interject with "A transgender woman probably could have done a pretty great job!" The woman turned to look at me with hostility and confusion. After all I, a nobody seeming to have no authority on the subject and with no prior relationship to her or her conversation, had just undermined a basic foundation of her enjoyment of the film, a film that reaffirmed to her that she wasn't transphobic because she had opted to seek it out and it had confirmed her self-perceived lack of prejudices.
The moment passed and we departed one another's company mutually unchanged, but it's always stuck with me as a demonstrative moment for the importance of transgender representation in media. For many cisgender audiences, well-intentioned or not, transgender people are viewed as cultural anomalies, as men in dresses or women in suits playing a perpetual game of pretend that a cisgender person can emulate through imitation of another gender's stereotypical presentation. Gender is not so simple as that, not so binary as man or woman, not so easily transgressed by those who have never had to question their self-perception or social presentation.
This is what makes the recent announcement of Rupert Sanders's Rub & Tug, a biopic exploring the life of infamous massage parlor owner Dante "Tex" Gill as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, so troubling. The film's synopsis and trade announcement refer to Gill as "Jean Marie Gill," use female pronouns in reference to Gill, and describe Gill as being a lesbian that preferred to wear men's clothing. However, a look at Tex Gill's obituary paints a different picture.
Gill died in 2003 and was most well-known in the 1970s and '80s, so the terminology was less universally agreed upon and awareness of transgender identity was less prevalent when the article was published, but the obituary clearly indicates that Gill was "the woman who prefers to be known as a man," "may even have undergone the initial stages of a sex change that made her appear masculine," and "insist[ed] that she was a man and [told] everyone she wanted to be known as 'Mr. Gill.'" Even if it's not how the reports of Gill at the height of his fame characterized him, or even the terminology that Gill may have used to refer to himself, Gill was most likely a transgender man as the term is usually used today.
This forecasts a terrible and disconcerting problem for Rub & Tug, particularly with how it casts Johansson in the lead role. There's one of two things going on here: First, Sanders and crew (including Johansson as producer) did not do their research and are making this film under the misconception that Tex Gill was a woman, most likely a butch lesbian. The other alternative is that Sanders and crew do realize that Tex Gill was transgender, but are opting to cast Johansson in the lead role in a bid for her to try her hand at treating transgender identity as an acting exercise.
Either way the pursuit is remarkably ill-conceived, as both options erase Tex Gill's transgender identity, either literally through its complete omission or through a cisgender woman's portrayal of a trans-masculine caricature. Not only does this deprive a potential job from a transgender actor, but it reinforces a notion to the film's audience that crossing the boundaries of traditional gender expression is in itself a form of performance and not an expression of an inner truth. The misgendering of transgender individuals has far-reaching consequences, from negative impacts on the mental health of trans persons, to persecution trans folks face in access to public facilities and legal documentation, to being quite literally murdered for supposedly "tricking" cisgender people who find them attractive.
Whether out of ignorance or calculated disregard, Rub & Tug encapsulates a much larger representational issue that Hollywood has yet to fully grapple with. I have little faith that Sanders and Johansson – who previously bent over backwards in Ghost in the Shell, both in interviews and in the actual plot of the film, to justify why Caucasian Johansson was playing a Japanese character – will have the presence of mind or the empathetic tact to present Tex Gill in an accurate and nuanced light. Instead, I suspect Johansson will do her best butch lesbian routine and a certain segment of movie-goers will applaud her for it, seeing nothing wrong with yet another actor crossing gender lines to portray an experience most cisgender people are unfamiliar with. But we see you, Rupert. We see you, Scarlett. And we won't let you erase us so easily.