Scarlett Johansson, who by any reasonable measure has had a stellar movie career and will probably continue to do so for decades, recently got caught in the middle of a social justice imbroglio.

The actress, who has since resigned from the role, was cast to play a trans man in a movie titled “Rub and Tug,” based on the true story of Dante “Tex” Gill, a 1970s crime lord. Her resignation came after a hue and cry regarding the casting of a cisgender woman to play a transgender man. The scolds who raised the ruckus also claimed the scalp of Daniela Greenbaum, a business writer who defended the actress in an opinion column, and was so beset upon that she quit her job out of fear.

This incident raises two interesting questions: Where is the line between art and fealty to source material when it comes to identity politics? Who decides?

Relevant stories abound.

I recall a recent debate. Daniel Craig, who is about to star as James Bond for the fifth time, has signaled that this is his last go-around as that character. Bond was first introduced to the public in 1953’s novel Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming. The Bond of the books is a British secret agent, born of a Scottish father and Swiss mother, tall, slim, with black hair and light colored eyes. The physical description isn’t particularly distinctive, which probably makes it of little importance when transferring the story to film, but 26 movies have served to reinforce some of the character’s identifiers. The actors that portrayed him have been Scottish (Sean Connery), English (David Niven), Australian (George Lazenby), English (Roger Moore), Welsh (Timothy Dalton), Irish (Pierce Brosnan), and English (Daniel Craig). Notice something? They’re all white males of the British Empire.

Craig’s voicing of “I’m done” has, expectedly, led to much speculation and debate as to who will be the next James Bond. Many names have been floated, including Tom Hiddleston, Tom Hardy, Henry Cavill, Aidan Turner, Jack Huston, James Norton, Jamie Bell, Michael Fassbender, Kit Harrington, Tom Cullen… and Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, and Alicia Vikander. The first 10 are all… white males of the British Empire. The balance? 3 of 4 can be considered Brits: Elba is English, Robbie is Australian, and Theron is South African, while Vikander is Danish. But, Elba is black and the latter 3 are women.

Do I doubt that any of these actors have the chops to play an action hero spy? None whatsoever. Their resumes are sufficient validation. But, what would be the purpose of changing James Bond from a white male of the British empire to something else? Film is a visual medium, and key physical attributes of real-life or iconic fictional characters do matter. Clearly, this was the impetus behind the outcry over Johansson’s casting as Tex Gill. So, why aren’t the same people critical of the suggestion to change the race and gender of James Bond? Is it the real-life vs fictional nature? I doubt it. If Tex Gill was a character in a seminal book, instead of a real person, the outcry would be little different, I suspect. Is it that the relevant identity markers are essential to the character? Unless we presume that a transgender person cannot ever look sufficiently like a cisgender person, which I think would be an affront to not just the social justice crusaders, then portraying a trans person on the screen would be a matter of acting skill.

I recall another debate in that vein that I had with someone a couple years back over the casting rumor of Zendaya, a mixed-race actress, as Mary Jane Watson in the then-upcoming Spiderman reboot. My argument then: if a character has been presented, deliberately and iconically in a visual medium, as a pale white redhead with green eyes, for nearly half a century, what is the purpose of casting an actress who looks nothing like the character? Is her green-eyed red-haired-ness essential to the character, or is Mary Jane Watson just a name, to be filled in by whomever the moviemakers choose? If you’re not a Spiderman fan, you probably don’t care, but if you’re not a Spiderman fan, why would the name of Spiderman’s love interest matter at all? Would it make any difference to you if the love interest’s name was Jane-Marie Holmes? Probably not, so, you’re not who matters here. The reason for using source material is not just for the bones of a quality story. It’s to parlay the goodwill that the original source material (in the case of Spiderman, an iconic 55 years of comic book publication) into eyeballs and dollars.

Ditto for James Bond. The reason they’d make a 27th James Bond movie, even with a different actor portraying the character, is for the financial benefit derived from fandom for the character. If it were solely about making an action movie, well, there are other books to use, and there is also the option of an original story. Alicia Vikander reprised the role of Lara Croft after a couple iterations with Angelina Jolie. The character is an English woman, and while neither Vikander nor Jolie are English, both affected an accent to play the character. And, obviously, the character and both the actors are women. Would fans be cool if the next iteration was of Larry Crouyoute, a Haitian man? Doesn’t that dilute the nature of the original character into unrecognizability? The popularity of the character is why the movie makers used the name, and the character is more than just a name.

From all this, you can probably deduce my opinion. That said, it’s just that, my opinion, and while I voice it here and elsewhere, and allow it to influence my moviegoing decisions, I allow that others may think and act differently.

Movies (and television) are private-sector endeavors, and the people who fund the productions get to do as they wish. Since movies are a business, and the consumers of the product are the ultimate arbiters of the decisions the producers and filmmakers make, and the question of whether identities matter in casting roles is, ultimately, decided, case-by-case, by society. But, “society” is being increasingly managed and curated by the social justice crowd and the progressive rule makers in the press. With social media becoming increasingly powerful and increasingly vicious, and with quick capitulation by individuals and corporations alike, we’ve entered a bad feedback loop that’s granting ever more power to the most illiberal and intolerant of dissent in our society: the people who demand that others defer to their opinions. This is the “tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims” that C.S. Lewis warned us about.

Portrayals in popular media of oppressed and marginalized identity groups can serve to benefit and humanize them, and some movies transcend mere entertainment to become vehicles of positive social change. This can be an argument in favor of casting a trans actor as a trans character (the Netflix series Sense8 ably did so). It can also be an argument to cast a trans actor as a cis character, for that matter. And, it can even be an argument for casting iconic characters against identity – if that’s actually what’s going on. If it’s a deliberate attempt at provocation in order to generate controversy and drive box office numbers, which many of these seem to be, then it’s a cynical and exploitive action. Which doesn’t mean it should be shouted down or debarred, by the way.

The decision to make a movie with any of these goals and ideals in mind should be a choice, not a requirement, with success or failure meted by consumers. That’s the way of a free society. While in the grand scheme, this matter seem picayune, it’s a notable part of the culture wars. This is a matter that should be decided at the box office, with consumers voting with their wallets. Instead, we witness pre-emption, the heckler’s veto, where a relatively small number of very loud and aggressive voices prevent the the rest of us from even having a say, unless we uncharacteristically get as loud and as aggressive as they do.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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