TROUBLE CITY

Scarlett Johansson Says She “Should” be Able to Play Anyone…Including a Tree?

Articles, Pop CultureBrandon MarcusComment
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Scarlett Johansson, I would like to teach you a phrase that’ll serve you well throughout your life: pick your battles.

The actress defended recent casting choices involving her in an interview with As If magazine. You may remember that Johansson received backlash after she was cast as a real-life transgender man in Rub & Tug. There was also a famous furor over her being selected to star in Ghost in the Shell, based on an anime starring Asian characters. The actress would later drop out of Rub & Tug but she remained in Ghost in the Shell, which was met with a lukewarm response and claims of the movie being “whitewashed.”

Johansson has some opinions on the experiences. Here’s her quote to As If:

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

She followed it up with this comment about the backlashes movies have received:

I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons. Yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions

I’m glad she said that the angered responses are something that needs to happen. And I totally agree that art should be free of restrictions ideally. So we agree on those points.

But Johansson is missing the point when she says she “should” be able to play anyone or anything. First of all, no one is debating if you can play a tree, Scarlett. You can play the damn Giving Tree for all I care. Play a tree or a shrub or a bush or even a dandelion. That’s not the point. Yes, you have the right to play anyone or anything but considerations should be made — if you truly care about representation and defending minorities.

This isn’t the 1990s or early 2000s when it was so hard to find under-represented performers. There are many, many more trans actors and people of color in Hollywood. Trans and minority performers have grown in numbers and have made big splashes, winning awards and acclaim for years now. The industry is still lagging but it has taken strides in terms of diversity. So it’s not that people are just upset at Johansson taking on these parts, it’s that people are upset she is taking them from those minorities who are fighting so hard for these parts. These people are out there and waiting and ready and if Johansson was a true advocate and ally she would be doing all she can to help them. Choosing the appropriate performers over Johansson isn’t caving into restrictions in art, it’s being truthful to the stories. It’s more authentic, it’s real. Most of all, it’s progress and art should always be progressive.

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Let’s look at the past and see how out-of-touch it was. Not every actor who performed in blackface was racist or against African-Americans’ rights, some just towed the line and accepted the norms of the time. But they certainly look painfully, disgustingly offensive now. I’m sure some of those actors would have said that they were just creating art free or restrictions and didn’t want to cave to various social reasons. I should be able to play anyone, they likely protested. Back then it was defended because of the era. Now it’s impossible to imagine.

All art is political and all art has a view point. Hopefully these productions have the opinion that under-represented groups deserve respect and rights and freedoms. If that’s truly the opinion of Johansson and these projects then they need to do all they can to show it. Art shouldn’t be restricted but art should be an even playing field and a step up for those who need it, those who have been wronged by the system and society. If Johansson and other actors don’t care about these people then, sure, take these roles and defend it as artistic freedom. But artistic freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These performers are ready for the spotlight and they have earned it. If Johansson truly wanted to fight for them, her response in this interview would have been something like “I am a strong ally of those fighting for equality and I’ll do all I can to defend and help them.” And then she’d do it, by any means necessary. And if she really wanted to, she could then go play a tree.