A fascinating series of controversies erupted this week, and they had nothing to do with Donald Trump or Robert Mueller.
Business Insider ran a column defending actress Scarlett Johansson from fierce criticism for her decision to play a transgender man in a forthcoming film called Rub and Tug. The writer, Daniella Greenbaum, took the apparently outrageous position that actors can pretend to be people they are not. Or, as Greenbaum put it, “Scarlett Johansson is the latest target of the social-justice warrior mob. The actress is being chastised for, well, acting.”
Ironically, Greenbaum’s column rendered this claim outdated, because by writing that, Greenbaum herself became an even more recent victim of the social-justice-warrior mob. In response to complaints, internal and external, Business Insider pulled the column from its website and invented some new editorial standards to justify the decision.
So now we have three separate controversies: (1) Is it okay for non-transgender actors to play transgender people? (2) Is it okay for people to defend said actors? (3) Is it okay for publications to retroactively memory-hole said defenses?
Let’s look at them in order.
The answer to the first question is at once simple and complicated. As a matter of law and common sense alike, of course actors can pretend to be anyone. The law is clear-cut (for now at least), and common sense tells us that this is in fact what actors do for a living.
But to be fair to the other side of the argument: Such complaints are nothing new. Whenever some minority group fights its way into social acceptance — and into the sort of political and cultural power that comes with such acceptance — these controversies emerge. White actors playing African Americans is culturally taboo today, and rightly so. But one of the reasons such minstrel-show spectacles are in poor taste is that historically they were a form of racist mockery and disrespect.
That’s not applicable here. Trace Lysette, a transgender actress who plays a transgender character on the Amazon series Transparent, protested the casting of Johansson not because the character was an insult to the transgendered. Lysette was offended that Johansson was taking work from people like her.
Lysette complained on Twitter that “not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived . . . so twisted. I’m so done.”
This strikes me as silly. Not long ago, simply calling attention to the existence of the transgendered was deemed a victory for their cause. In 1999, Hillary Swank received massive critical praise — and an Oscar — for playing a transgender woman in Boys Don’t Cry (a movie I despised). No one complained about stolen narratives then. (By the way, did anyone complain when Charlton Heston, an Episcopalian, stole the most famous Jewish narrative of all time by playing Moses?)
There’s nothing remotely beyond the pale about what Greenbaum wrote. Her sin was simply to point out the obvious, which is often considered a great offense without actually being offensive.
But we have passed the awareness-raising phase, and now the issue is about cultural clout. The transgendered are following in the footsteps of other identity-politics groups that want to use their cultural power to carve out more roles for their members. They’re free to do so, of course. But it’s worth noting that it is hardly outrageous for a movie studio to prefer an international movie star like Johansson over an obscure transgender actor.
Regardless, this cultural power play is the real issue, and it is the only relevant prism for questions two and three.
There’s nothing remotely beyond the pale about what Greenbaum wrote. Her sin was simply to point out the obvious, which is often considered a great offense without actually being offensive. That is why what she calls the “social-justice warrior mob” turned on her and Business Insider.
Again, no laws were broken. Greenbaum has a right to say what she believes to be true, and Business Insider has every right to publish (or unpublish) what it wants.
If Business Insider had simply opted to reject the piece at first, that would have been fine, and it would have spared itself a lot of embarrassment. Instead, its editors opted to cave to political pressure. Its surrender to the mob tells us a lot about the power of the social-justice-warrior mob and the weakness of Business Insider’s editors.
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