Scarlet Johansson doesn’t need defending


The criticism of Johansson is dangerous argument because it cuts both ways.

She’s talented, beautiful and rich — the world’s highest paid actress. She’s also outspoken.

“Today there’s a lot of emphasis and conversation about what acting is and who we want to see represent ourselves on screen,” she told interviewer and artist David Salle in an article in As If magazine published July 11. “The question is, what is acting anyway? 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.”

The problem is in the past Johansson has played a transgender man and a Japanese woman, and there’s a certain sensitivity about white people taking roles from people of color and different sexualities. Johnny Depp. Audrey Hepburn. The original Amos and Andy. Mickey Rooney. And whenever a person of privilege defends privilege, it grates. So shit rained from the sky. Whoopi Goldberg of The View was particularly critical. Johansson was particularly unrepentant, shrugging Whoopi’s comments off as political correctness, because well, Scarlet’s talented, beautiful, and did I mention rich? But privileged and insensitive or no, I worry that she’s mostly right.

The question isn’t whether whites are overly represented in Hollywood relative to their percentage of the population—they are. Especially white males. According to UCLA, which tracks such things[i], while blacks are given on-screen roles in rough proportion to their share of the population, women, Latinos and most other minorities (Jews are a notable exception) are not. And off-screen, white males are clearly over-represented. That’s bad and should be fixed. Perhaps the answer is even some sort of quota system, especially for minor roles and off-screen jobs.

But restricting leading roles to actors who are most like the character being played is a terrible solution. Taken to the extreme, it quickly becomes obvious just how dumb an argument it is. Should brunettes not be allowed to play blondes? Should Australians Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman not play Americans? Should Mary Martin have not been cast as Peter Pan? Should Gwyneth Paltrow not have been allowed to play a fat person in Shallow Hal? Should Anthony Hopkins have been replaced in Silence of the Lambs in favor of a real serial killer? I hope not. For goodness sake, the whole premise of acting is people pretending to be something or someone they’re not.

Who gets leading roles in Hollywood isn’t determined by authenticity and never has been. Life’s not fair and casting surely isn’t. It’s not even about talent. The playing field has always been tilted toward the beautiful and the bankable. It’s the consuming public who gets to choose who they want to see on screen and they vote with their wallets. Any producer who’s got twenty million dollars of her own money tied up in a project and is faced with the choice of Johansson (or Swank or Lawrence or Roberts) or an unknown would have to be an absolute moron to give the lead role to the unknown, regardless of color or sexuality.

More importantly, it’s a dangerous argument because it cuts both ways. In The Equalizer movies, Denzel Washington plays a character who was originally written as white. If a white person cannot play a black person, how then can a black person get a white role? Or how can Neil Patrick Harris be cast as a heterosexual like Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother? Or how can Lucy Liu play Watson? Or Divine as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos? It is an argument that can be used to exclude just as easily as it is used to include. (And I’m sure it has.)

I don’t mean to be unsympathetic. Hollywood, like investment banking, the front offices of pro sports franchises, and a lot of other desirable jobs, is a rigged game. And some intervention to unrig it is necessary and fair. In the case of leading roles in movies and TV, it’s fair to call it out. It’s fair to savage Johansson on Rotten Tomatoes when she plays a role she shouldn’t play, or to march in front of the theater, or start an online petition. It’s fair to fund a movie yourself and cast whomever you like. But it’s not fair to ask producers to risk their money and tell them who to cast, or to ask Johansson to pass up good roles because the character isn’t a 34 year-old 5’3” blond woman smoker born in Manhattan.

I’m not sure I like that answer (or Johannson) but I struggle to come up with a better one. Thoughts?