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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Wasting Time: Scarlett Johansson, Nanette, and Representation in Media

            It is the first and greatest Law of the Celebrity Jungle; every big star, no matter how universally regarded, will have at least one utter bomb attached to their name.  One terrible, self-afflicted wound that can be neither excused nor forgotten, merely endured (think George Clooney’s brief tenure as Batman).  For Scarlett Johansson, one of the most beloved actresses in the business today, that moment should have come and gone with the whitewashing misfire that was Rupert Sanders’ 2017 live-action remake of Ghost In The Shell.  Usually, an error that grave only needs to happen once for a person to learn a hard-won lesson and never do it again.  Rarely is anyone dense enough to return to the poisoned well for seconds. 

            Yet somehow, here we are.  For the briefest of moments, Scarlett Johansson did just that, announcing last month that she would once again partner with Sanders, (so, BIG flag right away) except this time, instead of pilfering the pantheon of Japanese classics, it would be for a biopic of a real-world trans-person, Dante “Tex” Gill.  To be fair, as I was in the process of writing this piece, Johansson did come to her senses and withdraw from the project, but not before experiencing seriously sharp backlash from all corners of the internet. 

            This was very much not helped by Johansson being stupendously callous in her initial response to the outrage, using a rep to send out a nonsense defense of her accepting the role in the vein of, “But the other kids do it too!”  Yes, she took it back fairly quickly, but the fact that she allowed this to happen at all is still troubling.  Like Meryl Streep pulling the tired “We’re ALL Africans!” card to duck around answering why her 2016 Berlin Film Festival jury was all-white, it is another saddening example of how those who’ve benefited from our current cultural power structure cannot, in most cases, be relied on to do things that could affect actual change within said power structure, like, say, agreeing to turn down a handful of the hundreds of roles one is offered in a given year in favor of more disenfranchised artists without being caddy about it.  

            As it happens, this shitshow was hitting the fans right around the time Nanette was released on Netflix, the one-woman show by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby.  Nanette is a brilliant, cutting, furious deconstruction of the current nature of stand-up, especially how much it demands from disenfranchised people- in Gadsby’s case, from queer women- in order to be “successful,” “accepted,” or “normalized.”  More often than not, breaking out into any boys club or position of power or prominence (like, say, headlining major Hollywood tentpole films) is ultimately not possible for women or minorities of any stripe without, at some level, subjecting oneself to ritual self-humiliation, to making light of the hurts of being on the bottom.  Gadsby focuses on comedy in her special, yes, but the parallels to everything in our world are so obvious she knows she doesn’t have to waste time drawing attention to them. 

            That would have been enough to make her special required viewing, but somehow she was able to take it even further.  She remains gut-punchingly funny even as she is denigrating comedy as an agent of healing, but is able to break down in painfully clear ways how this process of self-humiliation, no matter what end is intended, can only further hurt and hinder its subject as both a person and an artist; it allows the cordoning off of the ills of oppression and fails to encourage active confrontation of the ugly sides of human existence. 

            In one of her special’s most powerful moments- which is saying something, because it is PACKED with them- she openly admits that she is directly challenging those on top of the food chain, specifically white, straight, cisgender men.  She refuses to lessen the tension in the room, thereby breaking what she admits is usually the bargain a comedian makes with their audience; I explain something painful and uncomfortable, something that you may well be directly involved in, but before you squirm too much, I bring in the punchline, end the story, and you can all feel better again. 

            In the end, she concludes, we can only make things better by all hitching up our socks, facing the uncomfortable, and being honest about it.  And a big part of that involves representation, about opening up our notions of what “normal” and “acceptable” and “typical” are. And it is exactly this nature of the problems we face that Johansson’s self-created controversy touches on, and why I couldn’t help but repeatedly come back to it in my mind while watching Nanette.  The base need for any studio is to make at least some money with a given film.  Star power remains a big draw in terms of getting butts in seats to see your movie, whatever it’s about.  And there is a fairly limited and set list of who the “big stars” in the movie world are who are guaranteed draws, nearly all of which are white and/or straight, and ALL of which are cisgender, full stop.  So of COURSE, even if your movie is about a trans-person, fictional or no, your first instinct as a studio and a director is to get the biggest, most well-known name you can to fill the role.  And so disenfranchisement and a lack of proper representation and influence within a given industry or medium is perpetuated and entrenched, ad nauseum, over years and decades and even generations.  It is the worst of capitalism meeting the worst (read; all) of systemic discrimination. 

            It almost feels like the most Sisyphean of tasks to try and change all this.  It feels overwhelming.  It IS overwhelming.  And exhausting.  So when Gadsby “comes out” to announce that she identifies as Tired, she speaks for so many people around the world who are tired of the same Johansson-esque stumbles happening in a never-ending cycle, requiring the same points and same arguments to be made, and the same ground being gained and then re-gained time and time and time again.  It’s enough to make any sane person want to go for a nap and never get up again. 

            But we can’t.  We can’t afford to.  Jokes aside, Gadsby will not stop fighting, because she knows in every fiber of her being what the cost is of giving up, and she knows that it is a price far too high to pay.  And if she won’t give up, what right do we have to?  It is tiresome to have to do what should be the wholly unnecessary work of reaching the Scarlett Johanssons of the world and getting them to change their ways, but it must be done, because that is the only way we can ever affect real change in our world.  Anything else is just a waste of time, and God help the person who wastes the time of someone like Hannah Gadsby. 

-Noah Franc

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