Life

Don’t Fall for Daniella Greenbaum’s Gender-Blind Casting Con Job

Conservatives only rail against gender stereotypes when they want to hurt trans people.

Scarlett Johansson in a maroon dress, looking back over her shoulder.
Scarlett Johansson attends the Met Gala on May 7 in New York. On Friday, she withdrew entirely from a controversial forthcoming project in which she was slated to play a transgender man.
Noam Galai/Getty Images for New York Magazine

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Daniella Greenbaum must think we’re pretty stupid. She’s the author, for example, of “Women Do Not Need the Equal Rights Amendment,” an essay that appeared in Business Insider in June and includes the sentence “It might not be woke to acknowledge that there are differences between men and women, but this is fact of life.” She’s also having a highly public tantrum as the intellect behind a nasty, disingenuous little column that BI published and then removed from its site on July 6, which defended the right of Scarlett Johansson to play transgender brothel-owner Dante “Tex” Gill in a forthcoming project and casts everyone who has objected to this casting as “the social justice warrior mob.” (Johansson withdrew from the project entirely Friday afternoon.)

Greenbaum’s silenced truth bomb failed to even mention the most crucial objections trans people have to cross-gender casting for trans roles, but now she—a woman who thinks that feminism is more of a threat to women than sexism is and that our culture downplays the importance of the differences between the sexes—a wants us to believe she’s on the side of gender neutrality. And moreover, that she’s defending Johansson not out of anti-trans animus, but because “a woman can play a man or a trans man.” It’s a cute move, to portray transgender people and our defenders as the people arguing for rigid gender conformity in casting—and she’s not the first conservative to try it out. There’s just one small problem: Transgender people would welcome a world where gender roles were relaxed, and a person’s sex at birth wasn’t a factor in the decisions about which actor to cast in which roles. Conservatives like Greenbaum, on the other hand, object to gender blindness and gender neutrality and efforts to combat gender bias at every opportunity, except when pretending to believe in those things becomes a weapon against trans acceptance.

When our martyr, who resigned from BI in a self-aggrandizing letter on July 12, wrote that she thinks a woman can play “a man or a trans man” she wasn’t the first conservative to disingenuously take up the mantle of gender equality and suggest that trans people are the ones pushing for more restrictive gender roles. If you pay attention, you see this crop up all the time. For example, in the Federalist in 2017, Leslie Loftus wrote a critique of the trans community that argued “Celebrating Transgender Diversity Requires Solid Gender Roles”. Loftus, it just so happens, also wrote that “As a Mother of a Son, Kellyanne Conway Gets Why Feminism Has Become Toxic,” where she argued that women’s equality undermines boys.

Another woman who has attempted this same con is Nancy Pearcey, the author of the immodestly titled Total Truth—a book with a chapter called “How Women Started the Culture War.” Total Truth takes a winding road, but ultimately arrives at a familiar destination: It concludes that the traditional family structure with a man as the head-of-household is best because it builds on the inherent differences between the male and female sex. Incredibly, the author of this primer on Christianity-as-sexism also wrote this article for Christianity Today: “How the Transgender Narrative Perpetuates Stereotypes.”

This move by Greenbaum, Pearcey, Loftus, and other conservatives has all the eloquence of Donald Trump’s memorable debate line: “No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet.” When conservatives pretend that transgender people are the ones perpetuating gender stereotypes, they aren’t really trying to support equality or combat harmful sex stereotyping. Instead, they’re attempting to muddy the waters, using the unpopularity of gender stereotyping and inequality to create a false tension between support for transgender rights and support for women’s equality, or between support for transgender rights and support for lesbians and gays.

It won’t work, though, because it’s based on a lie. Trans people, in most cases, don’t subject ourselves to all the expense, stigma, and difficulty of transition just to confine ourselves within another rigid role. In fact, studies show that, far from hewing to traditional roles for their post-transition gender, trans women are more likely to be androgynous than cis women, and trans men are more feminine than cis men. Trans men can be feminine, wear makeup, and date men. Trans women can ride motorcycles, present a butch aesthetic, and date women. Trans people also fight for the acceptance and inclusion of our cisgender nonconforming and nonbinary siblings, precisely because we know their cause is tied closely to our own. At the heart of the project for transgender equality is the radical proposition that people can decide for themselves how they want to present, what roles in society suit them best, and what they’d like their individual blend of presentation, role, and bodily configuration to be called. Whether they’re gender conforming and cis, gender nonconforming and trans, or anything else between, all are welcome in our eyes.

If studio casting became so gender-blind that Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson were up for the same roles, trans people would cheer. In such a world, the concerns we have about a cisgender woman playing a transgender man would be irrelevant, because one’s birth sex would not have the same power to oppress that it now does. But we live in the real world, where just about the only time a cisgender actress would be cast to play a man would be if that man was trans. This undermines the ability of trans people to advocate for ourselves as authentic members of the genders we say—and know—we are, which is why we object strenuously whenever such casting choices are made.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are no more fans of efforts to introduce gender-blind casting than they are of proposals to ensure gender-blind hiring, to protect people with gender-nonconforming dress, or to combat myths about the innate differences between men and women. To the contrary, they favor traditional families, traditional roles for men and women, and two genders only. If Hollywood as a whole, or some enterprising studio, wanted to institute a policy of casting all roles with complete disregard for the sex or gender of the actors, the transgender community would applaud. Conservatives, including Greenbaum, one suspects, would not.