July 22, 2018

Katy Sullivan was excited by the news that Scarlett Johansson had recused herself from “Rub & Tug.”

Only four years ago, the press stumbled over itself declaring Jeffrey Tambor brave and courageous for portraying a transgender woman in Jill Soloway’s “Transparent.” Less than 1,500 days later, the Internet erupted in such outrage when Johansson took on the role of Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who ran a Pittsburgh massage parlor and prostitution business in the 1970s and ’80s, that she dropped the role.

It’s fairly remarkable that the public conversation transformed so quickly and deeply that many advocates in 2018 were appalled by what they praised in 2014. Many see this as tremendous progress, and for LGBTQ advocates who believe trans roles should be occupied by trans actors, it certainly is.

A movie opened on July 13 featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — arguably the silver screen’s most able-bodied man — playing an amputee in the action film “Skyscraper.” So did the Oscar-bait film “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” in which Joaquin Phoenix portrays the late, real-life comic writer John Callahan, who was paralyzed beneath the waist.

Both were met with crickets. Where was the outcry?

. . .

Social movements progress in fits and starts, said civil rights and employment lawyer Kalpana Kotagal. Kotagal co-wrote the inclusion rider — a contract stipulation that a film’s cast and/or the crew reflect real demographics — that Frances McDormand touted at this year’s Oscars.

There is a need, Kotagal said, “to recognize that race may be in a different place in these issues than gender than disability than sexual identity” in the social conversation, because “the inclination is often to conflate all underrepresented groups without a clear assessment or analysis with what are the particular problems different groups may face.”

Part of the difference hinges on how focused each community is.

“The transgender community is loud and strong and have learned to use social media to make their views well known; and the cisgender community is clearly listening and sensitive to casting and stories about the community that are not authentic,” Marlee Matlin, an Oscar-winning actress who is also deaf, said via email.

The disabled community, meanwhile, isn’t as focused. That’s partially because, Kotagal said, “the disability community is not monolithic.”

“We are fragmented as a community because there are all different kind of disabilities,” said Christine Bruno, an actor and disability inclusion consultant who lives with cerebral palsy.

The other huge issue has to do with perception. “ ‘Disability’ suggests an inability,” Kotagal said. “Part of what needs to change for disabled actors to be able to play these roles is some really fundamental changes in how we think about ability.”

. . .

For all the ills left unsolved, though, Kotagal said, “We’re moving forward.”

“We’re able to talk about different underrepresented groups and what affects them. We’re able to talk about who is in front of camera and behind it,” she said. “Have the problems been solved? Absolutely not. But this at least suggests progress.”