Last month there was controversy enough around Scarlett Johansson taking on the role of a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug, and the Avengers actress eventually dropped out after making some problematic statements. Now Forbes has reported that Johansson was the highest-paid actress in 2017, having raked in $40.5 million. But there’s no telling how much ongoing controversy over the trans role would have affected her box office star power with the upcoming Black Widow movie.
The backlash from trans activists and allies was fierce when it was announced in early July that the actress would star as Dante "Tex" Gill, a trans man who ran massage parlors and prostitution rings in ’70s-era Pittsburgh, in Rub & Tug from director Rupert Sanders. It’s not the first time a Sanders project involving Johansson stirred controversy. Previously, she played an Asian woman in his movie Ghost in the Shell.
Responding to outrage from trans actresses including Jamie Clayton, Trace Lysette, and Jen Richards, Johansson initially defended her decision to play Gill. When faced with criticism for agreeing to play trans, Johansson, referring to cisgender actors whose performances in trans role have been roundly praised, said through her representative, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment.”
Judging from Johansson’s comment in which she named actors who won awards for playing trans, it’s been speculated that she was seeking a prestigious, Oscar-winning part when she took on the role that likely wouldn’t have added much to her box office take but could have added to her critical cachet.
"In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project, Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive.
"I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film," she continued, "I believe that all artists should be considered equally and fairly. My production company, These Pictures, actively pursues projects that both entertain and push boundaries. We look forward to working with every community to bring these most poignant and important stories to audiences worldwide."
At least one writer for Forbes speculated that Johansson’s move to drop out of Rub & Tug was partially motivated by concerns over how the controversy would affect Black Widow.
“Sure, general audiences wouldn’t have cared about (or had known much about) the Rub and Tug outcry. But it’s something that would have followed the actress on the publicity trail and may well have been a two-strikes-you’re-out scenario for the very sort of progressive/uber-woke online fans who Marvel and Walt Disney were counting on to sell the heck out of the Black Widow movie,” wrote Scott Mendelson.
“It wouldn’t be a fatal distraction, but it’s not great when you finally make your Black Widow movie and your longtime star has essentially been (justly or not) 'canceled' by the geek media at large," he added.
Johansson’s role as Black Widow in the juggernaut Avengers series pushed her to the top of the pack of highest-paid actresses, with Angelina Jolie landing in the second spot at a cool $28 million due to up-front pay for Maleficent 2, according to Forbes. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the top 10 highest-paid actresses list is dominated by white women, with Jennifer Aniston in the third spot, followed by Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, Mila Kunis, Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett, Melissa McCarthy, and Gal Gadot.