190715 Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson Image Credit: AP

As the battle over on-screen representation in the movies continues to rage, actress Scarlett Johansson once again stepped into the crossfire.

In an interview with As If magazine, the actress made the bold and — particularly in left-leaning Hollywood — unpopular statement that she feels political correctness is antithetical to art.

“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,” Johansson said. “I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions.”

“I think society would be more connected if we just allowed others to have their own feelings and not expect everyone to feel the way we do,” she added.

Backlash on social media was swift.

“Scarlett Johansson is a cisgender white woman with a powerful platform and no shortage of work opportunities. Trans people should play trans people. Period. It is incredibly disappointing that she has learnt nothing and clearly does not care about the experiences of trans people,” tweeted Charlotte Clymer, a transgender woman who works as the press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign. “I will not be seeing any films that involve Scarlett Johansson moving forward. I do not want to give my money to someone who trivialises the oppression of trans people and diminishes the importance of our visibility.”

Johansson later told The Washington Post in a statement through her publicist that her comments were “edited for click bait” and “widely taken out of context.”

“The question I was answering in my conversation with the contemporary artist, David Salle, was about the confrontation between political correctness and art. I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That is the point I was making, albeit didn’t come across that way,” she said. “I recognise that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy among my industry that favours Caucasian, cis gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to. I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included.”

Johansson is no stranger to the argument surrounding who should portray whom on screen. In 2016, she was the target of tremendous backlash when she played the lead role in a live-action adaptation of the Japanese anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Detractors claimed the casting of Johansson instead of a Japanese actress for the character of Motoko Kusanagi was “whitewashing.”

She was the centre of controversy again last July when news broke that she planned to portray Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, who ran a massage parlour business and prostitution ring in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ‘80s, in a movie titled “Rub & Tug.” Johansson first responded to the criticism with a dismissive comment to Bustle through her publicist: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment,” referring to actors who had previously portrayed transgender characters.

Days later, she resigned from the project and apologised in an exclusive statement to Out magazine that said, in part: “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learnt a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realise it was insensitive ... While 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. I believe that all artists should be considered equally and fairly.”

Several actors have stepped down from a role amid casting controversy in recent years. British actor Ed Skrein generated legions of thinkpieces when he stepped down from the role of Major Ben Daimio in ‘Hellboy’ in 2017 because the character was Asian American in the comic books the movie was based upon. The role eventually went to Daniel Dae Kim.

The Washington Post’s Gene Parked dubbed it “the rare happy ending for Hollywood’s whitewashing problem.”

In this case, many who furiously took to social media viewed Johansson’s quote as comparing the LGBTQ community with animals or trees.

“Yes, ScarJo, you should be able to play a tree. Because there aren’t countless sentient trees desiring to act yet struggling to get cast in roles,” tweeted ‘Hope Springs Eternal’ screenwriter Stephanie Mickus. “But there ARE ton of LGBTQIA l/non binary actors who have vocalised that they would love to represent those characters.”