The answer to the first question is at once simple and complicated. As a matter of law and common sense alike, of course actors can pretend to be anyone. The law is clear-cut (for now at least), and common sense tells us that this is in fact what actors do for a living.
But to be fair to the other side of the argument, such complaints are nothing new. Whenever some minority group fights its way into social acceptance — and into the sort of political and cultural power that comes with such acceptance — these controversies emerge. White actors playing African-Americans is culturally taboo today, and rightly so. But one of the reasons such minstrel-show spectacles are in poor taste is that historically they were a form of racist mockery and disrespect.
That’s not applicable here. Trace Lysette, a transgender actress who plays a transgender character on the Amazon series “Transparent,” didn’t protest the casting of Johansson because the character was an insult to the transgendered. Lysette was offended that Johansson was taking work from people like her.
This strikes me as silly. Not long ago, simply calling attention to the existence of the transgendered was deemed a victory for their cause. In 1999, Hillary Swank received massive critical praise — and an Oscar — for playing a transgender woman in “Boys Don’t Cry.” No one complained about stolen narratives then.
But we have passed the awareness-raising phase, and now the issue is about cultural clout. The transgendered are following in the footsteps of other identity-politics groups that want to use their cultural power to carve out more roles for their members. They’re free to do so, of course. But it’s worth noting that it is hardly outrageous for a movie studio to prefer an international movie star like Johansson over an obscure transgender actor.
Regardless, this cultural power play is the real issue, and it is the only relevant prism for questions two and three.
There’s nothing remotely beyond the pale about what Greenbaum wrote. Her sin was simply to point out the obvious, which is often considered a great offense without actually being offensive. That is why what she calls the “social-justice warrior mob” turned on her and Business Insider.
If Business Insider had simply opted to reject the piece at first, that would have been fine, and it would have spared itself a lot of embarrassment. Instead, its editors opted to cave to political pressure. Its surrender to the mob tells us a lot about the power of the social-justice warrior mob and the weakness of Business Insider’s editors.