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Laverne Cox’s nude photo spread stirs controversy because… feminism?

Writer Meghan Murphy, founder of the feminist website Feminist Current, recently published an article challenging claims that Laverne Cox’s nude photo spread in Allure is “empowering,” arguing instead that there’s very little about the shoot to applaud. While the tone of Murphy’s article is unfortunately harsh, I have to admit that the point she is making might have legs.

At first read, Murphy seems to be attacking Cox, who — in her interview with Allure — confessed that the night before her shoot she indulged in a less-than-svelte dinner. “I know I have a nude photo shoot tomorrow, but I want to have mac ‘n’ cheese tonight,” said Cox. “I don’t like to talk too much about this, but I was my biggest weight during that photo shoot, and so I was like, ‘Gotta love yourself. You got to embrace all of this.'”

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Murphy argues that eating macaroni and cheese for dinner is hardly groundbreaking and that what we’re hearing from Cox is less about self-acceptance than about societal expectations, because — as society and the media constantly tell us — delicious cheesy things are bad for the waistline, so why on Earth would you splurge before a photo shoot?

But it’s not that simple for Murphy, who writes, “So we are to believe that, 1) Achieving a ‘perfect’ body, as defined by a patriarchal/porn culture, through plastic surgery, then presenting it as a sexualized object for public consumption equates to ‘radical self-acceptance’? 2) Eating food is ‘radical?'”

Whoa! Is anyone else feeling an indignant rage rising in their gut?

The problem with Murphy’s statement is that beyond making light of Cox’s (socially pressured) macaroni concern, she’s reducing Cox’s transformation to a misapplication of patriarchal and pornographic ideology rather than the incredibly personal evolution it was. As an actress, Cox’s personal life is (unfortunately) open to public analysis, but Murphy’s decision to declare Cox’s physical form the result of societal pressures rather than the embodiment of her inner self is problematic.

And yet, as Murphy continues, her argument seems more sound: “Trans people have received the message that, if they don’t properly fit into the limiting and oppressive gender binary, there is something wrong with them that can only be resolved by embracing the opposite end of the gender spectrum.”

Could Murphy have a point? She’s arguing that because society’s unrealistic beauty standards have been set by the patriarchy, Cox’s beautiful female form might not be the result of accepting her inner self so much as it is accepting society’s idea of what she needs to look like to be accepted as a woman.

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Cox told Allure that she decided to do the photo shoot because “seeing a black transgender woman embracing and loving everything about her body might be inspiring for some folks.” And yet Murphy is arguing that the “radical self-acceptance” Cox claims the shoot is all about “is not at all what Cox is experiencing or conveying to her audience.”

This argument is super tricky. Who is Murphy, after all, to say that the woman Cox has become isn’t every bit her own feminine ideal but the adopted ideal of a society that has fetishized the female form to the point of near caricature? And yet, while Cox may have completely accepted her inner self, her outer self does meet a very stereotypically feminine form that has now been put on display for all to analyze.

Laverne Cox in Allure

Image: Allure

Aren’t we always talking about how dangerous certain presentations of women in media can be to young women? That in constantly using super-skinny models or hyper-sexualized bodies to sell products, we are in fact influencing how young women view their own bodies by giving them unhealthy images against which to measure themselves? Doesn’t it make sense then, as Murphy is arguing, that the same constant onslaught of hyper-feminine imaging pervading our culture would also impact the beauty standards and ideals of transgender women?

Which brings up Murphy’s final argument.

“The fact that Cox’s body is seen as ‘subversive’ because she is trans doesn’t change that,” argues Murphy. “Her body doesn’t look subversive. It looks like any other objectified female body, sculpted by surgery and enhanced by Photoshop.”

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Murphy is basically saying that Cox looks like any other nude, Photoshopped woman in a magazine, so why are we all right with objectifying her body when we, as feminists, have been fighting so many battles against the objectification of women in media? Does Cox’s transformation from male to an “ideal” female form make her body our business in a way that we’re OK objectifying her? Do we feel more comfortable poring over her nude photo shoot than we would over a non-trans body because we’re looking for a hint of her prior self? And, perhaps most troubling of all, do we feel entitled to Cox’s body simply because she is trans?

If so, then Murphy’s argument that there’s very little groundbreaking in Cox’s photo shoot feels a little more on point. Because while it is absolutely a tremendous step forward to see a transgender actress celebrated as beautiful in the media, the fact that she has to get naked like almost every other woman in Hollywood for that to happen isn’t groundbreaking at all… It’s infuriating.

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