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Laverne Cox Gets Naked, Exposes Radical Feminist Exclusionism

Laverne Cox Gets Naked, Exposes Radical Feminist Exclusionism: Photo via Allure

Photo via Allure

When Laverne Cox decided to pose nude for Allure, she knew she was taking a risk. “Black women are not often told that we’re beautiful unless we align with certain standards,” Cox told Allure. “Trans women certainly are not told we’re beautiful.”

More than that, trans women and black women, too, are often told that they’re not real women.

“When the image of the perfect woman is coded from childhood as Snow White, the fairest and most sunburned in all the land, the idea becomes that all the rest of us are just donning costumes to imitate true beauty,” says black trans women writer Shaadi Devereaux. Cox, in taking off her clothes and costumes and posing au naturale, as herself, dares the viewer to see her as not just beautiful but natural.

She also, as I’m sure she knows, invites a backlash from those who see black trans women’s bodies as innately false. The backlash was not slow in coming.

Feminist Meghan Murphy reacted to the photo just as Cox suggests that people often react to black and trans women — with disgust, prejudice and horror. In a short but impressively cruel post, Murphy sneers at Cox for attempting to achieve a “‘perfect’ body as defined by a patriarchal/porn culture, through plastic surgery, and then presenting it as a sexualized object for public consumption.”

She scoffs at the idea that trans women who take hormones or have surgery are accepting themselves. Murphy suggests that trans women are “spending thousands and thousands of dollars sculpting their bodies in order to look like some cartoonish version of 'woman,’ as defined by the porn industry and pop culture.”

Cox, for Murphy, is a cartoon: a plastic-surgery-constructed thing, unreal and, in its parody of beauty, ugly. The loathing and contempt are palpable. With black feminist activist Sojourner Truth, Cox, in her nakedness, asks, “Ain’t I a woman?” And Murphy with cold glee, replies, “No.”

That coldness isn’t new. Ideally, you’d hope, feminism would be about fighting for the rights of all women and trying to free all people from oppressive gender stereotypes. In practice, though, the radical feminist tradition of Andrea Dworkin and Janice Raymond, who Murphy champions, has often built itself on exclusion rather than inclusion. Radical feminism’s radicalism is often defined by smearing other women — trans women, sex workers, women of color — as deluded dupes of men and patriarchy.

“These radical feminisms, in my opinion, don’t even feign inclusivity,” researcher and activist Zoe Samudzi, a project assistant at UCSF, told me. “There’s a very prescriptive understanding of what emancipation and liberation looks like … White women have historically been perpetrators of violence against black women’s bodies, and the same entitlement and identity-centeredness in feminism has enabled them to proclaim themselves as the arbiters of womanhood.”

The logic that led 19th century white feminists to push for votes for white women alone is still, painfully, visible in Murphy’s attack on Cox. Some women are not worthy of kindness, of love or of sisterhood.

Just as black women have been defined as outside femininity, so have trans women. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival has spent four decades refusing to admit trans women; the organizers appear to have decided to close it down after this year rather than move towards trans inclusion.

Trans feminist and author Julia Serano explained that trans-exclusionary radical feminists “subscribe to a single-issue view of sexism, where men are the oppressors and women are the oppressed, end of story … This framing also leads them to depict trans women as entitled men who are ‘infiltrating’ women’s spaces and ‘parodying’ women’s oppression, or as ‘gender-confused’ or androgynous people who transition to female in some hapless attempt to ‘assimilate’ into the gender binary.”

Trans-women, whose refusal to conform to gender norms subjects them to hatred, contempt, vilification and, not infrequently, murderous violence, are seen as somehow creating or supporting gender norms. In the name of gender radicalism Murphy vilifies a woman because her gender expression is not the same as Murphy’s.

Part of what defines Cox’s experience of gender is, as she says, that black women and trans women are not seen as beautiful. They can be, and often are, hyper-sexualized — and in seeing Cox as overly sexual, and only sexual, Murphy participates in that stereotype. But while they can be sexual things, trans women and black women are not allowed to be glamorous or lovable.

“One of the most powerful things you can do for a trans woman is to make her feel wanted, touchable and worthy of affection,” queer trans writer Mari Brighe posted on Twitter.

P. Marie, a former sex worker told me that, “It helps me as an individual when I see any black woman feeling beautiful and sharing that with the world - reminding people we ARE beautiful, desirable, feminine and strong, which is exactly, thankfully, what Laverne Cox has done for us.”

Photo via Allure

Photo via Allure

Murphy sees Cox’s nude picture as degrading, as images of black women have often been perceived as degrading, sexual and disgusting. P. Marie, though says that for her, “When it comes to sexualized images of us, for me it’s all about agency! Did we consent? Are we respected? Is this our choice? Is this a collection of body parts or erased humanity?”

Murphy sees no humanity in Cox’s picture; only a trans, black woman who, by the very fact of being trans, can have no agency. But if you look at the picture, what’s most striking about the image is its distinctness and individuality. Murphy claims that the image is too perfect; in fact, though, the picture is remarkable, as a fashion photo, for it’s willingness to let its subject own and celebrate, her “imperfections.”

Cox is not fashion-model-thin. She’s not fashion-model-petite or willowy, either. She has very large hands, which are not hidden, boldly displayed. In the photo, Cox lies on a blanket; her body taut rather than relaxed, her head in one big, strong hand, eyes closed, a slight smile on her face — like she’s a little embarrassed and amused at being embarrassed. She’s voluptuous and awkward and sweet all at once. In her simultaneous enjoyment of and discomfort before the camera, she seems, in the frankly staged pose, startlingly natural — and beautiful.


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.

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