The Playboy Conundrum

Fall 2017

Playboy magazine’s decision to feature its first transgender Playmate raises a conundrum: Does this represent progress for the transgender community or an example of inexcusable sexual objectification. Ines Rau, Parisian high-fashion model, appeared as the centerfold of the November/December issue. The magazine previously featured Rau in its May 2014 A-Z issue. According to Playboy, the copy that accompanied the 2014 photo spread focused on “humanity’s halting shift toward acceptance of gender identities beyond the male-female binary.” Rau was not the first transgender woman featured in a Playboy. Caroline “Tula” Cosey appeared in the magazine after the tabloid News of the World savaged her. She had been in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, and the tabloid attacked Cosey in a front-page article with the headline “James Bond Girl is a Boy.” Playboy took a risk and helped save her career by making her its first openly transgender model.

Cooper Hefner, the magazine’s chief creative officer, used Twitter to urge readers to embrace change and become more accepting: “We should collectively be fighting for a more open world, not one that promotes hatred and a lack of acceptance.” As quoted in the New York Times, Hefner believes the choice of Rau, “very much speaks to the brand’s philosophy. It’s the right thing to do. We’re at a moment where gender roles are evolving.” The issue also memorializes Hugh Hefner, the magazine’s founder and Cooper Hefner’s father, who passed on September 27, 2017 two days before the issue was to go to press.

His death launched a debate on whether the elder Hefner should be celebrated for his contribution to civil rights, free speech, and acceptance of LGBT people or vilified for his misogyny, sexism, and objectification of women.  In her interview on National Public Radio Rau (NPR), Rau praised Hefner’s commitment to LGBT rights: “I know that Hugh Hefner was very sensitive to – was an advocate of freedom and sexual liberation and always fought for LGBT as well. I know he was fighting for same-sex marriage.” Many LGBT advocates have proposed that the selection of Tau as the November Playmate supports the movement for transgender rights. Amanda Kerri’s October 24 article on the Advocate’s website argues that the inclusion of a transgender woman in “mainstream sexual objectification” is the “next inevitable level of being normalized in society.” She asserts that this is a victory, albeit small, for transgender people during a time when “blatant revoking of our rights and protections is devastating and hurtful.” She calls it “an ugly win, but it’s a win nonetheless.”

Whatever position you take, you must commend Tau’s willingness to affirm her status as a transgender woman in such a high-profile venue despite the inevitable and appalling backlash. As you can imagine, she has been subject to some of the ugliest tweets imaginable. So, it is appropriate to give her the last word. In the NPR interview, she said that she hopes her appearance will help people accept transgender individuals, because “everybody deserves to feel good in their skin, you know. Everybody deserves to be happy.”

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