Handily, Zac Efron wore a pop-button shirt to Sunday night’s MTV Movie Awards. Handily, because when he won the Best Shirtless Performance award for That Awkward Moment, to catcalls from a baying crowd and a little help from the singer Rita Ora, the shirt was first unbuttoned, and then—in a oh-damn-it-all moment from its wearer—came off.
The actor looked resistant at first and then, with the look of a man who knows his pecs are perky and biceps pumped for prime time, not so resistant. He threw his microphone down and, with a stripper-style toss of the pop-button shirt, revealed a body bronzed the color of a well-done Thanksgiving turkey.
Efron flexed, he saluted, he blew a kiss. He looked as if he might have known this would happen. If not, his extended moment on stage sharing the glory of his rack and arms with the world signaled a man not averse to a little self-display. He tweeted later: “@RitaOra: Thanks for such a bold move. I don’t know if I could’ve done that on my own.”
Yeah, right, Zac. You looked fine with it to us.
Afterward, Twitter predictably had its own heated debate about whether Efron had been sexually objectified, whether that was OK, and if it was OK, then imagine the controversy with the genders reversed.
There was no simple pleasure to be taken in the sight of Efron’s body. For some time, women’s bodies, while being marketed and objectified, have also been the subject of vexed debate (anorexia, shape, air-brushing). On television, it is women’s breasts that are still transgressive to see, not the male chest; and it is the flesh of women’s bodies that is used to titillate us, not men’s. Think of the endless hand-wringing over the skin Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga may show, and what “message” that transmits to young women watching, while men’s bodies, when presented, have until now been done so innocently, for fun, the dumb lunks. Such men complain about being seen as “pieces of meat,” but the complaints rarely seem hearty, or fully meant.
But now it seems that men’s bodies, inevitably, are to be as agonized over as women’s, a shift reflected in the rise of men’s eating disorders and anxiety over body shape.
Then there are stars like Efron, who use their beautiful bodies—or have their bodies used—after a particularly trying public moment as a symbolic sop to an image-hungry public. The Daily Mail is particularly keen to draw an equivalence between looking absolutely smokin’ and having surmounted personal trauma. So Miranda Kerr’s emergence as a single person after breaking with Orlando Bloom has been mapped via a series of outfits. Similarly, Efron’s year has been a murky and tawdry gossip-fest featuring mysterious accidents, late-night brawls, and spells in rehab. What better way to reconnect with his fan base than to play the heartthrob he was once best known as? Could his recent turbulence also explain why Efron spends most of his upcoming movie, Neighbors, with his body on display?
In his little moment at the MTV Movie Awards, Efron told in a few seconds the modern history of man and his relationship to his body, and how we look at the male body, publicly. Efron, in a blink, went from shy concealment to peacock-ish display. At the gym and online, men, gay and straight, are showing off their muscled bodies as never before, and they don’t seem to mind the gender and sexuality of who’s looking. They like both the acquisition and performance of muscled masculinity.
Gore Vidal once wrote that Clark Gable taking off his shirt to reveal no undershirt in It Happened One Night (1934) was the first occasion of such a thing in a “mainline movie.” “But no one quite understood what was happening,” he wrote. “Beauty and desirability were the province of the dame. A man could be handsome but hardly erotic.
“Then came Tennessee Williams with quite other notions of what the male meant. When [Marlon] Brando appeared in 1947 on stage [in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway] in a torn, sweaty T-shirt, the male as erotic object exploded into the slow American consciousness.”
Brando “was at the height of his beauty” and “for the first time in American history the male, who had always been considered coarse, ugly, nothing” was transformed. The American male, previously “nothing but a suit with a fedora hat…a nice man, a little twinkle in his eye,” had transformed in popular culture’s glare into a sexualized object of desire. It might be “hard for people to believe now, in the age of Calvin Klein ads,” Vidal wrote, that those ads “could never have happened without that one performance in A Streetcar Named Desire where a homosexual, an adjective I don’t like to use to describe people but we must here, playwright in the form of Tennessee Williams had created a sex object that was male. That had never been done before…Everybody was sexually attracted to him…”
As the Twitter storm over Efron proved, an era of gender equality means a perception that we should observe, sexually and politically, the bodies of both genders as equally as possible. But men are not—yet, anyway—judged as harshly as women. They are not looked at the same way. If they are fat, they may be derided, but the level of shaming, the notion that they have betrayed their gender, is nowhere near on a par with what women face. Female strippers are seen as operating in the shadows of the sex industry, something seedy, whereas male strippers are seen as a bit of a laugh. We gasp if we see a women’s breasts on television, but not a man’s chest.
Look at Efron’s expression in the moments after Ora pops his buttons. First of all, he grips his shirt tight, then it falls open, then the game is up, and he knows he must be a good sport. Not only that he must ratchet it up—in a split second, he’s not only in on the joke, he’s lapping up the catcalls. He knows his place. He knows he’s an object of desire. He knows that this is a moment where he wins on all scores: Straight women and gay men get a toned six-pack to revel in, straight men admire the training regimen behind it.
When Justin Timberlake accidentally revealed Janet Jackson’s nipple at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, it was she who somehow ended up in the public stocks for it. He did not. How very different to Sunday night at the MTV Movie Awards. Ora just seems the giddy gal-about-town, shouting the hen night male-stripper refrain of “Get it off,” at Efron—and the expectation on Efron is to do exactly that, and to be good-humored about it, too. A male sex object can smolder but is benign, after all. We’ll judge him, but we’ll smile, applaud his good sporting-ness—and reserve the real bitchiness for Taylor Swift’s new haircut. If a new era of male body anxiety really is imminent, at least it may level this warped playing field.