Keep your shirt on Zac – we'd all be better for it

I consider the sexualisation of Mr Efron's body to be the mirror of Page 3


Somewhere out there, wherever things went before there was an internet, a mere mote in the eye of scandal, smaller even than the baby moon that’s just been discovered running rings around Saturn, perhaps at the back of someone’s drawer or pasted into an ancient journal of the heart, creased, faded, but I fear still identifiable, is a photograph of me without a shirt. I am wearing a pair of those prickly bathing trunks that men and boys were forced into in the early 1950s, made of elasticated Brillo pad, and I have my fists up like Joey Maxim, light heavyweight champion of the world. After his retirement Joey Maxim became a stand-up comedian, as I might become after mine. But I knew nothing of that at the time I posed bare-chested, trying to look menacing. I just wanted to be light heavyweight champion of the world.

Believe that and you’ll believe anything. In fact, I wanted to be a novelist and literary critic, as would be obvious from the photograph, were you to see it, which I hope to God you never do. I was 10 when it was taken, at a holiday camp near Morecambe, and had been forced to adopt the pose by my father who I reckoned could have been light heavyweight champion of the world had his heart been stronger. Why he couldn’t see that I had no such ambition, that I felt humiliated to be photographed without a shirt, I have never understood. He was not without his own prudishness in such matters as swearing, but he couldn’t sympathise with mine in the matter of exposing my chest. But I still believe today what I believed then: clothes maketh the man.

This reminiscence of delicate feeling is prompted by a story concerning Zac Efron, someone of whom I don’t expect my readers to have heard. Me neither, but research tell me he stars in films made for schoolgirls, goes to the gym, and has just had his shirt ripped off at the MTV Movie Awards.

Given that Efron was at the awards to receive a prize for Best Shirtless Performance, you would expect him to have come prepared to lose his shirt again. A little powdering and plucking, or whatever you do to look like that, must surely have gone on. He did, though, tweet a thank-you afterwards to the person who unbuttoned him, a young woman called Rita Ora, of whom we also haven’t heard, saying he didn’t know whether he could have done it on his own, by which – since we must assume he has no difficulty unbuttoning his own shirt – he could only have meant brazenly baring what was underneath it. A confession that suggests he is not without a consciousness of modesty at least.

If I now introduce the name of Cyril Smith it is not to encourage readers to imagine him without his shirt. But there is no escaping the issue of sexual abuse at the moment, whether it’s some public figure being charged, or some other public figure exonerated, and innocent or guilty, accused or accuser, it would seem that we are all being called to account in the matter of sexism and the abuse of power, what we mean by such terms, how much responsibility we bear for the seedy atmosphere of contemporary life.

Called in by Newsnight last week to address the hair-raising claim made by a UN investigator that sexism in the UK is worse than in other places, three highly intelligent women calmly discussed the sexualisation of women, from exploitation, to denigration, to harassment, to bullying, to rape, agreeing that while some of the UN investigator’s findings were more pertinent than others, it was right nonetheless to talk about a continuum that linked small infractions of common decency to significant manifestations of contempt, denials of opportunity and acts of violence. It is easy to deride the continuum argument. Matters of apparent insignificance at the one end – things we think we should laugh off if we are good sports – and murderousness at the other. A woman playfully ripping off a man’s shirt here, and Cyril Smith brutalising children there. Come on!

Something, however, is seriously amiss, and we don’t get far discussing what it is, how it has come about, or how to intervene, if we refuse to accept that causes accrete, that the tone of society determines our actions within it, that the lives we allow to be held cheap in the name of a bit of fun one day are lives we might be prepared to hold cheap in far more serious circumstances the next. Maybe monsters like Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith create themselves. But are we certain we know why they thrive when they do? And what subtle signals of allowance and even encouragement we might be sending them?

To be clear: I am not using the sexualisation of Zac Efron’s body to discredit those who complain about the sexualisation of women’s. On the contrary, I consider the one to be the mirror image of the other. The Page 3 girl pinned on a workshop door degrades all parties to its being there: the inanely objectified girl and those who inanely ogle her. And we should not discount the coarsening effects of inanity itself. To trivialise is also to dishonour. Dumb also degrades. Similarly degraded and inane, anyway, are the girls who shout “phwoar” the minute a boy, a man, a Chippendale, a birthday stripper, undoes a button. I know the argument. It’s irony: women enjoying being the ones who do the gawping for a change. “How do you like it when you’re at the receiving end, boys?” But we’ve had years of that now. If the reversal of roles was intended to liberate and empower women, then where’s the evidence it has?

Someone might have a better idea – and that won’t include any of the forms of purdah favoured by male societies still frozen in neolithic terror of women – but until I hear it here’s my recommendation. Let’s all keep our shirts on for a bit.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor