Politicians are well versed in having to take toe-curling photographs on the campaign trail. Matt Hancock having his crotch sniffed by a labrador, Boris Johnson obliterating a 10-year-old schoolchild in a rugby game, David Miliband awkwardly brandishing a banana, and Theresa May attempting to eat chips like a human all spring to mind. Being willing to look stupid in pictures is as central to the ministerial job description as the ability to shamelessly survive a grilling on breakfast television.
But in a new and rather unexpected addition to the political agenda, ministers seem to have collectively decided that they’re trying something new for 2021: topless material. Normally, tabloid headlines linking a political figure to nude or semi-nude pictures on the internet is cause for a day of emergency PR management in Whitehall, but not in 2021.
Whether there was a Europe-wide email chain sent between governments to encourage such behaviour, or the rise of these images is the result of individuals looking for social media clout, is unclear. And while we can all be glad the coronavirus vaccine rollout is reaching more and more people (by 7 February, 12.2 million in the UK had received the first dose and 512,000 the second dose), we might also need reminding that you can pick up a pack of men’s thermal vests at M&S for as little as £12.
It all started on 19 January when Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, 52, shared a photograph of himself getting the jab. Picture the scene: his blue formal shirt is hanging off one arm exposing half of his chest, and although he’s wearing a mask, he is definitely smirking. There is also a leather necklace, but the less said about that the better.
Social media lapped it up; the picture was shared far and wide. With hindsight we should have asked the perfectly reasonable question: “Mr Mitsotakis, could you not have just rolled your sleeve up instead? Or worn a top underneath? Didn’t we wear more clothes than this for our last smear test?” But we were too busy being thirsty, and let it slide.
Since then we have paid the price. On 26 January, Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith shared his topless effort, fascinating in its commitment to having his shirt tucked in, a single button done up, and one nipple out. On 8 February, French health minister Olivier Veran tweeted his picture (modesty partially concealed) with the single-word caption, “Vacciné”, giving it the vibe of a French perfume advert. Tory MP and army man, Johnny Mercer, then shared a photo in which he could, plausibly, be totally naked, such is the absence of clothing.
Offering an explanation, having been mocked and criticised, Mercer said: “I simply couldn’t get the sleeves over my muscles.” Perhaps Mercer should have taken a leaf out of the book of the Croatian finance minister, Zdravko Maric, whose vaccine picture also went viral, although he was fully clothed in it.
The sharing of vaccine pictures to help with public health messaging isn’t completely new. During the 2012 flu campaign, Dan Poulter, the Suffolk MP, shared a photograph of himself wearing his shirt hanging off one shoulder like a Roman toga (see here); Elvis Presley was famously photographed having the polio jab in 1956; and of course, Vladimir Putin loves a topless horseriding photo for any occasion. But the latest deluge of middle-aged pecs feels different.
Not only could this be a legitimate premise for a Mumsnet calendar, but it feels like a symptom of where we’ve found ourselves in the third lockdown – deprived of human touch for over a year. Perhaps it is simply the inevitable consequence of what we shall call “The thirst discourse”. One minute we were allowing ourselves to ogle at Justin Trudeau’s hiking photos (also see him photobombing a beach wedding), casually using phrases like “Dishi Rishi”, and reading forums about Andy Burnham’s eyelashes. Next thing you know, we’re here.
And, yes, of course it could just be more evidence that toxic masculinity has to rear its naked head in even the purest of national joys – a vaccine to save us from the crushing angst of a pandemic littered with men who should know better than to post thirst traps – but it seems fairer to conclude that we’re all just bored and keen for some light relief.
Even those who haven’t shared topless pics are keen to bring some humour to the situation. Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a video encouraging people to get vaccinated and quoting his Terminator films – “Come with me if you want to live,” he growled. Star Wars actor Anthony Daniels said: “Droids don’t get Covid. But humans do.” Sir Ian McKellen wore the best rainbow scarf we’ve ever seen to get his jab done in January. And Vice President Kamala Harris said the instantly meme-worthy: “I barely felt it [go in].”
So just as we've all come to expect pictures of dogs at polling stations as part and parcel of democracy in action, perhaps over the next few years we can expect the “vaxxie” [vaccine selfie] to become a staple of British pandemic culture. Now that we’ve been locked in our homes for a year, the politicians have worked out that it delivers exactly what we want: good news about the pandemic, and a reassuring reminder that none of us have been to the gym since last March.
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