At this year’s Video Music Awards, fabric was forfeited for exhibitionism. G-Eazy, Desiigner, Ty Dolla $ign, and Joe Jonas all showed up on red carpets and on social media shirtless under open jackets, or alone in hotels in their underwear. This is pretty commonplace red carpet behavior — for women. Cassie showed up sans shirt and plus jacket, as did Nev Schulman’s fiancée, Laura Perlongo.
But men typically dress up for red carpets. Toplessness tends to be reserved for hot days at home, or the beach, or post-gym selfies. Growing up, we learned that dudes go shirtless at specific times and in certain places. That’s how it works. Shirtlessness suggests vulnerability, masculinity, freedom, and confidence. It can symbolize rebirth, transparency, and a zest for exhibitionism.
For all that sexy symbolism, it’s also pretty safe. Shirtless dudes may make headlines (see: every time Justin Bieber has jettisoned his t-shirt publicly), but this behavior paled in comparison to what came next. As my precious son began navigating the realities of world domination, he began to assert his independence via torso. In 2012, he performed “Baby” onstage in an open gold vest, while he went on to complement his teenage rebellion with so much shirtlessness that in 2013 MTV posted a roundup of it. And during this time, Biebs used his naked torso as a means of personifying hyper-masculinity. He began bulking up, getting tattoos, and forsaking tops while acting out. Then he traded it in for his vulnerable “please forgive me” vibes.
At the start of 2015, J-Biebs had begun his apology tour that eventually went on to include an appearance on Ellen, a roast on Comedy Central, and a Calvin Klein underwear campaign. But unlike his 2012–2014 shirtless endeavors, Bieber’s “Are we okay, hun?” expression canceled out any bravado his boxer brief ads may have alluded to. In fact, in almost every photo he seemed pained, upset, apologetic, and even vulnerable. And then he got even more vulnerable as 2015 bled into 2016 and he began going full-on nude. Months later, he would eventually say that he felt like a zoo animal and that the attention was too much. Bieber went on to refuse selfies, canceled meet-and-greets, and tried to claim his space back. Or, at least attempted to create a space in which he could be shirtless on his own terms: August and September have been sprinkled with sightings of a topless, jogging Bieber, but based on existing social norms (see: dudes workout sans shirt), he’s merely living his life. His lack of apparel is arguably not performance-based, unless we want to go down the “all stars want to be photographed” wormhole. Mainly he’s not posing in magazines or dancing onstage — currently, he’s shirtless so he won’t get heatstroke.
But removing layers of clothes seems like the fastest way famous men can remind us that they’re human; that they too can “bare it all” (see: “I love you so much that I’m shirtless”), laugh at themselves, or paint themselves as sexual beings. And we’ve been seeing it since it’s been a commodity for famous men to appear that way to their fans.
Back in the late '80s and '90s, boy bands like New Kids On the Block, Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC hinged on the soft, waxed chests of their teen and twentysomething singers as they performed wet and open-shirted, all while making eye contact with the camera (as if to say, “It’s all for you, Anne T. Donahue”). On the rest of the music chart were artists like Eminem and 50 Cent, who hyped up their masculinity by spending most of the early 2000s performing shirt-free and alternately brooding or angry, elevating themselves to Rocky-like mythos by equating their shirtlessness to “I’ll fight you” toughness. Not to mention Drake: As Drizzy began working out more and more last year, he didn’t shy away from posting shirtless photos on Instagram — thirst-trap style — while walking the fine line between male bravado and underlying vulnerability. He wanted us to see his new physique (and good for him!), but the want is what made him vulnerable. Like us, he needed and craved likes and approval.
Back in 2000, D’Angelo released his video for “Untitled,” which featured him more or less nude and definitely pouring his heart out. The pairing of the imagery with D’Angelo’s voice made it seem as though he was baring his soul. He turned into an immediate sex symbol. In an oral history of the video for Noisey, insiders recounted how freaked out D’Angelo was by the attention and how he felt the response to his body had eclipsed his music, and how much it took a toll on him. His vulnerability was used against him — no fabric on his skin meant there was no protection from our eyes.
In the year of our lord 2016, we still expect women to abide by our strange double standard. On one end, women are either expected to show off their bodies via bared midriffs, low-cut tops, short hems, or cutouts. But on the other, they’re crucified and shamed if their pieces are too controversial. I mean, hello: Let’s return to Laura Perlongo, who showed up in her bomber-sans-shirt, and then compare it to the way G-Eazy, Desiigner, and Ty Dolla $ign were treated for doing the same. Perlongo and Schulman were asked to do follow-up interviews explaining her fashion choices; just imagine asking Desiigner to do the same.
Ultimately, we don’t shame men into putting on more clothes in the traditional sense. But their partial nudity still says (to us and other onlookers) just as much. While we may attribute a man’s lack of clothing to an expression of vulnerability, masculinity, or an extension of boys-will-be-boys-sanctioned shrugging, it actually speaks volumes about our own agenda that their partial nudity is news-making in general, or received as anything other than a personal choice. To paraphrase a certain Dr. Freud, sometimes a blazer worn without a top is just a blazer worn without a top.