Half-Dressed or Half-Naked? The Paperboy’s Swim Through Sexually Charged Waters

If you haven’t yet seen Lee Daniels’s latest film, The Paperboy, you probably haven’t been able to avoid reviews describing the suspenseful thriller alternatively as “lurid,” “a hot mess” and “high-toned sexploitation.” AP movie critic Christy Lemire reviewed the complex, nuanced film as: “characters wallowing in bloody crimes and sloppy sex, all of which seems even more lurid during a steamy summer in the racially divided Florida swamps of the late 1960s.” (If you haven’t seen the movie, watch the trailer and judge for yourself.)

Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron, wearing “tighty whities” throughout much of The Paperboy (2012).

Whether praising the film or savaging it, reviewers generally shared one observation: they fixated on the fact that Zac Efron who plays Jack Jansen—the paperboy—appears half-naked—literally—through the majority of the movie. When not sporting tight swim trunks, he wears only underwear—“tighty-whities”—which are arguably more revealing in terms of style and color than swimming trunks, especially in 1969 the year the story unfolds.

Though perplexed that Efron appears half nude in the film, Lemire didn’t criticize it. How can she? Few have debated the aesthetic appeal of Efron’s body and I’m not about to do so.

What puzzles me—enough that I had to see the movie despite reviews describing its depravity—is that films have featured half-naked women—without logical, plot-related reasons—since Hollywood’s inception. If not overtly approved, the gratuitous inclusion of scantily clad young women is tacitly expected. So why did Zac Efron’s state of undress provoke such shock and widespread commentary?

Does Daniels’s decision to film Efron half-dressed (or half-naked) signal an increased sexualization of men’s bodies by the media today?

Not necessarily. Part of Efron’s half-nakedness derives from plot: his character Jack, a college swimming champion at the University of Florida, was expelled for draining the university pool in a drunken boyish prank. As the film starts the 20-year old is living at home delivering, the local newspaper produced by his father. Stuck in a pubescent, powerless role at home, motherless, girlfriend-less, attracted to an older woman (Nicole Kidman) his journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey) is assisting, Jack postures and pouts in his underwear–sometimes bored, sometimes rebellious–placing his body on perpetual display.

When Isoul Harris (Huffington Post) asked Daniels why he kept Efron “basically naked” throughout the movie, Daniels explained: “When I grew up, I was in my underwear all the time in my mother’s house. . . . so, with this coming-of-age story, I was replicating what I know from my childhood.”

Interesting. Indeed, at times, rather than sexualizing Jack (Efron), appearing half-dressed infantilizes him–some have remarked that tighty whities resemble diapers–and underscores his emotional vulnerability. Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen’s omniscient housekeeper who narrates the film, emphasizes Jack’s childlike vulnerability by describing his attraction to Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) not as adolescent lust; she explains that Jack has fallen in love with Charlotte because Charlotte embodies “mother, girlfriend, and oversexed Barbie” all in one.

Whatever the rationale for Efron’s underwear-only home scenes, any sexuality that his state of undress might conjure is overshadowed by overt, graphic, raw and sometimes brutal sexual domination experienced (sometimes sought by) other characters.

Zac Efron starring as Jack Jansen, swimming in Lee Daniels’ film, The Paperboy, 2012.

Focusing on the film’s shocking nature, most reviews failed to mention the role that swimming holds in the film. Within the first few minutes Efron has plunged into a pool and begins swimming underwater; his short, tight black trunks, starkly contrast with the pool’s white tiles. The camera first pans from above; it then submerges in front of him, visually caressing him in exaggerated slow motion as he continually strokes underwater toward the camera. The scene isn’t merely to showcase Efron’s body—though it clearly does—its significance emerges near the film’s end.

About halfway through the film, while sunbathing together on the beach, Charlotte (Kidman) teases Jack—encouraging him to have sex with one of the nearby girls. Angered and possibly humiliated, Jack stalks to the water and swims furiously, beating murky waters with the frustration he feels for Charlotte (for his powerlessness in life). After suffering repeated jellyfish stings and barely dragging himself out of the water, Jack lies on the beach, in agony, swelling with allergic reaction to the stings. The controversial, much-publicized scene of Charlotte urinating on his face and body is contextualized in the film; far from an act of depravity or degradation—urine halts an allergic reaction to jellyfish stings—the act seems bizarrely natural. and devoid of sexual overtones.

So why did the media pounce on this scene and the fact the Efron appeared half-dressed (or half-naked) throughout The Paperboy? Are there differences in way in which Hollywood eroticizes men and women?

Movie poster advertising The Paperboy 2012. From collider.com

Consider the differences in the movie posters for The Paperboy (2012; set in 1969) and Bathing Beauty (1944). Advertisements for The Paperboy don’t feature a half-dressed Efron to lure viewers; the movie poster highlights four of the main characters. Knowing the amount of time that Efron appears in his underwear, the trailer actually downplays the prominence of his exposure.

In contrast, all of the posters advertising Bathing Beauty–including the one below–showcase Williams’ body. Originally titled “Mr. Co-ed,” Bathing Beauty revolved around Red Skelton. Filmmakers renamed the film to feature Williams and advertised the movie by prominently displaying her swimsuit-clad body in advertisements.

Poster advertising Esther Williams in Bathing Beauty, 1944. From retroconfidential

 

By featuring Efron half-naked, more than half the time, Daniels may have intended Efron to objectify his body. The media commented so ubiquitously on Efron’s near-nakedness because, historically, the appearance of scantily-clad men in popular film is driven by plot. Jack’s lounging in his briefs–for no overt, plot-driven reason–stands as an anomaly. As a culture, we are accustomed to equating scantily-dressed women with sexual objects. Efron is half-dressed, but he is not objectified—at least by characters in the film (two of whom objectify themselves).

Having read the reviews that describe the film’s shocking luridness, I cringed. Loathing gore and graphic violence I nearly skipped the film. Recently, after finishing Gilliam Flynn’s Gone Girl I read her first novel, Sharp Objects. Maybe that–gripping but highly disturbing–desensitized me. I walked away from The Paperboy thoughtful but not shaken. And definitely not disappointed or convinced that Efron was gratuitously objectified. I’m  curious to hear what other people thought.

About Marilyn Morgan

Hi, I’m Marilyn Morgan and welcome to my research blog. For over nine years I've worked as an archivist at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at that Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and I am committed to inspiring, supporting, and disseminating academic research, especially related to women’s issues in popular culture. My own research investigates 20th-century and contemporary American history, popular culture, and material culture, especially advertising; consumerism; marketing to women; socially constructed gender roles; cultural aesthetics and beauty pageants; cosmetics; women and sport, media treatment of women athletes; youth culture; body image; dieting; gendering of sport; women’s swimming; eroticization of women athletes; and beach culture.
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2 Responses to Half-Dressed or Half-Naked? The Paperboy’s Swim Through Sexually Charged Waters

  1. Amy says:

    I know this wasn’t the purpose of your article….but I just might have to see this movie now! ;)
    Great article!

    • It’s actually good. I felt reluctant and made myself see a matinee in case it was super disturbing. But it’s shot in a way–kind if hazy & grainy–that really makes it okay. And they portray 1969 fashion accurately :)

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