Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Marilyn Monroe once said, at the height of her fame, “Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.” We know how that burden took a toll on her. Nonetheless, almost 50 years after her suicide, her stature as the very definition of “Hollywood sex symbol” remains unchallenged. The Raquel Welch’s and Farrah Fawcett’s have come and gone, but no one has ever really equaled Monroe.
Today, sadly, no woman seems to even be trying. Not in the movies anyway. Sure, on TV there have been various women inclined to take a run at the sex symbol mantle. Pamela Anderson certainly did her part during her BAYWATCH years. Today, Sofia Vergara does a curvaceous, witty turn each week as Ed O’Neill’s trophy wife on MODERN FAMILY. And of course, reality TV has produced a few sex symbol wannabe’s in Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. But we seem to have hit a vast drought regarding cinema sirens.

It appeared for a while there that Angelina Jolie might be willing to fill the need. But today the only place she regularly exploits her looks and sexuality is on the red carpet. On screen, she’s more apt to completely downplay her feminine wiles. In her two spy romps last year she whiffed the opportunity to play the sexy Mata Hari type. In THE TOURIST she was so chaste, Johnny Depp had nothing to play off of and their chemistry fizzled, along with the film’s box office. Even worse, in SALT, she spent the better part of that film running around dressed as a man. If I’m going to pay 10 bucks to see Jolie play a spy, I don’t want to see her in drag. Do you?
I remember in my teens Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spent an entire program of their PBS show SNEAK PREVIEWS discussing sex in the movies and specifically, what films aroused them as men and critics. (Ah, the seventies and eighties…) Hollywood used to produce a lot of sex-themed major motion pictures. Films like LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1974), BODY HEAT (1981), 9 ½ WEEKS (1986), FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988), and BASIC INSTINCT (1992) were all huge hits and made the likes of Kathleen Turner, Kim Basinger, Lena Olin and Sharon Stone into stars and sex symbols. The closest we’ve come to a new sex symbol being created by the movies today seems to be Megan Fox. In the kiddie flick TRANSFORMERS (2007). Ugh.

And I don’t buy the argument that the reason for the decline in female sex symbols is that the Internet now serves up endless offerings of such 24/7. If that’s true then explain to me why the movies can still create male sex symbols like Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. And they seem to be a lot more willing to play sexy than the likes of Jolie. In fact, it’s today’s male screen stars who are more likely willing to be seen as eye candy. Why is that? It’s either a sign of the equalization of the sexes or perhaps more likely, the unwillingness of the serious actress to be exploited in any way as to endanger her credibility. All I know is I miss the potential new Marilyn’s.

And boy is the male sex symbol filling the void by appearing everywhere these days. Just look at all the new comic book movies due out this summer. The previews for THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA and THE GREEN HORNET promise the endless fetishization of beefcake. Look at Ryan Reynolds’ Green Hornet suit. Does it leave anything to the imagination? How far has cinema sexuality shifted when Reynolds is willing to be photographed like that?

I hope the female sex symbol returns, and pronto. The modern actress should realize she can be fierce and feminine. Actors like Jason Statham and Daniel Craig take off their shirt at a moment’s notice, so why can’t women embrace their sexuality on screen just as much? If you saw the stunning Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars you know she is one talented actress whose looks could also stop traffic. And now she’s going to lose all her curves to play the starving Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Bring on the glam.


  1. An interesting case for the classic screen sirens that we won’t see again. Marilyn, Rita Hayworth, Jayne Mansfield, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and the afore-mentioned Elizabeth Taylor...those days are gone.

    Reality programming, among decades of social changes has seen to that. That special mystique has been uncovered. The Hollywood illusion has lifted.

    I think a lot of it has to do with the changing times and social mores as the decades have passed. While most men enjoy beautiful women in the movies (that never changes); I doubt most women miss the sexually-stereotyped perceptions of a male-dominated society and the discriminatory attitudes against females of generations past. My mother, a young woman of the 1940’s and 50's herself, repeatedly told me decades later it was "a man's world".

    As iconic as Marilyn has become (and no doubt not only her beauty but her early death has contributed to that icon image), I doubt most women today, actresses in particular, would want to live her life and career and the more frequent sexual discrimination her generation of stars had to deal with.

    Today is a different era...with plastic surgery, bad public behavior, Botox, rehab, and all.

    And many female sex symbol wannabe’s of today, the Kardashians, a string of vampy reality TV “stars”, and too many of today’s cookie-cutter Hollywood starlets known more for club-hopping than acting...does anyone of substance take them very seriously? I doubt it. On the flip side of that, male sex symbols of today are not as frequently considered so vacuous. The eternal double standard.

    And who can blame the serious actresses of today for down-playing their sexuality as you describe? Like you said, “the unwillingness of the serious actress to be exploited in any way as to endanger her credibility” rings true to me.

    Sadly, despite the more sexually-equal times we live in, I wonder if that double standard will ever completely go away. Not until more men can be the kind of men who appreciate women and their beauty tremendously, yet still treat them with the respect they deserve. And not until more of today’s young actresses work harder to reach the level of brains, beauty and class attained by the true Hollywood icons who came before them.

  2. Great post, Fan With No Name. You give us a lot to consider. And you're right, the mystique of the sex symbol has been ruined by the 24/7 gossip and entertainment news cycle. Not to mention the expanded role of women across all fronts in society. But you'd think we could at least see some mature relationships portrayed onscreen, ones that have adult characters who yes, even have sex. Some of the movies I listed excel in that department, but less and less are successful. And most aren't even willing to try. Perhaps the greatest harm done has been done less by actresses unwilling to play up their sexuality and more by actors so ready, willing and able to downplay theirs. The infantile man/child character is everywhere in film today. And with the raging success of clowns like Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, and Will Ferrell, we're just going to get more of that same, overgrown frat boy kind of attitude and less of the mature kind in such rare supply.

  3. I think the term "sex-symbol" has lost its potency. Especially when you consider that nearly all female actresses with beauty and sex appeal will inevitably wind-up on any number of lad-mags' "hot 100 lists" and a simple google image search of any of their names reveals several nude or scantily clad photos of them instantly. There's no mystery to it any longer. Whenever we want to see more of a beautiful actress, our desire is so immediately gratified that there is no sense of longing, wonder or fantasy involved. It kind of has to do with that whole idea of leaving something to the imagination rather than serving it all up on a platter, I think.

  4. Well said, Adam. And it all points to the junior high level of maturity permeating these lists and Maxim covers of stars posing in their underwear. But there is precious little beyond that on the big screen I'm afraid. Teasing is one thing, but women embracing adult behavior is quite another. And it seems that most movies cannot handle much more than the tease these days.