“I never quite understood it, this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of.”
— Marilyn Monroe in an interview for Life, 1962
At the beginning of her career, she posed nude for a series of photographs by Tom Kelley. When she gradually became a famous star in comedy films such as As Young as You Feel (1951), Monkey Business (1952) and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), those same nude photographs caused a scandal — but instead of damaging Marilyn Monroe’s career, they propelled her into the sex symbol status she became famous for.
Marilyn Monroe was an outstanding actor, woke and way ahead of her time. The media finds a way to describe her more sensationalised ways of her life: the scandals, the love affairs, the dresses and her sex symbol image.
An article in the Los Angeles Times brought out a slideshow on the sex symbols of the century with a description —
“Bombshells. Sex kittens. Pin-up girls. In Hollywood, such creatures have always been in plentiful supply. But just about once in a generation, a bona fide sex symbol will come along to stand out from the pack: some beautiful Valkyrie whose mere photograph is enough to flutter the collective pulse and whose appearance on a red carpet causes both flashbulbs and eyes to pop. These women are synonymous with the S-word because they make men think impure thoughts rather than associate them with any particular movie role, product or publicist-constructed persona.
Every era gets the sex symbol it deserves — at least, so goes pop-cultural thinking on the matter. What then to make of Megan Fox? To be sure, she is the newest “it” girl to ascend into the vaunted pantheon of sex-bomb goddesses.”
Recent information by the Women’s Media Center has provided disturbing statistical data on the representation of women in U.S. media. The report draws attention to the striking underrepresentation of women who determine the content of news, literature, and television and film entertainment, as well as the negative portrayal of women in entertainment television and film. As a consequence, the role of women has had major societal effects, including gender inequity.
MissRepresentation.org, an organisation that “exposes how American youth are being sold the concept that women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality,” is campaigning to shed light on this issue and empower women and young girls to challenge the limiting media labels and recognise their potential.
Who is a sex symbol?
A sexually attractive person or character is known as a sex symbol or icon. Between the 1910s and 1920s, the word sex symbol was initially used to characterise the era’s first budding film stars. Sessue Hayakawa for men and Asta Nielsen for women were among the first on-screen sex icons. To attract audiences, movie studios have depended primarily on the attractiveness and sex appeal of their actors. During World War II, this approach became more popular. In the twentieth century, sex symbols could be male or female: in the 1910s and 1920s, actors like the romantic Sessue Hayakawa and the athletic Douglas Fairbanks were popular. The death of Rudolph Valentino, the archetypal cinematic lover, in 1926 provoked an enormous frenzy among his female fans.
Sex symbols like James Dean and Marlon Brando embodied the “bad boy” image of the 1950s, while women like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were seen as the ideal of the blonde bombshell. While the sex symbol was only perceived as a sexual ideal until the 1950s, it became a symbol of the sexual revolution’s emancipation of bodies and sexuality in the 1960s.
The very idea of attaching the notion of sex symbol to icons led to the practice of objectification and transforming ideas of beauty. What must have started as an acknowledgement of attributes in cinema grew into a highly poisonous stereotyping, the onus of which mainly fell on women. It is undoubtedly clear how women are projected and represented in media and arts.
The film industry is perceived as a space of compromise and constant negative liberalism, yet what is shown and consumed is a result of hypermasculine expectations of a perfect body type. This furthers the idea of what counts as sex appeal in women, which leads to harmful habituations of intermittent fasting, not eating for days, anorexia, and surgeries to fit into the idea of sex appeal.
Only recently, Kim Kardashian made into the news when she claimed that she went through a rigorous diet and training to lose weight in a few days to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress. This is the very example of how sex symbolism has affected the idea of ‘sexiness’. Actors have praised an increase in female parts, including reports of a female 007 in the upcoming James Bond film, but sexism remains widespread, according to Plan International and the Geena Davis research organisation. After researching 56 top-grossing films from 20 countries, they discovered that female leads were four times more likely to be seen naked on-screen than male leads in similar positions.
Advertisers have resorted to employing what they believe would immediately draw the audience in an increasingly competitive climate to grab people’s attention. The attraction created is of women with their natural physical endowments displayed in explicit sexually enticing postures to products/services that have no connection to women. For example, Simon Davis, a former psychiatric social worker, studied 329 advertisements in Canadian newspapers in 1990, where they concluded that men were seen as success objects and women as sex objects.
In the study, they found that the individuals’ perceptions about preferred companion characteristics were aligned with traditional sex-role stereotypes. Men were more likely to choose stereotypically attractive feminine characteristics (appearance) over nonfeminine characteristics (financial, employment, and intellectual status). One paradox was that emotional expressiveness is a feminine attribute, but men place a lower value on it. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to value commitment in a relationship and to highlight male attributes such as financial, work, and intellectual standing.
One discrepancy found among the women was that, despite the idea that emotional expressiveness is not a masculine feature, the women in this sample asked for it more than the men. With respect to the last point, it may be important to refer to Basow’s (1986, p. 210) conclusion that “women prefer relatively androgynous men, but men, especially traditional ones, prefer relatively sex-typed women.”
Thus, the concept of sex symbols is a reinforced terminology to perpetuate the idea of mainstream beauty, inducing appearance anxiety for those who do not conform to these ideals. It is similar around the world for women. The Korean beauty industry has its own set standards where women in news media were not allowed to wear spectacles until protests. The Indian beauty industry literally thrives on selling the idea that fair skin allows you to achieve success. Thus, these critical ideals affect women in more unthinkable ways than one can imagine.
Ankita Kundu is pursuing Masters’s in Women’s Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She writes poetry and paints in her free time. Her areas of interest include women’s rights, sexuality and socio-economic conditions, art and representation of women. She can be found on Instagram.