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Marilyn Monroe, described by the BBC as "perhaps Hollywood's most enduring sex symbol". [1]

A sex symbol or icon is a person or character widely considered sexually attractive and often synonymous with sexuality. [2]


The term sex symbol was first used between the 1910s and 1920s to describe the first emerging film stars of the era. Movie studios have relied heavily on the looks and sex appeal of their actors to be able to attract audiences. [2] [3] The use of this concept increased during World War II. [4] In the 20th century, sex symbols could be male as well as female: actors such as the romantic Sessue Hayakawa and the athletic Douglas Fairbanks were popular in the 1910s and 1920s. Archetypal screen lover Rudolph Valentino's death in 1926 caused mass hysteria among his female fans. [5] [6] In Hollywood, many film stars were seen as sex symbols, such as Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable.

The "bad boy" image of the 1950s was epitomized by sex symbols such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, [7] and women like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and French superstar Brigitte Bardot were seen as the archetype of the blonde bombshell. [8] While until the 1950s, the sex symbol was just seen as a sexual ideal, in the 1960s it was seen as a symbol of the emancipation of bodies and sexuality with the sexual revolution. [9]

In the late 1980s and 1990s, martial artist and actor Jean-Claude Van Damme was considered a sex symbol. [10] [11] In the 1990s, Pamela Anderson gained international recognition for her starring role of "C.J." Parker on the action drama series Baywatch, further cementing her status as a sex symbol. [12]


In sports, many female athletes have become sex symbols. [13] [14] Young males often prioritise female athlete's physiques over their performance. [15] Women are more likely to show more skin than men. [16] With Sports Illustrated being a main competition for ESPN, ESPN launched The Body Issue in 2009. The Body Issue caused controversies regarding perceived sexual objectification. [17] Sex appeal of female athletes is often used to promote their sport. During a Dan Patrick interview, Hope Solo expressed her concern over marketing of female athletes after she did The Body Issue. [18]

Fictional sex symbols

Rotten Tomatoes states that the 1930s cartoon character Betty Boop is "the first and most famous sex symbol on animated screen". [19] Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner) from the 1988 live-action/animation crossover film Who Framed Roger Rabbit has been described as a sex symbol as well. [20] Video games have had several character that are considered sex symbols, such as Lara Croft, [21] [22] [23] who has had several appearances in mainstream media.

In online fandoms, certain fictional characters may gain massive popularity as sex symbols, particularly on the website Tumblr. On Tumblr, these characters are known as "sexymen", and are notable for having substantially large followings. In addition, they are often the subject of large quantities of fan art and are often shipped with other characters. Examples of sexymen in Tumblr fandoms include the Once-ler as depicted in the 2012 Lorax film, as well as Sans from the video game Undertale. [24] Sans in particular is considered to be the most popular sexyman, having beaten other characters such as Arataka Reigen from the manga Mob Psycho 100 in a poll that gained the attention of Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale. [25]

Similarly, in otaku communities, characters from anime or manga that fans find sexually or romantically attractive are referred to as "waifus" or "husbandos". [26]

See also


  1. ^ "BBC World Service – Witness, The Death of Marilyn Monroe". BBC. 2012. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  2. ^ a b Pam Cook, "The trouble with sex: Diana Dors and the Blonde bombshell phenomenon", In: Bruce Babinigton (ed.), British Stars and Stardom: From Alma Taylor to Sean Connery, pp. 169–171. Quote: "– the sex symbol is usually defined in terms of her excessive sexuality"
  3. ^ Williams, Gregory Paul (1990). The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History. B L Press. ISBN  978-0977629923.
  4. ^ Flexner, Stuart Berg; Soukhanov, Anne H. (1997). Speaking freely: a guided tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley. Oxford University Press. p.  373. ISBN  978-0-19-510692-3.
  5. ^ Hutchinson, Pamela (22 February 2016). "Last of the red-hot myths: what gossip over Rudolph Valentino's sex life says about the silents". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  6. ^ "The Queen at 90: The key events of 1926, in pictures". The Daily Telegraph. 21 April 2016. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  7. ^ Weinberg, Thomas S.; Newmahr, Staci, eds. (2014). Selves, Symbols, and Sexualities: An Interactionist Anthology: An Interactionist Anthology. Los Angeles: Sage Publications. ISBN  978-1483323893.
  8. ^ King, S. (2019). Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Blurb. ISBN  978-1388059033.
  9. ^ Bourget, Jean-Loup (1998). Hollywood, la norme et la marge. Armand Colin. ISBN  978-2200341763.
  10. ^ "Jean-Claude Van Damme Gets "Raw" in JCVD". HuffPost. December 7, 2008.
  11. ^ "Former Sex Symbol Jean-Claude Van Damme Has Posted a Topless Pic of Him at 62 That Is Nothing but Hot". Bright Side — Inspiration. Creativity. Wonder. September 28, 2023.
  12. ^ "Pamela Anderson's life as sex symbol". NBC News. December 9, 2003. Retrieved February 15, 2019.
  13. ^ "Women Athletes as Sex Symbols". 6 November 2014.
  14. ^ Kane, Mary Jo (27 July 2011). "Sex Sells Sex, Not Women's Sports". {{ cite magazine}}: Cite magazine requires |magazine= ( help)
  15. ^ Daniels, Elizabeth A.; Wartena, Heidi (2011). "Athlete or Sex Symbol: What Boys Think of Media Representations of Female Athletes". Sex Roles. 65 (7–8): 566–579. doi: 10.1007/s11199-011-9959-7. S2CID  144467684.
  16. ^ "Sports Magazine Covers Sexualize Female Athletes". Pacific Standard.
  17. ^ "The ESPN Body Issue and The Illusion of Nudity-Based Empowerment".
  18. ^ "Hope Solo Talks About Effect of Sex Appeal in Marketing Female Athletes". 24 August 2011.
  19. ^ "Betty Boop: Boop Oop a Doop". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  20. ^ "Amanda Knox Is Like Jessica Rabbit". Sky News. 27 September 2011.
  21. ^ Barboza, David (19 January 1998). "Video World Is Smitten by a Gun-Toting, Tomb-Raiding Sex Symbol". The New York Times.
  22. ^ "Channel 4 Top 100 Sex Symbols internet poll". Retrieved 18 May 2012.
  23. ^ "Boom Raider". Telegraph. London. 24 June 2001. Archived from the original on 24 October 2008. Retrieved 5 March 2008.
  24. ^ Schmondiuk, Natalie (29 September 2022). "Tumblr Sexyman Explained". The Mary Sue. Retrieved 20 March 2024.
  25. ^ Hirun Cryer (9 September 2022). "Undertale's Sans wins Tumblr Sexyman poll, inspiring Toby Fox to write the event's lore". GamesRadar+. Retrieved 20 March 2024.
  26. ^ Orsini, Lauren. "Why Adults Fall In Love With (And Spend Big Money On) Cartoon Characters". Forbes. Retrieved 22 March 2024.

Further reading

  • Donna Leigh-Kile, Sex Symbols, Random House Inc, Aug 28, 1999, ISBN  188331951X