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Sex Symbols Gone

from The Hollywood Reporter

Camille Paglia: The Death of the Hollywood Sex Symbol (Guest Column)

by Camille Paglia

The cultural critic and ‘Provocations’ author laments the end of the bombshell and asks why only drag queens and ‘Hustlers’ star Jennifer Lopez still possess “Hollywood’s most brilliant artifact.”

Who killed the sex symbol?

It’s no mystery that in the era of #MeToo, the rules of combat have changed on the sexual battlefield. Women will no longer tolerate condescending or degrading treatment that was once business as usual in the workplace or dating arena. But in this long overdue push-back against sexual coercion and exploitation, has something valuable been lost?

The sex symbol was arguably Hollywood’s most brilliant artifact, propelling the young movie industry to world impact from the moment that Theda Bara flashed her coiled-snake brassiere in Cleopatra (1917). Sex was great box office. With its impudent populism, Hollywood crashed through stuffy proprieties lingering from the Victorian age and stationed itself at the bold forefront of the modern liberalization of sex. Movies were in sync with the radical new spirit of American women, who won the right to vote in 1920 and kicked up their heels throughout the flapper decade of the Roaring Twenties.

Protest about the “immoral” content of movies began even before World War One and would lead to Hollywood’s adoption in 1930 of the notorious Hays Code, which plagued progressive screenwriters and directors for decades. In the late 1960s, as studio power waned, a new sexual realism arrived from postwar European art films, whose chilly atmospherics can be felt in Jane Fonda’s brilliant performance as a crisply efficient prostitute in Klute (1971).

The great sex symbols of Hollywood were manufactured beings, engineered by trial and error, with the mass audience as their ultimate judge and jury. Decade by decade, the movie industry rediscovered primal archetypes that have animated myths around the world since the Stone Age. Major male sex symbols like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Sidney Poitier have a mesmerizing natural authority onscreen, a supranormal power of personality and density of being that transcend their roles. Like their antecedents in ancient hero sagas, they inhabit and explore physical space, whose frustrations and dangers they endure but ultimately defeat.

The female sex symbol, however, commands emotional or psychological space. Her sensual beauty is an alluring mirage, hypnotizing and sometimes paralyzing. Never entirely present, she is attuned to another reality, an extrasensory dimension to which we have no access. There is an unsettling aura of the uncanny around the major female sex symbols, who channel shadowy powers above or below the social realm.

[ click to continue reading at THR ]

Posted on December 26, 2019 by Editor

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