Sunday, December 8, 2019

Camille Paglia on Female Sex Symbols

In The Hollywood Reporter Camille Paglia bemoans the eclipse of the Hollywood female sex symbol. Back in the day, we had Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Lena Horne, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and even Sharon Stone. Now we have Wonder Woman, who epitomizes the tough take-no-prisoners hard-assed broad, the liberated woman who comprises both feminine and masculine characteristics. And who is great at both.

Paglia reminds us that the Wonder Woman character began with Honey Rider in the first James Bond film, Dr. No. She might also have mentioned a character named Pussy Galore in another Bond film, Goldfinger. Doubtless her instinct for modesty prevented her from noting this other great early exemplar of female empowerment.

Paglia suggests that second-wave feminism has killed the feminine mystique, and with it the female sex symbol:

None of this complexity and grandeur was acknowledged or even perceived by early second-wave feminism, which contemptuously rejected Hollywood's sex symbols as vulgar libels objectifying women and making them passive to the imperialistic "male gaze." Marilyn Monroe, with her troubled emotional history, was portrayed as a classic victim of exploitation by the patriarchal movie industry, which typecast her as a cartoonish "dumb blonde." Feminists waged open warfare on the ultra-sexy “Bond girls” as well as the pioneering ABC TV series, Charlie’s Angels, which was dismissed as a frivolous “tits and ass” show.

Of course, the last thing you would imagine when thinking of a strong empowered modern woman is: a sex symbol. But this has also, Paglia avers, produced a raft of sexual encounters that lack a certain mysterious quality. Where women refuse to embody a mystique, sex becomes mechanized and anonymous:

Jump-cut to today's humdrum office world, where men and women sit side by side, doing the same routine jobs. Turf sharing and overfamiliarity between the sexes have produced boredom and simmering resentments. Meanwhile, casual, oafish hookup culture has spread from college campuses, turning formal courtship rituals into creaky antiques. Sex has lost its mystique.

And then, with the loss of the Hollywood sex symbol, we see the pornification of our culture. Today’s pornography is not about mystery. It is about exhibitionistic exposure. Nothing should remain covered, hidden or discreet. But then, the loss of the mystique also entails a dampening of desire, to the point where sex becomes less of a tango and more of a mechanically gymnastic event:

Second, in the digital era, the sex symbol as radiant Hollywood icon has been displaced by a blizzard of Instagram selfies, where increasingly young girls strike provocative poses, appropriating star-making techniques pioneered by the movie industry. Bare flesh is suffering serious overexposure. Wholesale blurring of the line between private and public is ultimately antithetical to eroticism. When everything is seen and known, there is no titillating taboo to transgress. Paradoxically, despite its relentless skin display, virtual reality dematerializes the body and has made it a locus of chronic anxiety.

So, more and more young girls are using their iPhones to audition for roles in porno movies. They feel obliged to do it because they are afraid that otherwise no one will notice them.

And Paglia courageously adds the point that the female sex symbol also denoted fecundity. It was attached to procreation, concept denigrated by a feminist movement that now sees pregnancy as the new curse:

Third, the female sex symbol, descended from mother goddesses like Venus and Isis, once implicitly represented the life force, nature itself. Because of overpopulation as well as career demands, today's values have shifted. Marriage and pregnancy are often delayed or avoided by ambitious middle-class working women. Furthermore, the body is becoming mechanized, wed to technology. From cosmetic plastic surgery to fertility treatments, science rather than mother nature is in charge. The next inevitable step is AI sex robots with "faux flesh." The sex symbol as natural wonder is fading — and with her goes the internal compass of our primeval animal instincts.

Paglia bemoans the loss of our animal instincts. Now that women are no longer allowed to manifest the feminine mystique, their bodies are being used by physicians pretending to be artists. 

Surgeons transform the female body,making it look younger than it is, supposedly to trick the camera, if not the male gaze. And yet, the truth about the effect of aging on fertility is made manifest in the burgeoning practices of reproductive endocrinologists.


trigger warning said...

I fully understand it's a matter of taste, but leaving Myrna Loy and Brigitte Bardot off that list was a major oversight. And, of course, Audrey Hepburn was among the most beautiful women in the last two centuries or so. All three were very feminine, unlikely to be cast as fantasy "tough chicks" that learn their moves in dance studios advertising themselves as kickboxing dojos, buy Korean foreskin facials and Ben-Wa balls, and are prone to collapse on the fainting sofa after being triggered by an exercise bike commercial.

Mrs. Bear said...

I prefer traditional Hollywood sex symbols to feminist icons as a general rule. My favorite from old Hollywood would be Greer Garson. My current favorite is Michelle Yeoh, who I think is a good enough actress that she could have functioned quite well in the silent film era. Looks are fine, of course, but what I am mostly interested in is a woman who is intelligent, sweet, and ethical - rather like the one to whom I am married.

Webutante said...

A Lady with smarts and sex appeal? Melania Trump comes to mind. and she's been treated terribly by the left and the MSM. How refreshing to see her hold up so well through all this.

UbuMaccabee said...

Ahh, Myrna Loy. Very lovely. But I’m going with another choice for feminine mystique.

Cyd Charisse. Wow.