The popular culture of today has done away with the term “sex symbol.” Maybe the idea of a celebrity, usually female, exuding desire is sexist, or maybe just attaching a name to the phenomenon is what riles, because we definitely still have sex symbols. And they have much to teach us about accepted notions of sexuality. The following chronological list, featuring female film sex symbols across the decades, reveals just how much those notions have changed.
10. Jean Harlow
Discovered sitting in a car waiting for a friend, the actress nicknamed “Baby” and known for her platinum-blonde hair was dead by the age of 26 (renal failure, although one rumor had it that she was poisoned by platinum hair dye). But she packed a lot into her short life, from marriages to movies. The movies came with scathing reviews of her acting ability, but no matter. “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses,” Variety wrote of her performance in the 1930 Howard Hughes film Hell’s Angels. “Nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” She didn’t. Often cast as a floozy, she hit it off with Clark Gable, starring in six films with the actor. Her fame was at its greatest during the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and anyone who doesn’t believe sex appeal could be found on the big screen then should see her as Vantine in 1932’s Red Dust.
9. Rita Hayworth
Margarita Carmen Cansino was probably destined for a career in show business. Both of her parents were dancers. Early film parts as an exotic Latin hoofer were a dead-end, so she lightened her hair, widened her forehead and changed her name. Her background served her well during the peak of her movie career in the 1940s, when dancing was often featured in film. It was World War II, however, that took advantage of her wholesome, strawberry-blonde looks, manufactured though they were, and turned her into a pinup girl. The title of Hayworth’s most famous film, 1946’s Gilda, was painted on the first nuclear bomb to be tested after World War II. A lifetime of hard drinking and stress brought on by five, short-term marriages aged Hayworth before her time. Her erratic behavior would later be attributed to Alzheimer’s disease, from which she died at the age of 68.
8. Betty Grable
We know her for that famous 1943 pin-up photograph, arguably the most famous such photo ever taken, the photo that earned her the moniker “Million Dollar Legs,” although the phrase actually came from the title of a 1939 film in which Grable starred. The movie was just one of dozens Grable appeared in during the 1930s and ’40s that have long since been forgotten. The actress didn’t have the talent, or really even the looks, of her contemporary Rita Hayworth, but she seemed to be aware of her limitations. She quit show business in 1940, at least until a better offer came along, and then stopped making movies for good in the mid-1950s. On the set of her 1953 picture, How to Marry a Millionaire, Grable told co-star Marilyn Monroe, “Go and get yours, honey. I’ve had mine.” If ever a celebrity understood what one publicity shot could — and couldn’t — do, it was Betty Grable.
7. Elizabeth Taylor
“She was unquestionably gorgeous. She was lavish. She was, in short, too bloody much.” Richard Burton, describing what he thought of Elizabeth Taylor when he first saw her in 1952, was so smitten with the actress that he would later marry her, twice. Taylor’s eight marriages, part of her long, tabloid-friendly life, are what people often remember the actress for today, forgetting — or not even realizing — that she was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars during the 1960s. By then she was deliberately gaining weight in an effort to attract more substantial film roles, a ploy that worked without diminishing her status as a sexual icon of the era. Taylor was much more than one of the first movie stars to appear in Playboy, however. A star from the age of 12, she was also a superlative actress, as evidenced by 1951’s A Place in the Sun, in which she was indeed gorgeous.
6. Marilyn Monroe
Without Marilyn Monroe, lists like this probably wouldn’t exist. The very term “sex symbol” was invented to describe her. Other starlets wanted to be her, and some appeared to come close for a time, but with Monroe on the stage the likes of Jayne Mansfield and Ann-Margret could only hope for reflected fame. So strong was Monroe’s desire for success in the celebrity game that she let others dictate the arc of her career for perhaps too long. That, and the ease with which she fit the mold created for her, made it difficult for Monroe to be taken seriously as an actress as she wanted, although her performances in a number of movies made it clear that she had grown into a legitimate acting talent. It would be a stretch to assume that this dissatisfaction led to her addictions and death at the age of 36, but clearly fame was not as easy for Marilyn Monroe as it looked.
5. Brigitte Bardot
Until now there had been a whiff of attainability surrounding our sex symbols, even if it was just an illusion. Brigitte Bardot was different. She was exotic. She was French. She made French movies, not American ones, and in fact showed no interest in Hollywood. But it was the late 1960s, and the world was becoming a smaller place. She began making movies in 1952, breaking through with 1956’s controversial And God Created Woman, directed by her then-husband, Roger Vadim. Pop music was also something she dabbled in, recording songs with the likes of French stars Serge Gainsbourg and Sacha Distel. But it was a series of high-profile photo shoots and images of her, often in bikinis, that cemented her fame. Later in life she became a committed animal-rights activist. In recent years, the French government has accused Bardot of “inciting racial hatred” for making anti-Islamic statements.
4. Raquel Welch
Born to an American mother and Bolivian father in Chicago, she worked herself into show business the old-fashioned way, taking gigs as a weather girl at a San Diego TV station, a model and a cocktail waitress (there were beauty pageants in there, too), before breaking through in the 1966 movie One Million Years B.C. adorned in mankind’s first bikini. It wasn’t long after that that Welch became the de facto sex symbol of a sexually liberated age. Despite a long career in film and TV, she’s never had a role that was bigger than her name. But Welch is also one of the few women on this list to have lived a public life free of controversy, perhaps remarkable given the tempestuous era during which she became a star. A natural beauty, Welch has also aged gracefully, also rare on this list, although many observers assume she’s had some artificial help in that regard.
3. Farrah Fawcett
That poster. It coincided with Fawcett’s role in the TV series Charlie’s Angels, which she left after just the first season, but it’s not like she needed the show’s money. In a shrewd business move, Fawcett retained rights to the poster image, which sold in the millions, making her millions of dollars as a result. The actress reportedly did her own hair and makeup for the photo shoot, using lemon juice to create blond highlights. It did the trick, as “Farrah hair” remained a popular styling trend for years. Fawcett parlayed her fame into a steady acting career, achieving most of her success in television movies. The Burning Bed (1984), in which the actress portrayed a victim of domestic abuse, earned her the first of four Emmy nominations. Fawcett’s death from cancer at the age of 62 on June 25, 2009, was overshadowed by the death of singer Michael Jackson on the same day.
2. Halle Berry
Much was made of Berry’s Oscar win for Best Actress in 2002, given that she was the first woman of color to do so. But Berry had already achieved something that would have been unheard of just a few decades earlier, becoming our first African-American sex symbol when she burst upon the scene in the early 1990s; her breakthrough role came in Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever. By then the very term “sex symbol” had fallen into disuse, having last been associated with swimsuit models like Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley in the 1970s and ’80s. Berry’s career has been considerably more multidimensional, but she always understood the physical aspect of her appeal. Monster’s Ball, the film for which she won her Oscar, included a raw sex scene, and she played a Bond girl in 2002’s Die Another Day. Not surprisingly, her film roles dropped off precipitously once she reached her 40s.
1. Angelina Jolie
In an era when Marilyn Monroe is considered full-figured, it’s perhaps fitting that someone as thin as Angelina Jolie is held up by the entertainment media as the ideal of feminine beauty. But more than with anyone else on this list, even Monroe, Jolie’s appeal is only partly based on her looks. It’s the multiple tattoos, the multiple children (three biological, three adopted), the high-profile scandal involving her role in the breakup of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in 2005, the globe-trotting work on behalf of refugees for the United Nations, and lastly her films (which, frankly, haven’t been as compelling) that have kept Jolie in the public eye as our culture’s pre-eminent sex symbol for more than a decade now. That our sexiest celebrities are now regarded for the entirety of their persona, not just their appearance, says something about how far we’ve come — or how far we’ve fallen.