Madonna: Papa Don't Preach 
Friday, July 19, 2013, 05:30 PM
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American Stars and Sex Symbols 
Friday, July 19, 2013, 05:26 PM
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Stars and sex symbols are a crucial part of popular culture and the pleasure the audience takes in watching film and television, but they are also crucial to the economics of the entertainment industry as well. The tradition of the star precedes twentieth-century mass media (nineteenth-century theater and opera promoters advanced the careers of certain performers in order to boost sales of tickets). Yet, postwar American entertainment worlds have increasingly fixated upon the body of the sex symbol in order to encourage public consumption.

Perhaps because of the importance of the Hollywood studio system, sex symbols in the 1940s and 1950s emerged from film. In the 1950s, women who moved from this realm onto the pages of magazines, newspapers and posters, and into the popular imaginations of men, seemed to reflect the growing economy of the country. These women, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, were buxom, breathy, blonde and, at first glance, seemed to exist for the sexual and visual pleasure of men. Sex symbols stood in contradistinction to the more appropriate standards of domesticated femininity that were being portrayed in television in the 1950s. These women stood outside traditional marriage and were more interested in seeking out fun than in keeping a good, clean home.

Similarly the male sex symbols that emerged out of the crumbling studio system, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift, unlike the efficient corporate model of masculinity, were intense brooders who refused to fit into suburbanized America.

Richard Dyer, who writes on the meanings of celebrity and film in Stars (1979) and elsewhere, argues that for famous actors, films are a vehicle for the display of the star's persona. The performance of this persona requires repetition of key elements of narrative, visual style and iconography. Thus when Marilyn Monroe became a star, her roles, the way she looked and the ways in which she became styled and shot in film and publicity outlets became similar, solidifying a persona. Although a sex symbol is unattainable and an object of fantasy, he or she must also seem knowable and familiar to the masses. After the Hollywood studio lost power, agents and public relations have taken over the management of stars. Along with this change, stars have tended to emerge from different sectors of the entertainment industry. For example, one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1980s and 1990s, Madonna, started out as a pop singer. Her career benefited from MTV, where her videos featured her dancing and knowing sexual comeons. Although she has never successfully maintained a film career, she has always managed her persona well with the help of agents, publicists, magazine editors and gossip columnists eager for copy. The contemporary sex symbol is also a corporate entity who, like Madonna, has moved into book publishing, as well as the music and film industry. Much of what Madonna's work has centered upon is her experience of her own body and her popular philosophizing on the importance of sex.

The body of the sex symbol in the 1990s changed dramatically. Whereas in the 1950s the female body featured an hour-glass figure and the male body was wiry, the 1990s sexsymbol body for both was lean, muscular and sculpted, reflecting the importance of working out and also marking the entrance of the fashion model as a massmarketed sex symbol. White models Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Christy Turlington have moved from the runway into superstardom with forays into television, video and film. Black models such as Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks have become the first minority stars that have been marketed as sex symbols to both black and white audiences. A black male model, Tyson, sporting the clothing of WASP-aspiring Ralph Lauren, has established himself as a sex symbol, as have black actors Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes. In 1999 Latino singer Ricky Martin broke into the mainstream of sex symbolism, recognized as much for his gyrating hips just as Elvis punctuated the meanings of his songs with his pelvic thrusts.

Even as America's sex symbols diversify, one rule remains in place: when the star sings and speaks of love, his or her body must make the audience think of sex. As a result the movement and posture of the star, as well as the publicity machinery that supports him or her, is always crucial for keeping sales up.
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Sunday, August 26, 2012, 01:01 PM
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