The term sex symbol was first used in the mid-1950s in relation to the popularity of certain film stars and pin-up models, including Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, and Raquel Welch. This concept was a reflection of the post-World War II increase of sexual and economic emancipation of women.
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. 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.
In his Elvis Presley obituary, Lester Bangs credited him as "the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America," in the 1950s and 1960s, through his overtly suggestive dance moves.
Fictional sex symbols
With regard to fiction, Rotten Tomatoes states that the 1930s cartoon character Betty Boop is "the first and most famous sex symbol on animated screen". 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.
Video games have had a few characters that are considered sex symbols; one example would be Lara Croft, who has had several appearances in mainstream media. Other sex symbols include Rayne, the first video game character that appeared in Playboy, in its October 2004 US issue's article, "Gaming Grows Up"; and Nina Williams, voted "Hottest" Female Fighting Character in Guinness World Records, Gamers Edition 2008.
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- 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"
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- Limited, Guinness World Records (2008). Guinness World Records, Gamers Edition 2008. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-904994-20-6.