Venus, the goddess of love, has taken many forms, but one dominates. The prehistoric Venus of Willendorf is round, but mostly at the breasts and hips. The Venus de Milo’s missing arms only make her curves more visible. Even the knee length tresses of Botticelli’s Venus fail to conceal her shape. Bounce forward 500 years, and the actress Uma Thurman poses nude, a towering hourglass, in the same oyster shell in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Some version of this form — white, voluptuous, exposed — is eternally present in our culture, on billboards, on screens, everywhere. This is “sexy,” or at least its usual shorthand. One designed, mainly, by and for straight white men: the fruit of the “male gaze” that the film theorist Laura Mulvey described in 1975, which “projects its fantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly.”
People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive has always been less beholden to the bold strokes of bodily divinity. Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford: It’s their faces that have occupied each cover, not their bodies. The most recent winner, the country musician Blake Shelton, was an aw-shucks vision of the homespun white American male: plaid and beer and love handles, the kind of guy whose response to his win was “Y’all must be running out of people.” When his selection was announced in the fall, many women shared that perspective — and mobilized, offering “sexy” alternates in lighthearted protest. The issue wasn’t how Shelton looked so much as how he presented: as the Everyman, prized not in spite of his everyday appearance but because of it. (As Entertainment Weekly’s Dana Schwartz tweeted, “Blake Shelton is, at best, the sexiest divorced dad at this barbecue.”) The consensus replacements were the actors Idris Elba and Mahershala Ali, each more conventionally attractive, each also black. Other suggestions included Taika Waititi (sartorially exceptional, Maori) and Jeff Goldblum (charming, eccentric, 65 years old).
These women were laying their own claim to “sexy,” an adjective that — amid an endless stream of reports about sexual assault and harassment — has more often been wielded as a weapon. See, for instance, Roger Ailes, the former chairman of Fox News, reportedly telling Megyn Kelly that he wished to see her in the “very sexy bras” he assumed she possessed. For certain men, “sexy” means sex. It is not the human being; it is the human body. The women exuberantly rejecting Shelton were declaring: We are the subject, not the object. We’ll decide what’s “sexy.”
was “sexy” merely contained sex. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to the British author Arnold Bennett and an 1896 letter about a work of art deemed too “seksy” to display. (Spelling aside, the word offered a much sleeker substitute for “sexful,” which appeared in print two years earlier.) Impregnating material with sexuality would soon prove itself a potent tool for advertisers. A landmark 1911 ad for Woodbury’s Facial Soap Company featured a man caressing a woman in a low-cut dress, with the tagline “A skin you love to touch.” Five years later, the ballerina Flores Revalles was front-page news after being photographed at the Bronx Zoo in a form-fitting gown with a snake coiled around her — her beauty, the story went, had tamed it.
The soap ad was conceived by the influential executive Helen Lansdowne; the snake stunt came from Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations,” who claimed in his 1928 book “Propaganda” that “human desires are the steam which makes the social machine work.” Having seen how images could be used for mass manipulation, Bernays proposed to maintain social order by sublimating individuals’ irrational impulses into capitalist consumption. Women’s desire to be autonomous, for instance, could be turned into a desire to buy smokes. “More women now do the same work as men do,” the psychoanalyst A.A. Brill told him. “Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”
And actual lust, it turned out, could be made almost indistinguishable from the lust for new products and new experiences. In 1950, the columnist Walter Winchell noted that producers of a show called “Fire Island, New York” worried their title “wouldn’t sound sexy enough.” It was one of the earliest cases of a slippage that has only grown, to the point where almost anything with a little extra oomph can be described as sexy — from a sexy new sports car to a sexy new legislative proposal. In the 1970s, a print ad for a Penril modem described the device as “versatile, dependable, compatible (maybe even sexy).” Because it’s hard to find the sensual side of a box, a woman in go-go boots served as a visual reminder. “Sexy,” more than anything, designates whatever we wish to acquire and consume, whether it’s an auto body or a human one.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first person identified as sexy was the silent film star Rudolph Valentino. His character the Sheik, based on an Edith Maude Hull fantasy, was marketed as “the greatest lover that ever lived” — an exotic dandy with the passion to ravish even a white aristocrat. Valentino occupied an ambiguous space, with his masculinity, sexuality and race all intriguingly fluid. The layman could not keep up. In 1922, the cartoonist Dick Dorgan made fun of Valentino’s superiority in a Photoplay editorial: “I hate him because he’s too good looking,” he wrote. “The women are all dizzy over him.”
By the middle of the century, “sexy” had landed on stars like Marilyn Monroe. It was feminine, one-dimensional and not at all ambiguous — the woman as Venus. Valentino’s image was more powerful for his silence; Monroe’s was the opposite, boosted by her dumb-blonde act and baby-doll voice. Who better to appear on the first cover of Playboy, the official Entertainment for Men? “She was the fifties’ fiction,” wrote the film critic Molly Haskell in 1974 — “the lie that a woman has no sexual needs, that she is there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs.”
This was not how women saw themselves. “What is a sexy woman?” Helen Gurley Brown asked in “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962. “Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex.” When Brown became the editor of Cosmopolitan, she delivered sex to women the same way Playboy did to men, with characteristic cover lines like “What’s Most Sexy About Men” and “Are You Sexy?” This was meant as an empowering alternative to the images found elsewhere, but its rapprochement of women and sex also wound up transforming both into one commodity. Sexy women were for sale: Women with enough money could be them, and men with enough money could have them. You, too, could be a modern woman, but only if you put in the man hours between the sheets. Even in the hands of women, “sexy” was still wrapped in the embrace of the market.
In 1972, Cosmopolitan presented its first male centerfold: a furry Burt Reynolds, reclining nude on an equally furry rug. And yet “sexy” would continue, in the main, to be defined by the male gaze, filtered through a consumer market dominated by men, most of them white. Its images were predictable; its attainment directly proportional to buying power and never fully achieved. “Ads do not sell sex — that would be counterproductive, if it meant that heterosexual women and men turned to one another and were gratified,” Naomi Wolf wrote in “The Beauty Myth” in 1990. “What they sell is sexual discontent.”
The market trades particularly on women’s dissatisfaction with themselves, reducing them to objects of allure that can always be improved with the purchase of a new lipstick. A sexy woman thus becomes bait — a line of thinking that, among this fall’s stories of predation, prompted several remarkable opinions. The designer Donna Karan wondered: “Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and sexuality?” When the market holds both that women should aspire to be sexy and that a sexy woman equals sex, the moment a woman chafes at sexual attention is seen, to some, as a problem of her own making.
After more than 120 years of use, “sexy” resists overnight reconstruction. We may try to chip away at Venus’s stone curves, but the transformation is slow and complex. Women can lay their claim to it — Gurley Brown, Lansdowne, swooning Valentino fans — but a tradition of objectification persists. The women cheerily replacing Blake Shelton were reframing sexiness, but only very slightly; their choices still adhered to an obstinate commercial ideal. We can imagine deifying different bodies or a wider variety of them; we might even imagine a post-gaze society, where we lust after personality and spirit rather than external appearance. But all of this would require reimagining centuries of culture — and reconfiguring the billions of dollars of powerful market forces built atop them.