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What Effect is the “Sex Symbol” Label Having on Young Male Celebrities?

The popular phrase thrown around in the entertainment industry carries more harm than it might intend.

Image: Debby Wong/Shutterstock and Fred Duval/Shutterstock

The phrase thrown around in the entertainment industry carries more harm than it might intend.

It is no secret that society loves labels, but none match the degree of chronic discussion and employment of the “sex symbol.” 

According to Collin’s Dictionary, a sex symbol is “a famous person, especially an actor or a singer, who is considered by many people to be sexually attractive.” Discovering new stars that meet the elusive criteria for the “sex symbol” gives Hollywood a unique thrill. The phrase has been thrown around Hollywood for decades, primarily attaching itself to Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe, Megan Fox, and Pamela Anderson: women that aimed to garner respect by attaining a stature as “serious actresses” but instead faced public ridicule. However, in the past few years, the media has frequently anchored the label to multiple prominent young men in the industry – a disservice to the men and their largely young women demographics. 

It Minimizes their Accomplishments

For example, at the Grammys last month, host Trevor Noah jokingly called Harry Styles a sex symbol in his monologue. 

“Women throw their panties at this man, and then he puts them on, and he looks better in them than they do,” Noah said. “He’s the sex symbol of the globe, especially now that they’ve killed off the green M&M.” 

Styles discernably looked uncomfortable, and even fellow nominee Lizzo looked upset. The title typically equates to a badge of honor and an achievement to revel in. However, it carries this implicit shame that one’s hard work and talent are not the engines of their success; rather, their accolades are contingent on their sex appeal to audiences. Noah plays into the narrative that Styles’ social currency boils down to the level of sexual attraction he exudes, ignoring the remaining facets that the public finds intriguing. Styles’ album won “Album of the Year” that night, but Noah’s comment reduced Styles’ achievement to something only made possible by his looks. 

Harry Styles, often referred to as a “sex symbol,” performing in New York City in 2020. Image: Lev Radin/Shutterstock

It Warps their Relationship with their Identity

Styles spoke about the discomfort and convoluted self-identity landscape the label engenders.

“I’d say I try and think about it as little as possible because it’s a very strange, dynamic thing,” Styles told Zane Lowe in an interview in 2019. “It’s also, like, a weird thing to think of about yourself.”

He highlights how the label insidiously infiltrates its hosts’ identities and creates palpable tension. It’s a strain that causes him and others like him to vacillate between the creative side he takes pride in and wants to showcase to the world and the enticing “sex appeal” that Hollywood capitalizes on and forces down his throat.  

Actor Paul Mescal also fell victim to this stereotype and identity confusion after his performance as Connell Waldren on Normal People, and, like Styles, expressed unease over it and affirmed how the legacy he wants to leave as a creator and individual expands far beyond that of the sexual charm of a fictional character

“To be honest, it’s uncomfortable, not in the sense that I’m trying to be full of faux humility, but it’s a weird thing when, very quickly, people are attracted to a character you play,” he said on the I’m Grand Mam podcast. “I am not Connell.”

Paul Mescal recently at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Image: Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock

It Inadvertently Targets their Audience

Hollywood Reporter recently featured Mescal on their cover. Their profile labeled him a “global sex symbol” when describing his rise to fame in his role on Normal People. glossing over Mescal’s empathetic, critically-acclaimed portrayal of Connell Waldren and how the series heralded a changing tide of male performances. 

The profile goes on to describe a woman and her daughter who spent 12 hours in line to see Mescal in Streetcar and implies that Mescal being the “target of global infatuation” is solely due to his conventional attractiveness. 

“They’re infantilizing both him and the women that are there to see him,” said user @hannahzookpop on TikTok. “Maybe us women are just like excited to see a male performance with nuance for once in our lives. Yet again, women are being made to feel bad about what they like and reducing it down to like a crush instead of heaven forbid us liking the art made by the artist.” 

With both of these examples, we see not only the minimization of these young men’s talent but also their primarily young women/teenage girl audiences. The label implies that girls only like their performances because of their attractiveness and not due to their reverence for the deep, thoughtful storytelling both young men succeed at. It touches on the myth that young girls’ interests are vapid consumers, and their appreciation does not transcend appearances. In doing so, it discredits the intelligence and insight these girls carry. 

It is a disservice at a macro level within the entertainment industry. After all, young girls are the gatekeepers of pop culture phenomena. Ultimately, the label – regardless of whether it is meant to carry a playful connotation – eclipses men like Styles’ and Mescal’s crafts and their female followers’ intellectual abilities.

Written By

Journalism and Sociology Major at NYU Swiftie

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