From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The film industry played an important part in the rise of sex symbols. It disseminated images of beautiful people around the world, especially during film's silent era, when there were no language barriers.
The first sex symbols were Danish actress Asta Nielsen (nicknamed 'The Silent Muse'), and 'It Girl' Clara Bow in the 1910s and 1920s. Although not seen as a real sex symbol, Lillian Gish ('The First Lady of the Silent Screen') became the most popular actress of the era. Theda Bara and Pola Negri, famed for their vamp roles, were also early female sex symbols. Rudolph Valentino became the first male sex symbol.
Film's Golden Age sex symbols include 1930s stars Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow (the 'Platinum Blonde'), Mae West and Clark Gable. 40's and 50's icons Brigitte Bardot, Diana Dors, Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn, Veronica Lake, Sophia Loren, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Mamie Van Doren, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Robert Mitchum.
Important 60's and 70's sex symbols included Ann-Margret, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Bouchet, Jane Fonda, Pam Grier, Ali MacGraw, Sharon Tate, Raquel Welch, Sean Connery, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Travolta.
As TV's influence grew during the last three decades there was a slight shift to TV stars becoming more famous, Pamela Anderson, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Carmen Electra, Farrah Fawcett, Jennifer Garner, and Don Johnson, all became sex symbols through TV.
More recent silver screen icons are Jessica Alba, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Orlando Bloom, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, Harrison Ford, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Brad Pitt.
1930's cartoon character Betty Boop was considered to be a sex symbol.
Rock and roll music also played a part in the introduction of sex symbols to pop culture. Classic examples, such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Prince, Grace Slick, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and Steven Tyler set the stage for contemporary examples, such as Justin Timberlake, Marky Mark and LL Cool J. Popular sex symbols include: Ciara, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Toni Braxton, Cher, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Shakira, Britney Spears and The Pussycat Dolls.
Sometimes sex symbols can be people who are not portrayed as beautiful or handsome, but possess other qualities that make them sexually attractive. These people are often highly articulate, inviting, and alluring; they usually have extraordinary communication skills as well, for example actor Christopher Walken (a talented singer and dancer).
Many teen idols are also sex symbols. In particular, boy bands are frequently regarded as sex symbols by adoring fans. Fans frequently focus their attention on a single member of the group, but the entire group is seen as a sex symbol by association. There is often a discrepancy between teen idols and sex symbols. However, where teen idols are sex symbols to the youth audience, "real" sex symbols also appeal to adults, and sometimes appeal to the teenage audience as well.