Farrah Fawcett, Last of the All-American Sex Symbols

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

What this country needs is another great pinup.

We've lost it, haven't we? We don't do pinups anymore. The day when a kid -- actually, millions of kids -- tacked the same poster to his (or her) bedroom or dorm wall -- well, that's over. We have posters, and celebrities, but no consensus. Farrah Fawcett was the last one.

For a few decades, in predictable cycles, America had its reigning female sex symbol. It's easy to evoke an entire era with a flash of her pinup image: Betty Grable, smiling over her shoulder in that girdle of a bathing suit in the '40s. Marilyn Monroe, dress billowing over the sidewalk grate (or Marilyn in a thousand other memorable poses) in the '50s. Raquel "One Million Years B.C." Welch, in the '60s. And, of course, Farrah.

The success of the Farrah poster -- 10 million sold! -- seems almost incomprehensible now in an age of Google image searches. Farrah's pose looks cramped and uncomfortable, as if she were preparing to fold herself into an economy-class airline seat. Her head and famous mane seem to be about twice the size of her body. The oddly striped background, which clashes ever so slightly with Farrah's skin tone and red-orange bathing suit (shades of "Baywatch"!), gave the whole image a slightly cheap, offhand look.

This is what was tacked in every teenage boy's bedroom (and few girls') back then, Grandpa?

Well, yes. With Fawcett's high-beam smile, the flash of nipple under the suit, and the devil-may-care tilt of her head, the poster managed to be simultaneously naughty and sunnily wholesome. (Fun fact traded among us boys: If you looked closely at Farrah's hair, you could make the word sex "written" in the tangled thickets). Long before porn went mainstream, the poster threaded a certain needle: It was plenty racy, but your mom didn't object.

Has anyone achieved such consensus All-American Sex Symbol status since then?

To say they don't make sex symbols like Farrah Fawcett anymore isn't so much a comment on Fawcett as a comment on "they." Because they -- Hollywood, the media, whoever it is that makes "sex symbols" -- can no longer manufacture consensus.

Fawcett's rise from Texas cheerleader to international icon came, importantly, in the mid-1970s. The very notion of a sex symbol would soon be under attack, with the women's movement in full swing.

Moreover, American television was still an oligarchy, with three commercial networks holding nearly complete control over the national attention span. With so few choices, and so little competition, it wasn't hard to draw the attention of tens of millions of people on any night of the week. "Charlie's Angels," the cheesy Aaron Spelling series that launched Fawcett in 1976, was a national smash; it was the first mainstream "jiggle" show, offering chaste but abundant titillation. When The Poster appeared that year, it was a booster rocket to Fawcett's ascendant celebrity.

"Charlie's Angels" and Farrah's poster, in other words, came before the deluge. Soon, cable TV would snake from the hinterlands into America's biggest cities, bringing with it the miracle of 40 or even 50 channels. As television audiences began to splinter, the broadcast networks began to lose their icon-making power. The advent of satellite TV and the Internet further atomized the national attention span. Celebrity has become a much more complex matter since Fawcett's day, dependent on what you listen to, what you watch, who you are.

Celebrity journalism has changed, too. The famous have long had tabloids to contend with, but such coverage was always considered scurrilous and unsavory. Now that the private lives and personal foibles of the famous are mainstream news, and virtually instantaneous, an essential element of glamour and mystery has been stripped away. Did anyone really know much about Betty Grable or Raquel Welch? Don't we already know far too much about Paris Hilton?

Result: We are a nation of niches, each with his or her own notions of fame and celebrity. We have no shortage of beautiful people -- Angelina and Brad, Beyoncé, J-Lo and Jay-Z, Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek and on and on and on -- but it's impossible to achieve the mass agreement required to move 10 million units of anything.

There will be new icons, new celebrities and new pinup models long after the last copy of a vintage Farrah poster trades on eBay. But more likely than not, your pinup won't look anything like mine.

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