5 Women's Movie Roles that Redefined "Sexy"
It's about character over cleavage.
When I say “sexy,” I’m not talking about pop culture’s fantasy projection of the sultry-eyed, puffed-lipped, stiletto-heeled, plunging-necklined, hiked-skirted vixen that is more fetishized blow-up doll than actual woman.
For women, the word “sexy” can be especially heinous. While it can seem like a compliment, it can also be intrusive, aggressive, and demeaning. It is often used by entitled men who foist their unasked-for opinion of what is sexy in order to diminish women. Part of what makes this possible is that society in general defines sexy mostly as physical appearance that results in instant sexual stimulation. More porn-influenced than person-influenced.
But when I say “sexy,” I’m talking about a quality that transcends mere physical attraction by embracing more deeply stimulating and enduring qualities, the combination of which actually heighten physical attraction.
In her novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison wrote one of the most profound observations about human relations in literature: “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”
I completely agree with Morrison, which is why I hate the word “sexy.” American society wields the concept like a distorted carnival mirror, constantly shoving it in the faces of men and women in order to make them feel inadequate unless they continually and desperately purchase endless products to make themselves “attractive.” We are trapped in a hamster wheel of consumerism—clothes, make-up, cars, weight-loss programs, Botox injections, and cosmetic surgery—billions of dollars spent chasing a fantasy ideal that can never be achieved because there will always be one more thing you can do, one more product to purchase. It is a hunger that can never be sated because we are told that sexy is the gateway to being loved—and we will never be worthy of love unless we maintain the demanding infrastructure of Being Sexy.
Traditional sexy favors the pin-up girl ideal: youthful, happy, shapely, compliant. This cliched ideal, which is nothing more than an aggressive shill for self-improvement products (think Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross)—creates a destructive force in society, especially among our youth. Even while fist-pumping for Girl Power and breaking the glass ceiling, we are still supporting the images that put a woman’s sexual appeal above all her other qualities.
Amy Schumer’s funny but sadly accurate skit about Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s last “sexy” day as an actress addresses this issue (Warning: graphic language):
While that simplistic role model continues to be popular for many, there are other role models in popular culture that provide a much richer and long-lasting example of sexy. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. There are many others, but these five movie roles exemplify a reimagining, a shedding of conventional expectations. Each role redefined the quality of sexiness in its time and deepened its meaning for the future.
Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)
There is nothing more satisfying than watching Rosalind Russell going toe-to-toe with the snarky, devotedly amoral Cary Grant in this breakthrough screwball comedy. Before His Girl Friday, it was common for women in comedies to win the affections of the male lead through alluring physical wiles—emphasizing her hotness—and arguing heatedly (emphasizing her feistiness). Male characters loved the drama of passionate arguments about nothing because they revealed emotion as her default setting. The difference here is that Russell doesn’t use her physical attractiveness—in fact, when you look at the dowdy outfits she wears, her shape is played down. Also, although there are heated arguments, the dialogue emphasizes her intelligence, cleverness, and wit.
Perhaps some of this innovative portrayal can be attributed to the movie being based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (made into movies in 1931 and 1974). Originally, the play is about two male reporters, but when director Howard Hawks heard his female secretary reading some of Hildy’s lines, he decided to change the character’s gender.
The story focuses on anything-for-a-story newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and his ex-wife and ex-reporter Hildy Johnson. Burns convinces her to cover a controversial story for the paper while trying to destroy her relationship with her fiance. While there is definitely clear sexism (including the title), there is also enlightenment as Johnson struggles with her dedication to her profession and others’ expectations of her as a female. To the film’s credit, they make her the clear moral center of the story, with Burns remaining more a symbol of stubborn self-interest who refuses to change.
Sure, the rom-com ending is more cautionary than romantic, but watching Russell as a badass reporter who faces down guns, corrupt politicians, rampant misogyny, and a manipulative ex-husband is exhilarating.
At this point you realize this is not about sexy photos of cleavage but about the more sensuous qualities of character. If you’re disappointed, sorry. If not, then: Subscribe. Share. Like. Comment.
Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures is a very good film, but not a great one. It’s social agenda about misogyny and racism, which I entirely agree with, sometimes interferes with developing more depth of character. It aims to inform and inspire rather than delve into timeless literary themes. The filmmakers made the right decision. As a result, the film has more immediate impact on society by revealing past injustices and providing role models that could change young people’s futures for the better.
Taraji P. Henson plays a real woman, Katherine Johnson, whose work as a mathematician at NASA was responsible for several successful space flights. However, her tumultuous journey as a woman, as an African American, and as a single mother of three daughters is what makes her so admirable and—to apply my previous definition—sexy. Although Henson is undoubtedly physically attractive, it is witnessing her courage in the face of racism and her intelligence when running calculations that generate real and lasting power. This is a person who you could see spending a lifetime with and never getting bored.
Henson’s character is especially important today because Black children traditionally have not been as encouraged as White children to pursue STEM education. Currently, 58% of white students complete their STEM degrees, compared to only 34% of Black students. One major reason cited for this disparity is more STEM background in public school for White children. Studies show that discrimination based on gender in STEM jobs is even higher than that based on ethnicity. Henson’s Katherine Johnson embodies the best characteristics of being human, not just Black or a woman. That’s hot.
Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (1987)
Although there are three main characters (two of them men) in James L. Brooks’ brilliant and insightful Broadcast News, the most memorable scenes belong to Holly Hunter’s character, Jane Craig. One scene that I always think about is when Jane is on the phone with her friend (Albert Brooks). She laughs, hangs up the phone, disconnects it, and sits patiently on the edge of the hotel bed. After a while, tears start to stream from her eyes until she’s soon sobbing. When she finishes, she reconnects the phone, dries her eyes, and proceeds to the conference. That moment of controlled vulnerability is both impressive and touching, establishing her as formidable.
She gets even better. When we see her speaking into the ear of shallow but attractive broadcaster (William Hurt) as he’s on live TV during a military crisis, we are stunned by her intelligence, her quick thinking, the depth and breadth of her knowledge. Hurt’s Tom Grunick is the manifestation of superficial sexiness that we worship. He lacks journalistic skills as well as integrity, becoming the face of shabby pop-journalism that is the downfall of real journalism. Jane Craig, however, embodies dedicated work ethic and personal and professional integrity—everything Tom isn’t. And yet, she loves him.
That might seem like typical rom-com fodder, and it is—until the ending. When Tom asks her to go away on vacation with him, she is ecstatic—until she learns how he fake-cried during an on-camera segment. Torn between having her heart’s desire and sticking with her moral integrity, she choses the latter. That is a woman who inspires and compels us to be better.
Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
In a recent article, I proclaimed Everything Everywhere All at Once the best movie of 2022 (so far). It still is, not just because of the wildly imaginative use of the multiverse concept, but because Michelle Yeoh’s character transcends the farcical, surreal, and sci-fi elements to make this a highly personal and touching film about a mother, a wife, and a woman who feels she’s failed at all three roles.
At the beginning of the film, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a stereotypical bedraggled middle aged woman defeated and disappointed by life. But as the story progresses and she experiences the surreal mess of multiverses, she grows. Or rather, the layers of weighted expectations that were crushing her (and those around her) were removed, revealing her true potential and the authentic self that was always there.
Yes, Yeoh engages in some fancy martial arts that is a nice call back to her Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon days 22 years ago. But the real attraction here is in how she learns from her experiences and is able to heal her marriage and her relationships with her father and daughter. That is the greatest and most challenging adventure in life and she handles it with grace, wit, and heart. How can you not love her?
Francis McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is bold, thoughtful, and moving. But the heart and soul of the story is the outrageous and courageous Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) who holds her town morally hostage through three billboards demanding justice for her raped and murdered teenage daughter.
Mildred is relentless, refusing to bow under pressure brought by the police and townspeople. Throughout the film, Mildred must deal with severe loss, guilt, rage, and isolation, but she does it with grit and compassion. She’s been damaged, but not defeated. She’s been hurt, but not humbled. She exudes the qualities of rugged strength, determination, and emotional vulnerability—all without make-up or heels. If she’s not sexy, then no one is.
I’m well aware that these choices are not those of the stereotypical construction worker catcalling to passing women or of the young Are You the One fan watching with cartoon eyes popping out the girls twerking by the pool. To me, that’s the equivalent of shooting whipped cream in your mouth and calling it dinner.
My choices are not about seeing someone and immediately imagining having sex with them, but rather seeing them and imagining being in their company longterm and, not just having sex, but the joy and satisfaction of waking up beside them for years to come. And smiling at your good fortune.
[Update: Since I posted this article, I’ve been getting a lot of great suggestions for other films in the Comments. We’ve got a lively debate going there. If you want to join in, you’ll need to subscribe, but it’s worth it.]