Symbolism Embolism


Sex Symbol. We've all heard the term, usually over and over again. So often, in fact, that the meaning has become a little obscure. Twenty years ago the very idea of "sex", much less the word, was considered fairly shocking, and to symbolize it - represent it - to people was little short of scandalous. "Sex symbol" in a headline did then what "latex and whipped cream" tries to do today. It pulled the crowds. Unfortunately overuse, combined with a liberalising of attitudes, has blunted the phrase to the point where it has become ineffectual. To combat this editors have resorted to prefixing "sex symbol" with the words "reluctant" or "unlikely". Of course people are bloody reluctant, it's become such a sour old phrase!

But let's look at the phrase itself: "sex symbol". Something, someone, who symbolizes sex to a fair proportion of people. Basically, someone who gets your gonads going. Someone to give a face, figure and context, if you prefer one, to your romantic or sexual fantasies. A prime source of objects for these fantasies, obviously enough, is film and television. It's part of the producers' main plan to reel in the viewers. Why else were Doctor Who's companions usually pretty and female? Why do leading men tend to be handsome? So that even if you can take or leave the story or the acting, you'll still tune in to have a perv, that's why! Who found "Batman" a hundred per cent more interesting when they replaced Michael Keaton with Val Kilmer? And come on, girls, who really watched "Masters of the Universe" for the plot?

Now, the interesting thing about sex symbols, particularly those from movies and television, is the choice people make between lusting after the actor themselves or after the character they portray. I mean, is your predilection for Jonathan Frakes or Will Riker? Sure, you might like Jonathan, by all accounts he seems like a pretty cool guy, but in the midst of your favourite day-dream are you in a house in the USA or in a cabin aboard the Enterprise? Are you in a studio dressing room with David Duchovny, or an FBI backroom with Fox Mulder?

Fancying a character rather than the person playing them could be interpreted as a kind of safety valve. Unless you're doing an impression of the besotted "Psycho Fan" in Adrian Edmondson's book "The Gobbler", you realise, in your very core, that Jonathan Frakes will not fall in love with you. In fact, aside from security-surrounded glimpses at Trek conventions, he'll probably never even see you. And in your deepest heart you know he's got a wife and kids and a perfectly happy life of his own in the States.

But Riker! Riker's tall, suave, charming - he has everything Jonathan has with the very important addition that he's available! And the fact that he's imaginary makes it even better - it's all perfectly safe - there's no chance of any of it actually coming true and interfering with your real life. I mean, seriously, all of you who are living in secure, happy, committed relationships, if your current TV lust object arrived on your doorstep and said, "How about it?" - would you? Really? Daydreaming about a fictional character is the perfect no-risk, no-guilt way of indulging in a little adventure without any backlash.

There's another up-side to character-fancying as well in that after watching the character for a while, you can decide whether you actually like them. You begin to feel like you know them in a way you could never know the actor themselves, and this can make the character much safer fantasy ground. After all you can be pretty sure what Mulder's like - the man's been in your loungeroom for you to observe every Wednesday night! But David Duchovny - being a real, live human being, maybe David just happens to have a trait that you can't stand - maybe he laughs at things that leave you cold; maybe he loves Mexican food and you pass out at the sight of a pepper. The very malleability of a made-up character means that you don't have to concern yourself with anything like that - there's no chance of real life jumping up to disappoint you.

So with all this in mind (and this is the opening up and sharing part) does anyone else out there feel just a shade resentful when their fantasie du jour, or more particularly the character they play, finds a "love interest". I mean, to me, "Mulder will get a girlfriend" (in a local magazine) is NOT spectacular news. Oh, poop. How can I harbour my tasty little fantasies while each week some (other) female is racing him away? I mean, does anyone else watch the on-screen seduction of their current favourite with a "Ripley" frame of mind ("Get away from him you bitch!")?

Mind you, no rational person is going to jump off a bridge over it, and here again we have the old "safety valve" effect. The deep-seated knowledge that it's all make-believe keeps you from being heart-broken. Disgruntled, perhaps, but not heart-broken. And the very fact that it is make-believe means that you can twist things in your imagination to put them back, if only for yourself, the way you want. Here's the "character over actor" again. You'd never really feel glad for Jonathan Frakes to split with his wife and go through the pain involved, but with a character not only can you manipulate his relationship, but his feelings as well. Riker can get over Minuet as quickly as you want him to.

So the next time you're staring moon-eyed at the TV screen and someone wonders why, or a spouse gets jealous, or some well-meaning body throws in the tidbit, "He's gay, you know!", you needn't get angry or upset. Just point out that it's all a fantasy. It's harmless. It's good for you. Then point him at Meg Ryan.