BrigitteBardot 1960 posed 1500 crop

what is a sex kitten and where have they all gone?

WHILE TWEAKING AN ARTICLE for pub­li­ca­tion on my Tell It Like It Was pub­li­ca­tion on Medium, I no­ticed that I had re­ferred to lead singer Diana Ross’s soft, whis­pery vo­cals on all three of the Supremes’ #1 hits of 1964 as “sex kit­tenish.” They cer­tainly were coyly flir­ta­tious and the an­tithesis of most soul singers of the ’60s. One of my co-writers on that project dis­agreed that they were kit­tenish, but thought them more cat-like. This led me to the ques­tion: What ex­actly is a sex kitten?

It’s not a term that has been in pop­ular usage for a long time. Per­haps only people from a cer­tain age group use it at all be­cause we re­member its use from decades ago. I think of a sex kitten as an adult fe­male in the en­ter­tain­ment field who uses a flir­ta­tious sex­u­ality that makes her ap­pear or sound younger in her pro­fes­sional per­sona. A sex kitten is a woman, not a girl. 1

I was a bar­tender for years and lis­tened to guys brag about every­thing under the sun. I never heard any of them refer to a woman they knew as a sex kitten. Sex kit­tens were in Hol­ly­wood! 2

 

Per­haps the term “sex kitten” should have been re­tired im­me­di­ately after having been ap­plied to Brigitte Bardot.

 

When I be­came aware of the op­po­site sex way back in the 1960s, they usu­ally used the term sex kitten in con­nec­tion with Brigitte Bardot and Ann-Margret. In fact, I don’t re­call it’s being used often or as­so­ci­ated with any other ac­tress.

The term sex kitten ap­pears to have orig­i­nated in the mid-1950s to de­scribe Brigitte Bardot. Many sources state that her role in the movie Et Dieu créa la femme (And God Cre­ated Woman) in­spired the term. They per­ceived her to be a con­trast to such reining sex sym­bols as Mar­ilyn Monroe and Jane Rus­sell.

What fol­lows is a look at the few women who were called sex kit­tens in their time. There is no deep meaning in this ar­ticle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look for it.

 

 EarthaKitt photo 1953 600 crop

Here is Eartha Kitt posing for a pub­licity photo in 1953, the year she hit scored two Top 10 pop hits with “C’est Si Bon” and the de­fin­i­tive sex kitten single, “Santa Baby.” She was 26 years old and at the height of her sex-kitten beauty and fame.

Splendors laid bare

The ear­liest use of sex kitten I could find was an ar­ticle from late 1956. The De­cember 5, 1956, issue of The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly ran an ar­ticle ti­tled “Mam’selle Kitten.” In it, au­thor Bill Strutton stated:

“The most suc­cessful for­eign films are those which fea­ture Europe’s most gor­geous stars, with their phys­ical splen­dors laid bare. The latest and most splendid of these stars is now on the filmic warpath. She is a new French phe­nom­enon, Brigitte Bardot, whose charms are win­some, pouty, all curves and child­ish­ness, and whose bosom is pos­i­tively ter­ri­fying in one so young. Some 50,000,000 Frenchmen are in love with Brigitte and hail her as ‘the sex kitten.’”

Strutton did not coin the term sex kitten, in­stead at­tributing it to 50,000,000 Frenchmen. It would seem that the term was in gen­eral play no later than the past few months of 1956.

Strutton lists Bardot’s charms as “win­some, pouty, all curves and child­ish­ness.” She cer­tainly was at­trac­tive. She def­i­nitely had a lock on pou­ti­ness. And she was one of the first sex sym­bols to be both slender and cur­va­ceous. A cap­tion be­neath a photo in the ar­ticle also notes that her “little girl quality” is a big part of her ap­peal.

But the childish qual­i­ties Strutton sees may re­flect the times. I doubt most people in the 21st cen­tury seeing a Bardot movie from the ‘50s for the first time would see any­thing child-like about her. And her ad­mit­tedly lovely bosom would ter­rify no one today! Hell’s Belles, we are sur­rounded by “gen­er­ously” en­dowed women whose bra sizes ap­pear to be in­creasing ex­po­nen­tially over time. 3

 

BrigitteBardot 1959 bw 600 crop 1

 Brigitte Bardot at the height of her sex-kitten beauty and fame. Per­haps the term “sex kitten” should have been re­tired im­me­di­ately after having been ap­plied to her.

Conspicuous and abundant appeal

I re­turned to the in­ternet to see how today’s on­line dic­tio­naries de­fined a sex kitten. First, I went to my go-to source, Merriam-Webster, who stated it was “a young woman with con­spic­uous sex ap­peal.” This de­f­i­n­i­tion is ac­cu­rate but vague: today, I could use it to de­scribe count­less 15-year-old girls around the world.

What ex­actly is “con­spic­uous sex ap­peal”? Is it some­thing in­herent in the person, or is it some­thing that a woman can achieve by wearing a cer­tain at­tire and make-up? Or both?

Next up was the Google dic­tio­nary, which has be­come an im­pres­sive source over the past few years. It re­it­er­ated Merriam-Webster, stating a sex kitten to be “a young woman who as­serts or ex­ploits her sexual at­trac­tive­ness.”

This is also vague and can apply to both 15-year-old girls and 35-year-old women. It’s too en­com­passing to be useful.

In both de­f­i­n­i­tions, phys­ical at­trac­tive­ness (beauty) was not a factor while sexual at­trac­tive­ness (which may or may not in­clude beauty) was a factor.

Fi­nally, I turned to Wikipedia, which they gave the best ex­pla­na­tion I could find:

“A sex kitten is a woman who ex­hibits a sex­u­ally provoca­tive lifestyle or an abun­dant sexual ag­gres­sion. The term orig­i­nated [around] 1958, and was orig­i­nally used to de­scribe French ac­tress Brigitte Bardot. Ann-Margret was de­scribed as a sex kitten in the 1964 film Kitten with a Whip.”

As with many Wikipedia en­tries, the lan­guage is awk­ward: I think no one lives a sex­u­ally provoca­tive lifestyle. A person can be sex­u­ally provoca­tive oc­ca­sion­ally (once a year as the need arises) or often (daily be­cause they enjoy it) but not as a lifestyle. And I will not guess what “an abun­dant (sic) sexual ag­gres­sion” is.

But like me, they as­so­ciate the term with Brigitte Bardot and Ann-Margret. It’s in­ter­esting that the two women best known as sex kit­tens were both strong-willed, am­bi­tious, and in­tel­li­gent women. This is not the type of woman the mainstream/corporate media nor­mally as­so­ciates with being sex­u­ally al­luring.

 

Ann Margret KittenWithAWhip cat photo 600 bw

Here is Ann-Margret posing for a pub­licity photo for the 1964 movie Kitten with a Whip. She was 23 years old and at the height of her sex-kitten beauty and fame.

Who was the first sex kitten?

I also re­called that they used the term for Eartha Kitt, which isn’t dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand. Aside from her phys­ical at­trib­utes, her 1953 hit Santa Baby is the quin­tes­sen­tial sex kitten vocal record (at least to my ears). “Santa, baby, slip a sable under the tree for me. Been an awful good girl. Santa, baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”

Her vocal come-on is sexy and kit­tenish to the prover­bial “T.”

In 1968, First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson hosted a spe­cial White House lun­cheon. The in­vi­ta­tion asked guests to bring ideas about youth crime in America. Mrs. Johnson in­vited Miss Kitt. This was a tac­tical mis­take, as Kitt told the au­di­ence:

“The chil­dren of America are not re­belling for no reason. They are not hip­pies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are re­belling against some­thing. There are so many things burning the people of this country, par­tic­u­larly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons—and I know what it’s like, and you have chil­dren of your own, Mrs. Johnson—we raise chil­dren and send them to war.”

Lady Bird cried. Kitt’s ca­reer fell apart, ap­par­ently due to the CIA. Ac­cording to Stephanie Buck, “The agency had in­ter­viewed former col­leagues in the US and Paris, and con­cluded that Kitt had ‘a very nasty dis­po­si­tion’ and acted like ‘a spoiled child, very crude and having a vile tongue.’ Fi­nally, the CIA char­ac­ter­ized Kitt as a sadistic nympho­ma­niac.”

Kitt re­turned to the lime­light in 1978 in the orig­inal pro­duc­tion of Tim­buktu!, for which she re­ceived a Tony Award nom­i­na­tion. I could not find a source at­tributing the term sex kitten to her back in her heyday, but Kitt ti­tled her last au­to­bi­og­raphy I’m Still Here – Con­fes­sions of a Sex Kitten (Sidg­wick & Jackson Ltd, 1989), so she cer­tainly knew of it.

 

SexKittensGoToCollege poster 300

Sex Kitten Goes to Col­lege is a 1960 movie star­ring Mamie van Doren, who was an amply as­sem­bled sexpot in the Mar­ilyn Monroe-Jane Rus­sell school of sexy, Tuesday Weld was a gen­uine up-and-coming sex kitten while Mi­janou Bardot was the sister of the reigning sex kitten, Brigitte Bardot.

A Gallery of Sex Kittens

Below is a col­lec­tion of pa­per­back orig­i­nals from the early ’60s that ex­ploit the me­dia’s fas­ci­na­tion with sex kit­tens. I did not in­clude later pub­li­ca­tions or videos as they lack the “in­no­cence” and charm found in the art on the covers of these books.

 

SexKitten pb RichardEGeis 1960 900

1960
Sex Kitten is a pa­per­back novel by Richard E. Geis (News­stand Li­brary). Be­lieve it or not, Richard E. Geis was a sci­ence fic­tion writer who won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 1982 and 1983! He claims to have pub­lished more than a hun­dred books, al­most all of them of a “soft-core porn” na­ture. (Pulp Covers)

 

SexKitten pb MikeAvallone 500

1962
Sex Kitten is a pa­per­back novel by Mike Aval­lone (Mid­wood Books). It fea­tures cover art by the very tal­ented, very pro­lific, and very col­lec­table Paul Rader.

 

SexKitten pb GregCaldwell 1962 300

1962
Sex Kitten is a pa­per­back novel by Greg Cald­well (Bed­side Book). She was an in­no­cent, small-town virgin, but not for long.

 

SexKittenAndTheScientist pb OrenALang 500

1963
The Sex Kitten and the Sci­en­tist is a pa­per­back novel by Oren A. Lang (Beacon Books). Ac­cording to the Li­brary Of Con­gress cat­alog of au­thors, Oren A. Lang is a pseu­donym for Edith Jakob­sson. (Pulp Covers)

 

SexKittenGrowsUp pb AnthonyNaylor Beacon 1965 300

1965
The Sex Kitten Grows Up is a pa­per­back novel by An­thony Naylor (Beacon Books). This book was pub­lished in the UK in 1970 as Sex Kitten by Soft­cover Li­brary. (Flickr)

 

SaddleShoeSexKitten pb WayneWallace 1965 600

1965
Saddle Shoe Sex Kitten is a pa­per­back novel by Wayne Wal­lace (Brandon House). Black and white “saddle shoes” were very pop­ular with (white) girls in the early ’60s; oddly, the cover artist did not in­clude a pair on the sex kitten.

 

HandfulWithHerHandsFull pb sexkitten MikeAvallone

1965
A Handful With Her Hands Full is a pa­per­back novel by Mike Aval­lone (Mid­wood Books). It is a reti­tled reissue of Sex Kitten (above) with Paul Rader’s orig­inal art cropped for reuse.

 

DianaRoss 1964 600 crop dark

Here is Diana Ross posing for a pub­licity photo for the BBC on the Supremes’ 1965 tour of Eng­land as part of the first-ever in­ter­na­tional Mo­town Revue. She was 21 years old and at the height of her sex-kitten beauty and fame. 

Baby love

Are we then living in a Post-Sex Kitten Era? After the brouhaha of Bardot in the late ’50s—and the brouhaha was a big and of in­ter­na­tional scope—and the much smaller ado over Ann-Margret, few ac­tresses were re­ferred to as sex kit­tens. In “Tribute to Carol Lynley, Tuesday Weld, Yvette Mimieux, and Diane McBain,” Tom Lisanti opened with:

“From 1959 to 1964, blonde nymphets, in the tra­di­tion of the thumb-sucking Car­roll Baker in Baby Doll, ruled the silver screen. Two of the most pop­ular with teenage au­di­ences were Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens but the four with the most po­ten­tial to be­come im­por­tant ac­tresses and who al­ways seemed on the verge of major stardom were Yvette Mimieux, Carol Lynley, Tuesday Weld, and Diane McBain. These scin­til­lating star­lets molded in the image of the flaxen-haired, pony-tailed Barbie Doll re­leased during this time were in­ter­change­able as a litter of kit­tens.”

With the “litter of kit­tens” re­mark, Lisanti seems to apply the term sex kitten to all four (and a few un­named) ac­tresses. He does refer to Weld and Lynley as sex kit­tens. Both of these ac­tresses stirred up a lot of at­ten­tion for their beauty and talent, but nei­ther climbed the ladder of suc­cess as high as was ini­tially ex­pected.

After Ann-Margret, I don’t re­call the term being bandied about much. It was per­haps a fad­dish term that had run its course. I think the term could have been used for Diana Ross in 1964, the year when the Supremes made it big. “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Come See About Me” were #1 pop hits on both the Bill­board Hot 100 and the Cash Box Top 100 sur­veys.

On each of these records, Ross’s singing is “a tense bal­ance of the cool and the flir­ta­tious” and easily heard as sex-kittenish. Her ap­proach “ma­tured” quickly (the follow-up sin­gles were “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again” and on nei­ther is she kit­tenish), but the term worked for her in the Supremes’ breakout year. 4

While she had this kit­tenish voice, she ac­tu­ally looked and car­ried her­self in a much more ma­ture manner. Looking at the videos of her from the many tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances of the Supremes, she looked older and more ma­ture than someone who had just left their teen years be­hind.

Given Berry Gordy’s long-term plans for his top groups, it’s prob­ably good that he did not pro­mote her or the group as sex kit­tens. Still, I can al­most hear Diana singing “Santa Baby” as a solo Christmas single.

The women best known as sex kittens—Brigitte Bardot, Ann-Margret, and Eartha Kitt—were strong-willed, am­bi­tious, in­tel­li­gent women, hardly kit­tens to anyone! Click To Tweet

BrigitteBardot color 800

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is Brigitte Bardot in 1960. Per­haps movie critics and fans of the late 1950s found her boun­teous charms to be “childish,” but I doubt that most people in the 21st cen­tury think that. Nor does the term “sex kitten” enter too many minds today, it now being a con­cept linked to the late ’50s and early ’60s.

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   I usu­ally think of ac­tresses and singers but I sup­pose it could apply to ex­otic dancers.

2   I guess this is a sign of age but I don’t re­member what ad­jec­tives guys were using forty years ago to de­scribe at­trac­tive women. The mod­i­fier that has been pop­ular for years with younger Amer­ican males is hot. This is a term I re­serve for very few women (al­though Salma Hayek and Pene­lope Cruz quickly come to mind). But for younger US males, it’s used syn­ony­mously with cute.

3   I am not re­fer­ring to the ex­panding bust­lines due to plastic surgery but to what­ever the heck it is that we’re putting in our food chain that has graced 13-year-olds with C-cups.

4   The “cool and the flir­ta­tious” re­mark cour­tesy of Paul Evans in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (Straight Arrow, 1992).

 

 

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