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