They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is because that first impression is based almost entirely on one's physical appearance, and unfortunately humans have a tendency to judge a person by their outward attractiveness. But what is attractive changes as society changes, and what was attractive at the beginning of civilization isn't necessarily what is attractive by today's standards. In fact, what is considered attractive today differs quite a bit from what was attractive only just fifty years ago, a point readily illustrated by the cinema of then and now.

Take for example the films The Quiet Man and Sin City. The Quiet Man, a film made in 1952 about a retiring boxer and his return to Ireland, stars John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, two superstars of their time who were considered paragons of attractiveness in their heyday. It is a fairly humorous story, with limited violence, virtually no cursing, and the closest thing to a sex scene is when John Wayne's character finally kisses Maureen O'Hara's character. This kind of movie plot, along with the accompanying settings and other actors, was considered a very good story, attractive to those of the Fifties.

The characters themselves were chosen for their looks and ability to play their parts in the film. Maureen O'Hara is a statuesque woman, a veritable Venus de Milo, all womanly curves, as original as Mother Nature made her. No six-pack abs, no overly muscled arms or legs or buttocks, just all woman. Not that you would ever see any of those things on film or in public. No, women then were far too modest for anything more than a glimpse of ankle or calf, and even that was considered racy. A woman's attractiveness was tied to her beauty, not her sexuality. John Wayne, on the other hand, was a man's man. Tall, broad shouldered, with large, powerful hands and a lantern jaw, he was what was described as ruggedly handsome. He carried himself with the calm assurance of a man who new what he wanted and was willing to fight for it. Women wanted him and men wanted to be him.

Their looks weren't the only thing that made them attractive. Maureen O'Hara's ability to play a confident damsel in distress is readily apparent. She is tough on the outside, but gives the idea that all women, even tough ones like her, need a man to take care of them, to marry them and give them a family and the security that comes with it. John Wayne was a perfect foil for her, his skills as a provider and protector beyond reproach, at least in his films. One has only to watch one of his movies to see why the fantasy of him as being supremely able to take care of a woman was so easy to accept.

Now, let's examine the 2005 movie Sin City. In this film, starring superstars like Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba, Clive Owen and Brittany Murphy, Mickey Rourke and Rosario Dawson, is almost antithetical to the sappy sweetness of The Quiet Man. The plot of Sin City follows the trials and tribulations of several different characters, only one of which could be considered even remotely heroic. The others vary from repugnant to downright reprehensible. Ultra-violence and overt sexuality are the norms in this film, and in this dark and twisted tale no one lives happily ever after, yet this film was an incredible box office success, showing just what kind of plots and storylines are considered attractive to American moviegoers.

The female leads are universally thin, with athletic builds and exaggerated sexual features, and the women take no break in showing off these features at every opportunity. There is no coyness in their seduction. Instead they use their sexuality as a bludgeon, clubbing the viewer with scene after scene of glistening taut flesh. Yet they have a sensuality that rivals that of the great cinema sirens of the Fifties. Whereas the ladies of Hollywood's yesteryear were the blushing bride or coy ingenue, the superstars of today are the energetic and enthusiastic lover, willing and active participants in all things carnal. There is a directness in the current crop of female leads that is undeniably attractive in it's own right.

The modern day leading man is every bit as different from those of movies golden age as their female counterparts. Gone are the upright champions of good, replaced by a dark and brooding anti-hero, one who does what is right, not because it is right, but because he is angry. Unkempt is the term best used to describe today's leading men, from their messy hair and five o'clock shadow, to their too casual jeans and tee shirt. Masculinity seems to mean "look like you don't care what anybody else thinks, but be sure to be well muscled and trim while you do it." Bulging biceps, six pack abs and smooth tan and oiled skin are every bit as much in demand for the male leads as they are for the females. Where the women ooze sexuality, the men are violence incarnate. It seems that a leading man's attractiveness, and therefore starpower, is directly tied to how many bad guys he killed in his last film or how many gallons of blood he spilled, and how graphic was he when he did it.

It seems that as society ages, our concept of attractiveness becomes more and more tied into our concept of sexuality. Personally, I believe it is because more and more women are finding equality with men in all things, from the workplace (which admittedly still has a way to go) to the bedroom. Dying are the days when a woman might judge a man's attractiveness by whether or not he can offer her security for the future and safety for herself for her family. Instead, more and more, women and men are judging attractiveness by what arouses them, pleases them, or intrigues them. More and more, I believe this trend will continue as gender roles equal out. My question is, why does it seem to be leveling out to the lowest common denominator?

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