Sydney Sweeney is putting a Gen Z stamp on the sex symbol. Far from going for the dumb blonde construct, she combines her beauty with the committed attitude and intelligence of a businesswoman. She chooses complex, often gritty projects like Euphoria and White Lotus, and her frank, considered portrayals of flawed characters put a different, darker lens on sex itself. So how has Sydney deconstructed and rebuilt the sex symbol in a more serious way?
Sydney Sweeney is putting a Gen Z stamp on the sex symbol. The actress has the doe eyes and hourglass figure of the 1950s starlets who inspired the term, sure. But far from going for the dumb blonde construct, she combines her beauty with the committed attitude and intelligence of a businesswoman
Sydney Sweeney: “My parents thought it was like wanting to be a princess… so I put together a five year business plan presentation of what could happen, and they let me.”
She chooses complex, often gritty projects, and her frank, considered portrayals of flawed characters put a different, darker lens on sex itself. And it’s paid off: in 2022, she was nominated for two Emmys, for roles in two different shows. So how has Sydney deconstructed and rebuilt the sex symbol in a more serious way? Here’s our Take.
Deconstructing the Sex Symbol
Sweeney’s two Emmy nominated roles are both young blonde women in their late teens or early twenties. But that’s where the similarities end.
Ellen DeGeneres: “Well I loved you in White Lotus and then I loved you in Euphoria - not so similar characters.”
Sydney Sweeney: “I hope not. That’s the fun of it.”
She came to the public’s attention in Euphoria playing Cassie Howard, a tragic schoolgirl with a desperate need to be loved who looks for affection in all the wrong places. In Season 2, Cassie was widely derided as pathetic when she fell in love with her best friend’s ex and a big ol’ mess followed
Meanwhile, for Sweeney’s role as Olivia in White Lotus, the New York Times called her one of ‘the scariest girl on TV.’ The whip smart, ice cold teenage girl on a luxury island vacation with her parents exposed a Gen Z version of where wealth, whiteness and wit meet. On the surface, Olivia seems to be the model progressive youth…
Olivia Mossbacher: “I’m sorry my family’s so defective. I’m not like them.” - The White Lotus 1x04
…constantly challenging her family with her “woke” rhetoric and being in solidarity with her best friend Paula’s interest in social justice. But we start to see how Olivia can’t let Paula have anything of her own – a reveal that builds tension against the backstory of colonialism in Hawaii. And the roots of Olivia’s privilege are strong, as in the end it doesn’t feel like she’s truly different from her family at all.
In her performance, Sweeney gradually peels back layers to reveal a seed of a more vulnerable, insecure and potentially kind person within this callous character – and she was rewarded for it. Post-White Lotus, Season 2 Cassie got a lot more critical acclaim, including the Emmy nomination, but before that point, Sweeney told The Independent, “With The White Lotus, I felt like people were finally recognising the hard work I’ve been doing. This is something that has bothered me for a while. I’m very proud of my work in Euphoria. I thought it was a great performance. But no one talks about it because I got naked.”
While it took a little more time for people to recognize the work she’s done as Cassie, the physicality of that role is also really important to respect. Taking roles that involved sex was a clever move for Sweeney; she’s even said herself that raunchy scenes are simply business
Sydney Sweeney: “It’s a business transaction.”
And a big part of the reason that the character of Cassie on Euphoria raised her profile as an actress is because her intimate scenes are about so much more than sex; they’re an integral part of Cassie’s experience, an exploration of her psychology, and that of many other teen girls.
In a round table with Elle magazine, the Euphoria cast discussed how uncomfortable many of the show’s intimate scenes were, and Sweeney said, “I think that’s a very realistic expectation of sex, because when you think about it and when you’re growing up, it’s all about pleasing someone else and not yourself — you don’t learn that until you grow up.”
Sweeney’s portrayal of Cassie has allowed this character – who might have been written off as hateable or one-dimensional in the hands of another actress – to become sympathetic.
Cassie Howard: “I have never, ever been happier.” - Euphoria 2x03
Something about this flawed, complicated character speaks to people; she’s fascinating, in a way that means we can’t look away. Perhaps it’s because she so perfectly deconstructs the ‘pretty, popular girl’ trope – showing us what’s behind the scenes
Sydney Sweeney: “So much is happening you don’t know how to handle any of it and she has so much being thrown at her and Cassie is dealing with trying to love herself.”
And this appealing part of Cassie is evident in the way that her style goes viral – the swimsuit she wore at Maddy’s party in season two ended up with a five hundred person waitlist, despite the bleak context that she wears it in – drunk, descending into madness, while desperately trying to seduce her best friend’s ex boyfriend. The combination of these upsetting moments with Sweeney’s sexiness and the show’s slick costuming creates a conflict for the audience; scenes can be profoundly uncomfortable, but we can’t look away because they’re also beautiful.
And in that way, Sweeney brings an entirely new dimension to the sex symbol. We might want to look like her; but we don’t want to be her.
Sex is Power: Taking the Sex Symbol Seriously
Sweeney is the latest in a long line of Hollywood sex symbols – but there does seem to be something different about her. She’s been compared to Dakota Johnson as a more fully formed sex symbol. Both women are unafraid to take roles that involve nudity or sex scenes, whereas a number of other actresses fear being pigeon holed or ostracised for this type of role…
Liz Hernandez: “Dakota, no matter how sweet you come across, you ooze sex appeal.”
…while both have also leveraged their mainstream appeal to shine in critically acclaimed, intellectual material.
Reminiscent of the top sex symbol of the ‘00s, Megan Fox, Sweeney is also boldly outspoken in interviews and isn’t afraid to say things off the cuff that may be controversial.
Ellen DeGeneres: “What are you thinking, inviting your grandparents? And how are they with it?”
Sydney Sweeney: “They say I have the best [BLEEP] in Hollywood.”
She made headlines for speaking very openly about how Hollywood today doesn’t pay young stars the way we might expect or the way it perhaps used to. Both Fox and Sweeney also happen to be into cool cars. Sweeney in her spare time fixes up vintage rides.
It’s also possible to draw parallels between Sweeney and iconic sex symbols from history, too. The combination of her talent, onscreen vulnerability, and extraordinary face and physique that capture 21st century beauty ideals might remind us of Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Sweeney sees herself as an actress first. She told NME magazine, “Cassie is a sexualised character, and that became a mould that was then [forced] onto me as a human instead of just Cassie. I was seeing people say, ‘Oh, she only got this because she showed her boobs.’ I had multiple shows and movies before I even did Euphoria.”
Prior to Euphoria, Sweeney appeared in some really big projects, as pious, innocent Eden in A Handmaid’s Tale, or as a member of the Manson family in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, but her chameleon-like ability as an actress that meant many people overlooked her in those roles. She went on to say, “I look very different in everything I do because I want to become the character individually, and I don’t want people to associate Sydney Sweeney with a character – I want them to fully feel like they’re experiencing another world and another person.”
Meanwhile, people who know her just as Cassie may be reacting to her through the old adage of ‘sex sells’, without realising how much more complicated she is. She’s spoken out about the phenomenon of the ‘one dimensional sex symbol’ character, saying “Sometimes I’ll read a script and all there is to the character is her being a sex symbol or her being sexualized and there’s nothing else to her.” So she brings more to her characters – getting to the core of their motivations, and pushing back against nudity when she feels it doesn’t benefit the narrative.
What is even more interesting about Sydney’s sexy scenes, though, is the way that they have surprisingly benefited her personally. In an interview with Good Morning America, she revealed that she has long standing body dysmorphia, and that playing Cassie had helped her to feel more comfortable in her own skin.
Sydney Sweeney: “Having a character like Cassie and embracing it has been really really powerful for myself.”
These days, Sweeney is paying forward her own empowerment. In 2020, she set up her production company, Fifty-Fifty Films, with the aim of bringing more women’s stories to the screen. She told Teen Vogue that her aim is to encourage women to ‘never put a limit to what their capabilities are because they’re female, or their age, or their background.” And rather than going to acting school, she decided to go to college to study business
Ultimately, that level of empowerment is the brand new aspect that Sweeney brings to the sex symbol. For example, despite the comparisons, Dakota Johnson – who is less than a decade older than her – has described her feelings of disempowerment on the 50 Shades of Grey set. Meanwhile, Sweeney has been watching actresses her entire life, and she’s lining everything up for success. She knows that sex sells, sure; but she also knows that to achieve longevity she needs to have control over what sex she sells – and that she needs to weigh up which roles she takes, in order to achieve variety and range. It’s this combination of bombshell beauty and business smarts that really defines her as this generation’s sex symbol.
Sydney Sweeney: “There’s so much going on in her brain… taking it seriously as an actor, that’s what kind of makes it.”
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