Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Hot

Hot is tanned, free of body hair, and in a miniskirt. Hot likes to party, and we know better than to take hot too seriously. Hot is younger than most; Google will find 24 million hot women for you, but 31 million hot girls. Hot is purchased, packaged, and with a firm price. Hot is a series of illusions; you may wake up with the mantle of hot, but you weren't born that way. Hot is Miami. Hot is Venice Beach. Hot is JWoww.

I have to fight here to not simply spew against hot. But my distaste for the word shines through: To me, it represents a crude packaging of the spark that might give a person the "heat" from which our use of hot should derive. Hot removes its opposite—cold—leaving us lopsided, with no yin to balance out the yang that hot thrusts upon us. And is it any surprise that yin's energy—if you believe in this hippie eastern chi stuff—is the cool, lunar feminine, whereas yang's dry heat is associated with masculinity?

It's not a stretch to imagine that with the terminology of heat being applied to everything from temperament (1100s), food (1540s), scent (1600s), jazz (1912), and radioactivity (1940s), that hot might have been loosely applied to women throughout the ages. Indeed, hot has applied to our physical passions since the 1590s, and my beloved 1894 Webster's gives "Lustful; lewd" as one of its definitions.

When America was on the brink of the (supposed) sexual revolution, heat cropped up frequently in film titles—but it was still being used to describe a situation, not a woman. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, though the play was published in 1955), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), and Some Like It Hot (1959) clustered around the precipice of revolution, and it seems unlikely that this was a coincidence (Some Like It Hot's working title was Not Tonight, Josephine). And we weren't quite ready to take the plunge into woman-as-heat: Too Hot to Handle (1960), starring Jayne Mansfield, who had been on loan to a British company when she became too hot to handle in the States, had to be released in the U.S. as Playgirl After Dark. But beginning in the 1960s, we took the plunge to explicitly calling women hot: Hot-Blooded Woman (1965) rode the sexploitation wave, followed by a flurry of ambiguously titled films whose packaging made it clear that hot references the woman, not what's outside. The Hot Box (1972) remains a jewel in the crown of women-in-prison flicks (after—what else?—Caged Heat); Running Hot and Hot Moves (both 1984) maintained the surveillance of hot women.

Then, of course, came Paris Hilton, with her 2005 trademarking (literally) of "That's hot." She wasn't speaking only of women, of course; it seemed to be a catch-all phrase that could apply to anything from shoes to lip balm to the Middle East. Yet her lyrengeal, lackadaisical utterance of "That's hot" clearly contained anything but passion, leaving only Hilton's self-presentation as a branding of hotness. In a sort of airy philosophical way I'd like to declare her turnaround of "That's hot"—shifting the focus from herself to the world around her—as a reclamation of hot. In truth, however, Hilton is far too savvy of a marketer to have chosen that terminology without being keenly aware of its reflexive effect upon her image. Hilton's tanned, dyed, refurbished appearance epitomizes hot and its machinations. By being a distant yet explicitly available persona, she illustrates the trap of hot: It's not that you'll get burned if you come too close; it's that you might see that you're looking at a Yule Log DVD, not a live fire.

Hot should be synonymous with sexy, yet it's not. Sexy should be more blatant, more crude, more vulgar—it mentions s-e-x!—but the plastic quality hot connotes makes sexy seem its authentic, primal alternative. Hot gets to the core of objectification: A woman is not intrinsically hot; instead, the viewer becomes heated upon seeing her and attributes his own reaction to her essence. She becomes hot once seen through his eyes, not before. The yin and yang again: Men and women alike describe women as beautiful. But when we speak of her as hot, we understand that her hotness exists only in the context of being seen by others; it's knowing that she will be viewed that makes her hot. She is not hot at home, by herself, doing laundry or dozing or dancing, even as she might be pretty or beautiful. Nothing can exist in a vacuum: not sound, color, smell, or temperature. In physics and in the public sphere alike, nothing can be hot in a vacuum. It requires energy—yours, the viewer's—in order to exist.


  1. Being called "hot" has never been a goal...it sounds cheap. It sounds like a one-night-stand. I agree. Hate it.

  2. I really like these posts in which you explore the connotations of a word. And this is one I hope is never applied to me.

  3. I didn't know it was politically incorrect to be hot or aspire to hotness!

  4. Cameo, totally--the one-night-stand thing. It doesn't sound like a term someone would use to describe a woman they care about, you know? In fact, I don't think a boyfriend has ever called me hot--not that it's a label that's applied to me frequently, but on the rare occasion it has been it's been with a fling.

    Terri, I'm glad you appreciate my wordy posts. They're a lot of fun for me! I'm a copy editor by trade so it's fun to merge my passions.

    Anonymous, it's not about being "politically incorrect"; I don't think it's offensive to any sort of subgroup. Clearly Paris Hilton, JWoww, et al are aiming for a particular aesthetic--hot--and they've achieved it. It's an aesthetic that sends a particular sort of signal, and it's that signal that I'm exploring. Though it is true that I don't usually single out individual celebrities on this blog but felt comfortable doing so here. Hmm.

  5. Hi Autumn! This is Alexa. You commented on my blog post ("On Being Pretty") on The F-Bomb and linked to here. I couldn't find contact info for you so I thought I'd post here. I love your blog! I've done, on multiple occassions, a very similar thing to "thoughts on a word." (And I promise I didn't copy you; I just saw yours today.) Here is another of mine: http://thefbomb.org/2011/03/what-exactly-are-we-saying-an-analysis-of-todays-derogatory-slang-for-girls/ Thanks! Alexa

  6. Hi Alexa! Ooh, I love that--wordy girls unite! Do you do regular word-based posts at F-Bomb/on your own blog? Both are on my Google Reader but I know I miss stuff--if you do more of these I'd love to read more!

  7. Thanks, Autumn! I've just started up my blog but I intend to do more word-based ones in the near future. I'll let you know. Thank you!

  8. Hi Autumn. I just discovered this Thoughts On A Word series and I like it (how about 'feisty'? That one's my pet hate), but I have to say I don't relate to this one at all. Not to say that my lack of relating to it invalidates the whole argument or something, but I'm personally left a little mystified. I've had lovers, male and female, call me hot, and I've called others hot too; most of the people I've used the term with are from queer, feminist and activist subcultures.

    I'm not tanned or free of body hair, and I haven't worn a skirt - of any length - in years. I say this not to nitpick but because I don't relate to anything much to do with conventional femininity. I find the word pretty egalitarian in terms of not being tied to mainstream beauty standards. Maybe in the USA it's another story? I don't know, but thus far (and having travelled there, had relationships with Americans, etc) I hadn't noticed any difference.

    On a sidenote, I don't see one-night stands as being inherently 'cheap' - a word which seems to have pretty unpleasant connotations when applied to women's sexuality.

  9. Hi Nine--a pleasure to meet you! And I'm glad you've been liking the series thus far. Can you tell me more about "feisty"? The first thing that comes to mind is that in the U.S. there's a slight ethnic connotation--like, oh, those feisty Latinas! So I'm wondering what it's like for a more homogenized culture like Ireland? (Not that it doesn't get applied to white women here aplenty, of course.

    Very interesting points about "hot." I suspect, besides just using words in different ways, that the differences stem less from U.S./Europe and more from mainstream culture vs. queer/alt culture. I'm a feminist and certainly queer-friendly, but for the most part the company I keep is pretty mainstream. It seems like you're saying that "hot" is less about some particular mainstream hallmark and more about either a sexy attitude or a way of being? In many ways that democratizes it, which certainly makes me appreciate the idea of "hot" more. I happened to have a houseguest when I got this e-mail, and she's more involved in queer culture than I am and has done some gender-bendy burlesque, and I asked her about her thoughts on "hot." She said that she called people or acts hot all the time, and then paused and said, "It's sort of like saying 'good job'!" Which I love.

    I don't think it's a friendly co-opting of the term on either the part of the mainstream or of activist subcultures; I think it's more that activist cultures are, unsurprisingly, rejecting the mainstream idea of "hot" as something that can be purchased.

    And thank you for setting me straight on "cheap." I agree that they needn't inherently be meaningless, but more to the point, the word "cheap" treats our sexuality as currency, which is something I think we DO, but I never want to be careless in my discussion of it.

  10. Hey Autumn, really nice to hear back from you!

    I think of 'feisty' as very gendered - I don't think I've ever heard it applied to men. It seems that a 'feisty' woman may be angry about something or determined to fight, but she's perceived as too small and cute to constitute a real threat. I'd find it patronising rather than a compliment.

    I agree with your houseguest! But it was certainly interesting to read a different perspective on 'hot' here - as you can see from my previous comment, it was totally news to me.

  11. But of course! And thank you for being thought-provoking (in fact, you may appreciate today's post, sexy: http://www.the-beheld.com/2011/05/thoughts-on-word-sexy.html)

    You know, I don't think I've heard feisty applied to men either, or if I have it's not nearly as frequently as women. Webster's lists a synonym as "spunky" which is totally gendered, IMHO...I'll look into it. Thanks!

  12. Did you visit "hot or not" in the course of your exploration of the word?

    1. Dear lord, no. I wish I had thought of that (or do I?), but honestly I'm pretty sure I would have just used it to reinforce my biases against the word.