Like about ten million other Gen-X guys in the mid 1970s, I was exposed to the Farrah Fawcett poster in a typical way: courtesy of an older brother. A friend’s older brother, in my case. He was fifteen, reckless and mean, getting into the kind trouble that would cause him to have a short life. An aroma of denim and pot followed him. He lived in my friend’s basement where he played his Led Zeppelin records. At six, I was curious about what went on down there. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure it would kill me.
The poster appeared in the basement stairway one day, on the slanted ceiling above the basement steps. Near the bottom. I was heading down behind my friend, perhaps shuttling a Coke to the older brother, or some message from his mother that likewise required two to deliver, and there it was.
Most memories of that basement are down to faint odors of musty carpeting and the pastel covers of board games that were missing pieces the baby sister would occasionally cough up. I remember that poster, though. I remember looking directly at her eyes when I was halfway down the stairs. I saw those teeth. Those teeth and that hair. The next step down was one small step for a six-year-old, but one giant leap for a boy beginning a life that would hopefully be complicated by females.
I saw the nipples.
I knew that ladies had nipples. I had already spent a few minutes with a nudie magazine, courtesy of another older brother, and had seen nipples. But this was different.
Her nipples were covered, and therefore supposed to be hidden. But they protruded through her top in a bold, celebratory, look-at-me way that had to be purposeful. Her face made it clear that it was purposeful. And the way she was looking at you made it your problem. I knew very little about pornography, but I knew it when I saw it. And this was it. Have the people in this house lost their minds? I thought. Don’t they see what I see? Does anyone see what I see?
But what was I seeing? This was a billion things more than a girl poster. The parts were simple and several, but their sum was infinite. It was punch-in-the-face clear and endlessly maddening.
Like a practice run for Fight Club, you could not talk about the poster. Or, God forbid, the nipples. We had a bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime case of adult-sanctioned pornography, and talking would break that spell. My friend and I stole looks at every possible opportunity, but we didn’t say a word.
“That’s the Six Million Dollar Man’s wife,” my friend finally said, probably hoping I’d break the dam.
The Six Million Dollar Man’s wife…of course! That explained the poster’s power. To a six-year-old in 1976, The Six Million Dollar Man was the most potent force of cool on the planet. Seeing this lady’s obscene nipples and knowing that they and she were his possessions, it put the universe back to straights. If you’re that cool, you naturally and rightly possess every desirable thing in the world. The yearnings this poster created could now be grasped: they’d make sense when I had bionic strength.
In the following days she was identified as Farrahfawcett Majors (one four-syllable word followed by “Majors”), who was on some show that wasn’t The Six Million Dollar Man. Then, at some point, the poster disappeared. Replaced by another, or just gone. I can’t remember. I didn’t think of it again. I forgot to remember it for 14 years. It became the world’s best-selling poster, with guesses ranging to 6 to 12 million copies sold if you include knock-offs. It found a place in the Smithsonian.
In 1990, I opened a door to a storage closet at the carpenter shop where I worked at college, and there it was. On the inside of the door. Ripped and crinkled around the edges. Her suit was more dull orange then red, a sign of fading or that it was one of the millions of fakes. The poster grabbed me by the throat as it did that day in ‘76—but now my fully descended testes had to grapple with it, too. I ran my eyes down the long, backwards S of Farrah’s head, neck, torso, and thighs.
Time had passed outside of the poster. She was no longer Farrahfawcett Majors, no longer the Six Million Dollar Man’s wife. The Six Million Dollar Man was long extinct and curiously absent from even drunken reminiscing. By 1990, Bo Derek and about nine hundred other faces and bodies had somehow vaulted past Farrah in the hierarchy of famous females who bewitched men. But that was all outside of the poster. When you’re looking at it, she’s untouchable. The woman. The female. No one else exists, or ever could, while you’re looking at that poster. Which you can do forever.
Later, I was able to rationalize more about why the poster entrances me, as if why matters a lick.
First, there’s the universe of evolutionary biology. In this shot, Farrah has the perfect cross between the functional, unsexed athletic body that the male brain sees as a strong, hardy, capable partner during lean times (Nadia Comaneci during her medaling years) and the jiggly, curvy, for-fun-and-babies-only body that could pump out whole villages from your seed but would never stay under roof for long (Jayne Mansfield). Farrah’s mid-sized breasts are both efficient and ample, and her nipples prove that they’d be working feeder-ports for at least two of your progeny. The striations of her abdominal muscles under her suit invoke a lithe, rugged body, while the very slightly plump, pleasantly squeezable expanses of her thighs belong to a woman who’s meaty enough to be physically formidable.
Then there’s the geometry. I’d bet my health that the poster is an orgasmic study in the golden mean. That’s the ratio popularized during the Renaissance that makes everything—faces, buildings, breasts, plants, bridges, silverware, everything—beautiful and harmonious to the brain. (It’s 1.6180339887 and represented by the Greek letter phi.) The arcs, angles, spheres and lines in the poster are likely dripping with enough Fibonacci sequences (related to the golden mean) to set a mathematician to convulsing. I’ll wager some science journals did articles on this 37 years ago, with more than one titled She’s So Phi-ne.
What’s not in the Farrah photo is just as important. The blanket behind her colorfully contrasts Farrah’s vertical curves but offers no competing noise or distracting schema, and that allows the viewer to project any fantasy he wants. Is she at a beach? Is there something nautical going on? Is she in your den, waiting for you? All or none, as you wish.
What if she was sitting on the deck of a yacht? Or if there had been little palm trees on that blanket? Or if she was holding a bottle of beer? Or lifeguard whistle? Or a kitten? It would be a sexy shot of a gorgeous woman, but we’d have no iconic image. Toss in any trifle of a prop, and this piece would be about the Raquel Welch cave girl poster.
Since this single photo made a mint, why wasn’t the feat repeated? Why haven’t any other photos of Farrah—or any other woman—overtaken this one as the most iconic female image in history?
Because it was an accident. An Iwo Jima Moment. A dumb luck, right-time-right-place snap, where countless elements too abstract for the conscious mind to conceive or ever hope to manipulate magically fell into place for one beautiful, perfect instant. Had the shutter clicked a split-second before or after, it would have captured something imperceptibly different. In fact, it did. The photographer, a guy in his late thirties named Bruce McBroom, took hundreds of shots of Farrah on that summer day in 1976, though only 36 of her in the one-piece suit (he’s claimed that he was under orders to get a bikini shot). Two other frames of her in the red suit made posters that sold thousands of copies. Which no one remembers.
Outtakes from the shoot are easily findable on the Internet. Many are objectively better photos—better face, more body, more feeling. Many are terrifically sexy shots. Just like the hundreds of other highly produced photos of Farrah that followed in the next 25 years. But none are Iwo Jima Moments. Those happen when divinity steps in. They can’t be conjured. They can’t be forced into existence. God knows untold millions are spent every year in trying.
Standing at that storage closet door in 1990, I recognized Farrah’s smile for what it really was. There were no eyes in the smile. It wasn’t seductive. It wasn’t cute. It was mocking. She was mocking the very idea of being seductive, wholly unconcerned that her exaggerated grin and head tilt contorted her face into something slightly skeletal. The smile was all about the nipples. And it was ruthless. She wasn’t a docile receptacle in wait of a man. She was erect. Penetrative.
Farrah probably made that face because she was tired, but it didn’t matter. In that Iwo Jima Moment, it transmitted a woman-to-man message that cut to the bone. Sex with her might be frivolous, but it would be no game.
I was pretty sure it would kill me.