A very difficult term to define, at best.
A cultural icon is an object, place, person or symbol that many members of a culture or sub-culture recognize as important to them in some way. A cultural icon is usually something that the members of a group view positively.
Other definitions might include:
- A thing becomes a cultural icon when it arouses strong feelings in a member of a culture because of the fact that it is a shared cultural experience; specifically, stronger feelings than it would cause without this shared cultural experience.
- A thing is a cultural icon if it has been a part of a culture for long enough that traditions and/or folklore to spring up around it.
- Something that everybody in a culture knows about or is familiar with. (See Cultural Literacy).
Common examples are Uncle Sam, The Statue of Liberty, and The Liberty Bell in America. The Royal Family, The Tower of London, and Stonehenge are examples of cultural icons in England (perhaps not the best; /msg me if you have better suggestions).
Any number of things have been called cultural icons at one time or another; noteworthy are the inordinate numbers of people, cartoon characters, bands, and imaginary characters that have been called cultural icons. I am somewhat wary of calling Britney Spears or Homer Simpson cultural icons, although a case could be made for Elvis Presley or Mickey Mouse. If you find yourself referring to humans and human-like creatures as cultural icons, you might want to consider using the terms 'star' or 'role model' instead.