Remember when The Onion posted an offensive tweet about the young actress, Quvenzhané Wallis, who starred in the movie The Beasts of the Southern Wild?
Sasha Weiss at the New Yorker commented:
“The tweet was taken down and apologized for, but The Onion, as usual, had blurted out a terribly ugly version of a suppressed, itchy attitude that is probably more widely held than we’d like to think: the idea that young girls are ridiculous, annoying, and a little disgusting. They’re glittery, they squeal, they like attention, and—most disturbingly—they threaten to evoke illicit sexual feelings. The word “c*nt” didn’t bubble up by accident.”
The thing that struck me in Weiss’s piece, was the matter-of-factness with which the author mentioned illicit sexual feelings towards little girls. Such feelings are supposed to be a taboo. Why is this something that we have to keep constantly on our minds–that our children evoke illicit sexual feelings?
Because it’s the logical conclusion of a culture that has not taken a definitive stance against pornography. We know its out there. We are aware of the sex trade industry. We know there are predators everywhere, online, in our schools, in our churches.
The Catholic Church, has taken a proactive stance since the revelation of the sex abuse scandals of past decades, requiring every adult who ministers to minors in Catholic Schools or Churches to undergo extensive and ongoing training in recognizing and reporting sexual predators and signs of abuse.
But all of that is not going to be enough if pornography poisons the collective well from which a society drinks. We see the ripple down effect when pornography makes an unwelcome appearance in the mainstream.
“I have taken to viewing the “Disney sweetheart” phenomenon as a trap: a role-model time bomb, set on purpose to go off for maximum impact, maximum headlines, and to sell maximum copies of the first semi-nude photo shoot. In this model, the sweet-innocent-girl-next-door is an image carefully crafted and curated to ensnare as many hits as possible. The sweeter and more innocent the better, because then the more sensational the headline when she Goes Wild.
There is, as you know, a thriving and only partly underground market in the images of young women who appear to be anywhere from twenty-one down to about sixteen. When a young woman who was recently well-known as an underage star comes of age and hits the centerfolds, there is a valuable association — “Is she even old enough for that?!” — that her handlers must rush to exploit before it expires.
In other words: The Disney-Channel sweet and childlike girl next door is merely Phase I of “Hot, Wild, and Barely Legal.” These girls are not going off the deep end on their own. They are being groomed to go off the deep end, because a lot of people stand to make money when they “discover” the next Britney, the next Lindsay, the next Miley.”
In other words, Lolita, the violated child in Nobokov’s novel of the same name, has become a popular and acceptable fixture in modern society.
Elsewhere in the New Yorker, Michael Idov laments the conservative shift in Russian cultural attitudes that caused protesters to halt a live dramatization of Lolita–a novel that was published in controversy, lived for a time in infamy, before it was accepted into the mainstream academic syllabus and lauded for provocatively daring its readers to empathize with a pedophile.
“Anonymous activists had petitioned to have the play banned, the museum closed, and Nabokov’s books purged from stores. The author, whose novels thrum with ironic recurrences, might have been perversely pleased with this: thirty-six years after his death and twenty-two years after the fall of the Soviet Union with all its khudsovets, Vladimir Nabokov is, once again, controversial.”
No worries–it’s only controversial in Russia. Idov, however, is not amused:
“Everything blunt, homespun, and orthodox is in. Everything multifaceted, foreign, avant-garde, or deviant is out. “Lolita” didn’t stand a chance.”
He blames this “frothing conservatism” on a legislator named Vitaly Milonov who drafted a bill banning propaganda of pedophilia to minors.
I’m not in favor of banning books. Lolita is a novel of literary merit precisely because it does indict its protagonist in a very sophisticated way.* But it takes some very delicate footwork to argue in favor of a live performance depicting a middle aged man seducing a pre-pubescent girl. Even realizing that mature actors would perform these parts, there is a world of difference between a work of fiction in which the characters exist only in imagination, and a live representation that requires players to mimic deviant acts (including the rape of a child). Make what you will of the cultural climate in Russia; but it’s a difference that American audiences no longer see.
I can understand the mourning for the loss of the foreign, multifaceted, and avant-garde–but would Idov be such a strident advocate for the performance piece if Humbert were a Catholic priest, and Lolita replaced with an Altar boy? Would the show still be multifaceted and avant-garde, or would it just be wrong?
When a culture collectively agrees that pornography is not a big deal, children are the collateral damage, and young girls in particular. Everyone plays a part in their exploitation, from the porn industry at large, to the people who consume it, to the former child-star-heros and their handlers constantly divining new live displays of public deviancy, to designers who put hot pink leopard print swimsuits on the racks for two-year-olds, to the parents who unwittingly buy into it.
Think we can’t put restrictions on pornography use in America? Is it too homespun? Too orthodox? The children beg to differ.
* This section has been edited to better reflect my agreement with Bearing’s statement in the comments below:
“I am actually a big fan of Nabokov’s novel Lolita. It’s one of my favorite literary works, not so much for being “enjoyable to read” but for being many-layered, witty, tragic, and marvelously deft with the English language).
It is certainly not for everyone; it should not be anyone’s “required reading” because the content is highly disturbing and nobody should be pressured into reading it if they are concerned it will affect them psychologically or morally in a bad way, which is a not insignificant risk. But it’s not mere porn, nor is it the novel that people often imagine it to be.”
I perhaps didn’t make clear enough that my beef with the Idov piece has to do with the difficulty of translating such difficult subject matter into a live performance.