We are awash in Lolitas – Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry. As Ira Wells says in a New Republic piece, “at a certain echelon of pop music megastardom . . . they are all Lolitas now.”
Yet Wells insists that as the number of Lolitas has risen exponentially, we’ve forgotten Lolita, the original Nabokov novel.
These two phenomena coexist because we’ve taken Stanley Kubrick’s film Lolita as our model more than Nabokov’s. The contrast is evident from the film’s opening scene:
“Nabokov repeatedly emphasizes that there is nothing conventionally beautiful about the nymphet. The novel’s Lolita is a tomboyish, malodorous little urchin: Humbert comments on her ‘monkeyish nimbleness’; he duly notes every time she picks her nose or adjusts a wedgie. Kubrick airbrushes this character into a 1950s pin-up model. In her introductory shot, Lolita is (un)dressed in a bikini, propped up on one arm, the posture and lighting carefully coordinated to accentuate the womanly swell of her hips, the smooth perfection of her long legs, her sultry expression as she looks up to meet our gaze.”
We’ve forgotten that the original Lolita was twelve years old, that she was an unwilling victim of Humbert Humbert’s fantasies, and that she was a rape victim and sex slave. We see everything through Humbert’s self-justifying gaze, yet the book makes clear that “Lolita spends much of the novel as the narrator’s sexual captive.” Only occasionally does “Humbert allow the baroque veil of language to slip away,” so that “we are momentarily reminded of Lolita’s youth and fragility, of ‘her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.’” Nabokov “never lets us forget that there is something monstrous about Humbert’s desire for Lolita.”
It matters because the Kubrick Lolita “in her heart-shaped sunglasses, a glistening lollipop entering her moist lips [has] supplied America with the instantly recognizable signifiers of Lolita that would endure in the age of Instagram. That image, once seen, cannot be unseen.”
That image has come to life in girly pop stars, and the audience is in on a slimy game. We know that the little girls twerking on stage aren’t as young as they appear, and that licenses the viewer’s imaginative erotic enjoyment of her as a child.” In short, today’s “popular culture rewards adult women who act like children for the collective erotic enjoyment that will not speak its name.”
Wells argues that Katy Perry’s “childishness is the real secret to her success”: “Perry’s vestigial childishness, like the leering attention paid to Hannah Montana’s mutation or pupation into Miley Cyrus, reveals that nothing stokes the fire in our collective loins quite like the blurring of lines around childhood sexuality.”
Forgetting Lolita is also a problem because the book has never been as relevant: “the novel itself constitutes a vicious satire of a culture that fetishizes young girls . . . while simultaneously loathing pedophilia as an absolute moral evil on par with genocide.” We are that culture: “The widespread cultural acceptance of this fantasy at face value is tantamount to the declaration: #IBelieveHumbert. The American public imagination has accepted Humbert’s definition of the nymphet while strenuously muffling the pedophilic exertions involved in the creation of the myth.”
The novel satirizes us. It is a chilling irony that Nabokov’s novel should lend its name to the thing he satirized.