Left: Olympia Press’s two-volume edition of Lolita as part of its nondescript “The Traveller's Companion Series,” 1955.
- Part I: Lara Delage-Toriel
- Part II: Meenakshi Gigi Durham
- Part III: Lorelei Lee
- Part IV: Emily Prager
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
It is through the Young-Girl that capitalism has managed to extend its hegemony to the totality of social life. She is the most rugged pawn of market domination in a war whose objective remains the total control of daily life and “production” time.
— Tiqqun, Introduction to Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl
THE LATTER HALF OF THE 1990s has often been rebranded as the era of “girl power.” Spice Girls’ manager Simon Fuller (future creator of Pop Idol) in particular co-opted it as a way to profit on the British, all-girls supergroup, but its often vacuous entreaty to the teen- (and fledgling tween-) girl demographic had nonetheless originated in numerous social and artistic breakthroughs for young girls. Its youth-oriented platform pointed to a larger promulgation of third-wave feminism within academia and punk subculture, as well as part of the social justice and anti-globalization movements that defined pre-9/11 America. Reagan-era neo-conservatism helped galvanize Riot Grrrl, the Yale School of Photography, and the YA genre as a cultural phenomena — along with the expansion of LGBT activism, sex-positive rhetoric, and the codification of girlhood studies as a discipline. Unlike her peers of an earlier generation, the young girl of the ’90s had cohered as a privileged subject of politics, economics, and culture.
The November 1998 debut of Britney Spears’s music video “… Baby One More Time” was both a consummation and a rejection of the “girl power!” decade that preceded it. Performed as a 16-year-old student’s classroom reverie, Spears’s midriff schoolgirl outfit and suggestive, BDSM lyrics hybridized the sexual theatrics of Madonna and the guileless death mask of JonBenét Ramsey, the result of which summoned the Lolita mythos in the figure of the new pop princess. “… Baby One More Time” instantly entered the Billboard and Top 40 charts in the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, France, and Australia, eventually attaining platinum certification and selling nearly 10 million units by 2012. Such popularity was no doubt assisted by rabid reviewers like the New Musical Express, which referenced Lolita as part of its verdict that the single was “a symphony of teenage lust as fully realised as anything Brian Wilson ever wrote,” and Rolling Stone’s controversial April 1999 cover feature of Spears posed in a bra and panties and holding a stuffed animal. Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, and Lana del Rey inherited the legacy, along with its marketing paradigm and desultory musical genre.
In Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age Kathleen Sweeney writes of the era,
Teenage girls and women in the 1990s achieved a level of physical comfort in acknowledging, accentuating, and celebrating the female form that has been considered as breakthrough as the braless look of “sexually free” teenagers in the 1960s. However, with the lack of boundaries in the “looks” of womanhood and the blurred definition between tweens, girls, teens, and women, this type of sexualization as a celebration of female curves extended to fashions for little girls.
Meenakshi Gigi Durham’s recent feminist bestseller, The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It (2008), identifies and scrutinizes the millennial popularity of the nymphet, looking beyond the corporatization of the pop princess to an entire cultural industry, film, television, fashion, even toys, dedicated to the eroticization of youth. In her work Durham discovers a litany of marketing campaigns, products, and statistics — including, most disturbingly, a World Health Organization report that 25 percent of girls had been sexually molested in the United States, as well as a CDC study showing 1 in 4 had contracted a STI — that have been normalized as part of the neo-liberalization of girlhood sexuality. “The Lolita Effect is not an affirmation or celebration of girls’ sexuality, in all its diverse and blossoming forms,” says Durham. “On the contrary, it is a restrictive, hidebound, market-driven set of impositions on girls’ sexuality. And it’s virtually inescapable, because it’s the only definition of girls’ sexuality that’s represented in the globally circulating mainstream media.”
In this series, the Los Angeles Review of Books assembled a group of female authors, artists, and performers who, dedicated to examining the faces, bodies, and voices of the young girl, consider the significance of Nabokov’s pubescent protagonist as both a literary conceit and an object of patriarchal fetish. Among the many important themes and motifs they consider are these larger, crucial questions: Who precisely is Lolita and why are we awestruck in her presence? How have our perceptions of her changed since 1955? What does she look like now? Are we all guilty of objectifying the young girl? And why are we afraid to articulate the sex, passion, and emotions of the contemporary nymphet?
Meenakshi Gigi Durham is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the recipient of the Teresa Award for Feminist Scholarship. As a journalist, essayist, and academician, her work has appeared in various publications, including Feminist Media Studies and the Harvard Review. Her bestselling text, The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It (2008), has been highlighted on the BBC, "The Dr. Phil Show," and Oprah Winfrey Network’s documentary Miss Representation.
ERIK MORSE: Do you remember when you first read Lolita?
MEENAKSHI GIGI DURHAM: Yes! I was probably about same age as Lolita herself when I read it — 12 or 13. Our house was full of books, and my parents could never really keep track of what I was reading!
What were your initial impressions, both of Nabokov’s story and the character of Lo? Did you identify with the young girl?
I was too young to fully understand the implications of the novel. I do remember being really moved by the beauty of Nabokov’s language: phrases like “dark and umber Humberland” have stayed with me after all these years. As a young adolescent, I could imagine the thrill of being in a relationship with an older guy. It was only when I read it again as an adult that I understood the ways that Humbert Humbert had violated and practically imprisoned Lolita, that the relationship was abusive, and also the bit about Quilty and the porn movies. None of that computed when I was a kid. But I’m glad I found the novel early, and glad I re-read it many times, as it has been a really significant factor in my research and my writing; I have a different kind of empathy for Lolita now than I did as a child.
As you point out in the introduction to The Lolita Effect, the fantasy of the nymphet originates in a misinterpretation of the character of Lolita in Nabokov’s text as sexually precocious. In fact, the nymphet as imagined and fetishized by popular culture has only the most tenuous physical resemblance to Nabokov’s nymphet. Is there a singular paradigm of this Lolita?
From my own analyses of a wide variety of media texts, there is in fact an archetype of the “nymphet,” whom as you point out bears little resemblance to Nabokov’s Lolita.
What is the most lasting influence, either positive or negative, that the specter of Lolita has had in depictions of femininity and girlhood iconography?
I think probably the most lasting effect is our continual cultural confusion about girls’ sexuality. As a culture — as I say in the book — we seek to deny and suppress it, while exploiting it in the crassest ways. The US is particularly egregious in terms of not acknowledging the reality of girls’ sexuality, not providing kids with adequate sex education or access to contraception, failing to treat sex as a public health issue, failing to adequately protect girls from sexual abuse and STIs and exploitation, while at the same time using girls’ sexuality for commercial profit.
Could you characterize her in the contemporary context? How would you describe her appearance, physical qualities, and behavior according to standards created by media?
Physically, the nymphet now seems to follow the Britney Spears model. She’s usually Caucasian, blonde, teen, or even preteen, and dressed and made up in very adult ways. An example would be the 2010 French Vogue photographs of a 12-year-old Thylane Blondeau. The media nymphet is usually posed seductively, and attired in clothing we’d widely recognize as sexy — stiletto heels, very short skirts, plunging necklines, and so on. Some of these young models have had cosmetic surgeries to create artificially voluptuous bodies with children’s faces — they’re culturally constructed hybrids of the oppositional fantasies of adult sexuality and childhood innocence. Their depictions imply that they are legitimate sexual actors — that at the age of 10, or 12, or 14, they are appropriate objects and subjects of desire. But in fact, like Nabokov’s Lolita, they are children; they’re not really capable of handling sexual activity, emotionally or psychologically or even physically. The images situate them as fully cognizant and capable sexual actors; they signal to adult audiences that these children are sexual in the same ways that adults are. That wasn’t the case for Nabokov’s Lolita, who was raped and practically enslaved by Humbert Humbert, and it isn’t the case for the Lolitas in the mainstream media or in child pornography, either.
What role does feminism play in this struggle to define the body of the young girl? Do you think the feminist initiatives of the last 50 years have ultimately failed to protect young girls from exploitation?
I certainly would not blame feminism for failing to protect girls from exploitation. To me, feminist critiques have been crucial in surfacing the debates around the issue of media sexualization; and we can thank feminism for making sexual violence and abuse serious public issues. Feminism gives us the tools to think about children’s sexuality in realistic and important ways. Feminist scholarship widely recognizes that sexuality is part of the human condition, and not necessarily distinct or separate from childhood. But how various cultures engage with children’s sexuality, and girls’ sexuality in particular, is very complicated terrain. And even within feminism — from various feminist perspectives — this is a charged subject. I want to believe that feminism would foreground girls’ sexual safety and wellbeing, their capability to control their sexual lives — but not all strands of feminism would support this perspective. That can be problematic. At any rate, these sorts of debates and discussions are central to feminist thinking about the topic, and that’s where things get worked out and eventually make their way into public culture and policy, so there’s no question of blaming feminism for anything.
Why do you think there was this collective return to Lolita at a specific moment in the 1990s with numerous Lolita rewrites like Lo’s Diary and Roger Fishbite, both of which attempt to rewrite the narrative of Lolita’s character in her own words? I’m particularly interested in how it might have paralleled the rise of the Yale School of photographers like Anna Gaskell, who were doing similar things with images of the young girl in the visual arts. Or even the rise of the Riot Grrrl or the Girl Power subculture as a form of "youthful" feminist protest. Was there something about this moment that aligned itself with the rise of a new form of feminism, girlhood studies? Do you think there was a backlash to this young, independent feminist aesthetic with greater marketing campaigns aimed at the eroticization of tween and teen girls?
One of my basic points in the book is that the Lolita Effect is a backlash against women’s growing public presence and power. As women continue to move into the public sphere, gaining traction in the workforce and in political life, the Lolita Effect has become insistently more prevalent in popular culture. The Lolita Effect asserts that desirability is yoked to youth, passivity, and childishness, rather than to mature adult female sexuality. It’s a way of countering and controlling women’s social advancement. It celebrates infantilization and naïveté as sexy, as opposed to maturity or independence. So it does seem as though the feminist breakthroughs of the early 1990s catalyzed the subsequent corporate eroticization of teen and teen girls. But you’re right, Girlhood Studies emerged in this moment, as well. So there were various interconnected and conflicting crosscurrents at play, some progressive, some damagingly regressive.
Reading a text like Lolita in the present day lends it a nostalgic, almost haunting, quality that likely did not exist in its own day. Lolita, herself, so controversial a half-century ago, is a relatively benign figure now, though her contemporary successors (e.g., Britney Spears, Lana del Rey, Miley Cyrus, etc.) continue to push the codes of acceptable behavior in girls in the public sphere. How do you think the mainstream "celebration" of the nymphet over the past two decades has changed how we view girlhood sexuality?
In some ways, it seems to me that we are reverting to a view of girlhood sexuality that predates the concept of childhood; we seem to be moving toward a common acceptance of girls — even very young girls — as being primarily defined in terms of their conformity to social standards of sexual desirability. Neil Postman wrote about the disappearance of childhood more than two decades ago, and as I track the mainstream “celebration” of the nymphet (as you put it) and the heated defenses of those representations, I see the concept of girlhood disintegrating. To me, this puts young girls in a rather precarious position. In our eagerness to reject any putative censorship of sexuality, and to defend girls’ agency and autonomy, we seem to forget that children develop gradually — that developmental differences exist. We understand that young children shouldn’t be allowed to drink alcohol or drive cars or perform brain surgery, but we seem to be less cognizant that they aren’t well-equipped to handle sexual activity at a young age, either, and that they do need to be buffered from the worst hazards of sexual violence and exploitation so that they can learn about sexuality in developmentally appropriate and safe ways. We seem to be losing sight of that in our new embrace of girlhood sexuality.
I’d really like to pinpoint what it was specifically about Britney Spears that epitomized this new semiosis of the nymphet. More than anyone else, she is synonymous with the resurgence of millennial, teen pop and the eroticization of the young girl. Is there a distinction to be made between the symbolic currency of her eroticization and those of her immediate forebears, like the Spice Girls or Kylie Minogue or Madonna?
I do think Britney Spears marked a turning point. While it’s true that there were pop culture precursors like Madonna, I think it’s important to remember that Madonna was 26 when “Like a Virgin” came out in 1984. She was not a child, and her message was very much one of rule-defying adult sexuality. Britney Spears, on the other hand, was 16 when she signed her first record contract, and the studios marketed her as a child. You’ll remember the Rolling Stone photo of her posed with a stuffed animal, and the video for “… Baby One More Time” where she wore a Catholic schoolgirl uniform and little braids.
Paisley Dickey, star of TLC show Toddlers and Tiaras, dressed in the iconic
Pretty Woman outfit, 2011.
Was her celebrity merely a manufacture of producers and music moguls cashing in on an untapped youth market or do you think it was a more ritualized exploitation of a culture seeking a sexual icon to lust after?
It’s not an either/or question in terms of media moguls tapping a youth market versus American culture latching onto a sex icon: it was both. Her youth was exaggerated and exploited to win not just a youth market, but an overall market: she appealed to the sought-after 18- to 34-year-old male target audience just as much as to teen girls. And her sexualization as a teenager — made to look much younger — marked the beginning of a cultural turn toward the mainstream media’s sexual objectification of very young girls.
Is there any positive aesthetic or cultural outcome to the Britney Spears phenomenon? It’s interesting that we do see the extension of the modern pop icon in figures like Beyoncé Knowles and Miley Cyrus, both of whom have directly invoked feminism as a guiding principle of their performance. Was the rallying cry of "Girl Power!" purely a slick marketing tactic or are there valuable forms of female empowerment to be gleaned even in the most gimmicky and exploitative marketing campaigns?
In all honesty, the phrase “girl power” has become just a meaningless marketing slogan to me — it seems to translate into commercially profitable sexualization, rather than the actual empowerment of girls. There’s no emphasis in pop culture, for example, on girls’ intellectual achievement or on community involvement or sexual health or agency. The US still has unacceptably high rates of teen pregnancy and STIs, for an industrialized nation. We are still dealing with high levels of sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Girls and women still experience eating disorders at much higher rates than boys and men. Girls and women have made gains in some areas, but the invocation of feminism to reassert very conventional heteronormative gender roles for women strikes me as counterproductive.
It seems that in American society there is a well-publicized, cautionary tale of ephebophilia/pedophilia for each decade or generation going back to the very beginning of broadcasting. With the murder of JonBenét Ramsey in the late 1990s, this trope of childhood sexuality was multiplied by the 24-hour news cycle/infotainment phenomenon into a new level of fearmongering and exploitation. The coverage of the crime became indistinguishable from the lurid fantasies of her/her family pedaled as fact. What do you think the Ramsey case proved about the American perspective on topics of pedophilia? How do you reconcile the heavy ideological insistence we put on the eradication of pedophilia with the overwhelming fantasy we have created for the consumer of the eroticized young girl?
It feeds itself, doesn’t it? This would bring us back to Foucault’s notion of the “incitement to discourse.” There’s a bit of an insane paradox here: the media foment moral panics about pedophilia while effectively sustaining it. Actually, I think you articulate the mutual reinforcements of the Lolita fantasy with the hysteria around pedophilia very well. The media in many ways exploit the very girls they purport to care about, reflecting and recirculating the same real-world contradictions.
Often in discussions of the contemporary depictions of young girls, the onus is placed on correcting an abstract and non-gendered media entity in an effort to shift the conversation from the sexual to the economic. But I think the Lolita Effect originates, in part, on the foundational rituals and romantic attitudes we have historically shown toward childhood and childhood sexuality, particularly from the male perspective. Why do you think we are so reticent to speak freely on this subject?
Our general reticence about masculinity as a determining factor is probably a result of the instant backlash such salvos inevitably produce. But the line of thinking you’re raising parallels the feminist critique of patriarchy as a dominant ideological discourse. This is not to say all men are pedophiles — clearly, many men are critical of the cultural positioning of the young girl as our primary sexual fetish. But patriarchal ideology is not about individual men taking a resistant stance, it’s about historicized and deeply entrenched relations of gender and power. So it’s important to locate the Lolita Effect in the context of hegemonic masculinity, which I think is what you’re talking about.
Is it possible to have a public discussion of how these kinds of pedophilic fantasies affect the way female representations have developed outside of marketing campaigns or fashion trends?
Yes, it is possible to have that discussion. Many masculinity scholars are interrogating it, just as feminist scholars have for decades. Jackson Katz, for example, has noted that everything we think of as women’s issues — rape, domestic violence, child prostitution — actually reveals more about masculinity than about women. If there’s a subtext, a sociocultural grounding to the Lolita Effect, it’s patriarchal sexual culture. And Ariel Levy makes the great point in Female Chauvinist Pigs that women are increasingly being co-opted into accommodating and acquiescing to the same perspectives and behaviors. So it’s not just about men; it’s about something much larger that runs very deep in our social unconscious.
Is the concept of both empowering and eroticizing the young girl even possible? What would that look like?
I believe it would be possible for girls to be sexually empowered: to have the knowledge and the capacity to make good decisions about their own sexual lives, to express their sexuality in positive and safe ways. But this would mean creating a social space in which that could happen. It wouldn’t mean “eroticizing” young girls, because that makes them the passive objects that are being used by the culture for erotic purposes. It would mean a radical change in terms of actually providing girls with the social support and the safe space in which to explore sexuality at their own pace, in ways that would result in no harm to them. But we aren’t even close.