Lolita and the Sexualization of Childhood

She’s an all-too-familiar figure in today’s media landscape: the baby-faced nymphet with the preternaturally voluptuous curves, the one whose scantily clad body gyrates in music videos, poses provocatively on teen magazine covers, and populates cinema and television screens around the globe. She’s become a fixture in Western pop culture: we all know her various incarnations, from Gidget to Miley Cyrus, from Brooke Shields’ child prostitute in Pretty Baby to Jon Benét Ramsey. She’s been ardently celebrated and stridently censured, and she serves as a symbolic flashpoint for raging debates about gender, sexuality, the definition of childhood, and the criteria for social standards of acceptability.

Perhaps one reason for our fascination is her tricky double role in contemporary society -- she’s simultaneously a symbol of female empowerment and the embodiment of a perverted male chauvinism. She invokes the specter of pedophilia while kindling the prospect of potent female sexuality. She haunts our imagery and our imaginations, and we know her best by a nickname that evokes meanings far exceeding their celebrated literary origin: she is Lolita.

The term has become an everyday allusion, a shorthand cultural reference to a prematurely, even inappropriately, sexual little girl -- that is, a girl who is by legal definition not yet an adult and is therefore outlawed from culturally sanctioned sexual activity. Because of this legal and cultural taboo, she is also wrong -- wicked, even -- to deliberately provoke thoughts of such activity. And the “Lolitas” of our time are defined as deliberate sexual provocateurs, turning adults’ thoughts to sex and thereby luring them into wickedness, wantonly transgressing our basic moral and legal codes. Everything about this Lolita is unacceptable, and therein lies both her allure and her ignominy.

The original Lolita -- the 12-year-old Dolores Haze, protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel -- was a rather different girl. It is clear in the book that she is the powerless victim of her predatory stepfather, Humbert Humbert. Nabokov’s Lolita is a nuanced character whose sexuality is complex: like many preadolescent girls, she is sexually curious -- but she has no control over her relationship with Humbert, which is abusive and manipulative. Yet the care with which Nabokov presents her case, and his emphasis on Humbert’s malfeasance, has been overlooked in the years since the novel’s publication. It is as though the very fact of Lolita’s sexuality -- the public acknowledgement that a preteen girl could be sexual, the bold focus on an incestuous liaison between grown man and little girl -- has made her into a fantasy figure, a simulacrum of Humbert’s projection rather than the sexually abused and tragic figure of the novel.

It is this fantastical Lolita who has entered our culture as a pervasive metaphor. She is invoked in the popular media eagerly, as a sign of the licentiousness that appears to characterize contemporary girlhood. “Bring back school uniforms for little Lolitas!” demands London’s Daily Telegraph in an article condemning contemporary sexy schoolgirl fashions.

Skin-baring and infantile costumes like babydoll dresses and high-heeled Mary Jane shoes are worn by girls to “evoke male Lolita fantasies,” according to a recent New York Times article. Tokyo’s Daily Yomiuri refers to “the Lolita-like sex appeal” of nubile preteen Japanese anime cartoon characters . Even in an essay about a cathedral in Barcelona, critic Will Self writes, “La Sagrada Familia wins me over with its sheer wantonness as a building -- this is the Lolita of sacred architecture.”

It is evident from these and many other such examples that Lolita in the modern parlance is a metaphor for a child vixen, a knowing coquette with an out-of-control libido, a baby nymphomaniac of sorts.