The Alternative Lolita: How we’re getting over Hollywood’s obsession with little girls’ thighsFilm
What are the aesthetic trappings of a Lolita? Can she be any pubescent female in a film, or does she have a particular personality? Mathilda from Leon: The Professional, Lolita from Lolita, Tracey from Manhattan– these are classic Lolitas. What makes them so is the fact they aren’t people. They’re creatures– beautiful, mysterious, forbidden and other. They belong to the protagonist, not themselves. For Lolita is a prop, an object to be used until there is no use for her any more. Then, she ceases to exist.
This modern day archetype originates from Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel Lolita. The novel consists of diary entries written by self-confessed pedophile Humbert, that recount the disturbing obsession he has with his landlady’s daughter Dolores. His Lolita. Despite the clear manipulation and abuse that occurs, many interpret this story as a forbidden romance. Perhaps this is because Humbert is not what society considers a ‘typical pedophile’ to be like. He is poetic, polite, handsome and charismatic. How could such a delightful man harm a child? Perhaps it is easier to interpret a misunderstood love story, than read the confession of a pedophile that hides behind pretty language.
Since then there have been two film adaptations; the most famous by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, the other by filmmaker Adrian Lyne in 1997– both remain controversial to this day, carrying on the forbidden love Lolita trope that still colours our favourite films. Leon: The Professional is about a love that develops between a wise young girl and an emotionally immature man. The film was meant to include a post-sex scene between the two characters, but was cut to avoid alienating American audiences.
It is not the displays of youthful female sexuality that makes these pairings unhealthy. Nor I would argue, the large age gap (but that’s an article for another time). It is the element of control. So long as they are in control of the act– not exploited by it. There is a very shaky line between sexualisation and liberation. What is wrong is the consistent lack of development of a clearly important character, as if her thoughts and emotions come secondary to her actions on screen.
Something should happen to re-address this balance between the virtuous, shy virgin and the sinful nymphomaniac. Now we have it: The Alternative Lolita.
1. Enid from Ghost World
Enid is a cynical teenager who flip flops between deep-rooted cynicism and existentialism. She is best entertained when she and best friend Rebecca take turns mocking civilisation. One night, they call a stranger who has written to a lonely hearts column to arrange a date. They watch him from afar as he waits for a woman who will never show. Wracked with guilt (and some curiosity) about this strange man, a friendship forms between the man and Enid. Ghost World is unique because it’s not Seymour who seeks to be reinvigorated by a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’– It’s the other way around. He inspires Enid’s new interests and fresh perspective in a way that is very refreshing. Stepping back, we see a recent student have a sexual relationship with a man 30 years her senior. Yet never once do we think Enid is a victim. We think she’s foolish, a touch arrogant and perhaps someone who doesn’t think ahead. Enid’s unattractive characteristics are the reason she’s a commendable Alt-Lolita.
2. Minnie from Diary of a Teenage Girl
With the use of her audio recorder, fifteen year old Minnie updates us regularly with explicit descriptions of her latest sexual encounter with Monroe– her mother’s live-in boyfriend. There are significant similarities between this film and Lolita. Both center around a step-father figure engaging in a sexual relationship with his landlady’s daughter. Both are narrated– one an audio diary, the other a written one. Finally, both characters express poetic sentiment, with a desire to be touched and loved.
That said, Minnie isn’t Nabakov’s definition of a nymphette. This is because it’s she who tells the story, not Monroe/Humbert. Minnie is an Alt-Lolita because she doesn’t become weaker during her experience, instead it allows her to harness her own powerful sexuality. In a complete role reversal, Monroe becomes weaker– becoming dependant on Minnie, possessive of her and fearful that she will effectively dob him in for preying on a minor. This frankness and honesty makes us feel slightly uncomfortable. But is that a bad thing?
3. Juno from Juno
Juno is a film about teenage pregnancy, with quirky characters and a quick wit that set it apart from other coming-of-age films. After finding out she’s pregnant, Juno briefly considers abortion before discarding the idea when she learns her child would have fingernails by now. She and her supportive albeit unconventional family turn to the Penny Saver to find the perfect couple. A clear class divide is established once Juno and her dad enter the home of Vanessa and Mark, the prospective adoptive parents.
There is an interesting dynamic between Mark and Juno that runs through the course of the film. Whilst Juno is flirting with adulthood, Mark is flirting with childhood. It isn’t Juno that breaks apart Mark and Vanessa’s marriage, but Mark’s unwillingness to step up and start a new chapter of his life as a father. It isn’t Juno he sees, but what she represents– youth and freedom. In this regard, the film could have easily been about Mark’s quest for happiness and fulfilment with young Juno. Another Lolita. But this isn’t a film about him. It’s a film about Juno, and she has her own story to tell.
4. The Girl from L’amant
L’amant is based on Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel about a fourteen year old French girl in Saigon who engages in a taboo relationship with her wealthy Chinese lover. Aesthetically ‘The Girl’ certainly fits the bill as a Lolita. She wears pigtails, lipstick, and has the face of an innocent. But to me, she’s so much more.
The Girl is an Alt-Lolita because she speaks of more than sex. We hear her thoughts about ageing, the poverty surrounding her, her violent older brother and what will give her happiness. To escape and empower herself, she loses her virginity to a wealthy acquaintance, expecting him to help her family financially whenever she lays with him. To be a Lolita is to be used for sex– but it’s his body, mind and soul she uses. The end doesn’t come because she ages, or because he’s found another version of her. It ends when she tells him she doesn’t love him. Heartbroken, he says “My body doesn’t want the one who doesn’t love”.
5. Hayley from Hard Candy
Hayley is an enigma. We never learn who she is, where she came from, or what her true motivation was. Because of this ambiguity, we’ll focus on the image Hayley paints in the beginning. Hayley’s version of Lolita is not focused on mainstream aesthetics. She doesn’t need pigtails and a pressed school uniform to tempt and entice. Hayley is curious about things other than sex. She desires maturity for herself and by extension, the people she involves herself with. With her advanced interests in the arts and science, so comes to assumption that her interest in romantic partners with be advanced in years too. By appearing receptive to her intended victim’s coercion, coupled with a desire for adult approval, she is able to trap Jeff– the predator.
This constructed identity hasn’t been crafted through some vague idea of what’s attractive to a pedophile– a typical Lolita. Hayley knows the attraction is not just physical, but about having power and control over the person– which is far easier when they happen to be a child with a desire for approval.
Got a favourite Alt-Lolita of your own? Share with a comment below!