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The Coquette: Reclamation or Self-Fetishisation?

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.

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Content warnings: discussions of paedophilia, child sex abuse and rape.

 

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.

And so begins Lolita, one of the most misunderstood novels of the twentieth century. It is an iconic opening, a giddy foxtrot of a first paragraph that entrances and delights, making you forget the sordid nature of the subject matter—that this is no Romeo waxing poetic about his beloved, but a pedophile speaking of the twelve-year-old child he has raped. Lolita isn’t even her real name–it’s Dolores.

Lolita is a novel about child sexual abuse. But its unreliable narrator, the abuser in question, uses every linguistic trick up his sleeve—sharp wit, double entendres, dry humour, pretty prose—to convince us otherwise. To hear him say it, Lolita is not a child but a precocious, provocative nymphet, who led him on. To hear him say it, his abuse of her is a doomed romance. To hear him say it, he is no monster at all, just a man driven to do beautiful and terrible things by love. Throughout the novel, we glimpse Lolita only through his distorted gaze, as filtered through his self-pity and sexual obsession. The victim is silenced; we learn very little about her as a person, but instead remain deeply immersed in the delusions of her abuser. 

To state the obvious, ours is a patriarchal culture, one obsessed with sexualising young girls in particular. And so, it is no surprise that Lolita is remembered not as a novel about child sexual abuse, but as an erotic romance. The word itself has become synonymous with teenage promiscuity. A Lolita is not a victim, but a precocious little flirt, who lures helpless older men to their doom. 

This stereotype was further reinforced by the novel’s film adaptations. To Stanley Kubrick, the man who first adapted Lolita, it was “certainly one of the great love stories”, possessing ‘all the stormy passion and tenderness’ of a romance. Kubrick’s film established the visual iconography of Lolita, creating the provocative imagery that would forever be associated with her in the cultural imagination. For one, the actress Kubrick cast to play her was fourteen, not twelve, and she is styled, shot and framed in a deeply sexual manner that makes erotic spectacle out of her abuse. Take, for example, the movie’s most iconic shot: a young girl in a bikini, sucking on a lollipop, staring from behind heart-shaped sunglasses. Throughout the film, the camera replicates, and never challenges, the gaze of the abuser. His view of her as a temptress who leads him on is faithfully reproduced on screen as the truth. Her abuse is glossed over, and her perspective rarely shown. There is no serious consideration of the novel’s hefty themes of paedophilia, sexual abuse and trauma. 

The second adaptation, released in 1997, goes even further. The film, directed by Adrian Lyne (who also repeatedly asserted that he was making “a love story”), expands the visual aesthetic established by Kubrick. It ages Lolita up again–she is fifteen now–and makes many other subtle cinematic choices to soften her abuse into something pretty and palatable. This film is also the origin of the most iconic images now associated with Lolita–of cherry-patterned bikinis and gingham dresses, of Lolita lying under a sprinkler, her white sundress made wholly transparent by its spray, and of Lolita in pigtails, reading teen magazines and blowing bubblegum from between lips painted an incongruous red. It juxtaposes childlike images—braided hair, knee socks—with markers of sex and adulthood—red lipstick, heart-shaped sunglasses—creating a fusion that is clearly meant to titillate, not horrify. The camera leers over her child’s body. It lingers lasciviously on shots of her little-girl bedroom, her braces, her school shoes and white socks, presenting her childhood in a hyper-stylised, hyper-sexualised manner. Thus instead of condemning the narrator, the film again vivifies  his gaze, and fully participates in his fetishisation of her youth. It is, in sum, a pornographically distorted image of a teenage girl, as seen through the eyes of her abuser.

Over time, Lolita and, especially, its 1997 movie adaptation gained an afterlife of their own, becoming unexpectedly popular in niche online spaces.

When I was a little girl, not much older than Lolita herself, I had a Tumblr account. One of the many complicated subcultures I encountered there was the ‘coquette’ or ‘nymphet’ community. These blogs, run almost exclusively by young women, were obsessed with the novel and its adaptations. They posted screenshots and GIF sets of the Lolita movies, and stills from other movies with “age-gap” relationships–American Beauty, Leon: The Professional, The Crush. They posted images of everyday objects that evoked a sense of girlhood alongside those that hinted at violence, creating an unsettling contrast of beauty and brutality—babydoll dresses, smeared lip gloss, cigarettes, a muscular male hand pressing down on a girl’s bare thigh. These were accompanied by quotes from the books, or wistful lines about being in love with an older man, or lyrics from Lana Del Rey songs. 

Del Rey’s connection to Lolita is complicated. Her work makes several direct references to the novel (Light of my life, fire of my loins // be a good baby, do what I want says a cigar-smoking older man to his young lover in one). They describe destructive relationships between older men and damaged young women, and evoke the same sense of decaying Americana as Lolita. Whether Del Rey’s work meaningfully comments on or misunderstands Lolita is a convoluted question that requires an article of its own, but in any case, her music contributed to renewed interest in Lolita as a cultural phenomenon. And startlingly, the audience that shared this interest was not comprised of men who saw themselves in the narrator, but young women drawn inexplicably to Lolita herself. 

There is, on one hand, something undeniably perverse about this. One could argue, as Sarah Cleaver does, that the girls who call themselves coquettes or nymphets are simply continuing the long tradition of misinterpreting Lolita. They are glamourising her abuse, and engaging in a harmful act of self-fetishisation by idealising her. In the movie adaptations, Lolita is a tragic, erotically charged figure meant to titillate the male gaze; so it is unsurprising that young girls who feel similarly damaged might filter their perceived brokenness, the violence inflicted upon their own bodies, through her. Perhaps they wish their own trauma was similarly glamorous and cinematic, and contained in the body of a very conventionally attractive young woman, as were both the actresses who played Lolita. They too might have been deluded by the heart-shaped sunglasses into thinking of Lolita as some doomed heroine. Men have long misunderstood and glamourised Lolita; it is uniquely sad, but perhaps inevitable, that young women would learn to as well. In any case, the nymphet community is a troubling one; its fetishisation of an ideal of thin, white femininity excludes all others, and there is a coherent argument to be made that it may cause young women to become more vulnerable to the advances of abusive older men. 

Or perhaps, as other authors have argued, there is also something more interesting happening here. In the Ploughshares blog, Mishka Hoosen explores the phenomenon of young women claiming for themselves the “nymphet” moniker on various Tumblr pages. Hoosen argues that it is understandable that young girls living in a culture obsessed with their bodies, youth and sexuality, would relate to Lolita, who, after all, received the same treatment. Hoosen contends that the nymphet blogs, in their own way, subvert and reclaim the iconography of Lolita. They write: Using Lolita, the figure of the nymphet that is both ruined by and ruinous to her abuser, these girls are both telling a story – of autonomy being usurped, of being abused and claimed and harmed – and using the formidable power of ghosts – to haunt, to remind, to destroy from within. In this way, it becomes an act of subversion, an act of catharsis. 

Girls who have themselves experienced abuse and violence, Hoosen argues, feel attached to images of Lolita and her girlhood–the sunglasses, the daisy chain, the pigtails–-for they remind them of the innocence that she, and they, lost. And they wield these images as weapons, to haunt their abusers with the knowledge of their actions. Lolita was a child, and I was too. Look at her. Look at me. Look at us, in our cherry lip gloss and gingham dresses. We are reclaiming them from your fetishistic gaze. They are no longer sexual objects that exist for your perverted pleasure, but ours, symbols of our girlhood, which you can never entirely destroy. In this sense, the iconography of Lolita becomes a way to process trauma and take power, to reclaim the heart-shaped sunglasses and look coolly at your abuser through them. 

The nymphet/coquette aesthetic still survives. Search the term on TikTok and you will see thousands of girls dressing up in outfits inspired by Lolita, lip-syncing to Lana Del Rey songs, or just simply embracing the soft, girlish style that has since become associated with the word, posting videos of Dior lip oils and Brandy Melville tank tops. 

And how should we interpret this? As an act of self-fetishisation, as Cleaver does, or something more subversive, as Hoosen does? It is notable that the ‘nymphet’ community has of late distanced themselves from this word, which Lolita’s abuser reserved for children whom he considered sexually desirable. The aesthetic, they stress, can be separated from its origins. But can it, truly? Can an image so steeped in patriarchal overtones, that originated in the camera lenses of men who considered Lolita a tragic romance, and Lolita herself a seductress, ever be fully reclaimed? Or is a new generation of women simply continuing to wreath themselves in inherently exploitative images?

The truth, I think, lies in some murky middle-place. There does, at least, seem to be a more nuanced understanding of the book and its themes these days. While TikToks showing scenes from the 1997 movie still proliferate, the comments below them are now concerned with how tragic the movie is, and how Lolita deserved better. Many commenters show an understanding of the fact that the Lolita we see on screen is a product of her abuser’s imagination. They wonder who the “real” Lolita was, and wish for a remake from her perspective. Scenes where Lolita is raging, crying, and screaming at her abuser ("Murder me like you murdered my mother!" she screams over and over again, in one), or accusing him ("I was a daisy-fresh girl and look what you’ve done to me.") are highlighted. 

So, yes, Lolita’s girlhood continues to be fetishised in these communities. Her pain is beloved for it is beautiful. Her relationship to her abuser, though now replete with content warnings, has not yet totally lost its erotic haze. However, there also seems to be a real affection for her character, a profound empathy and sadness at her fate, and a strange sense of camaraderie even, felt most keenly by other young women. For a variety of complicated reasons, they cannot seem to let go of the girl in the heart-shaped sunglasses, whose Mona Lisa gaze is by turns a provocation and a challenge. 

But can these two faces of the coquette aesthetic—the objectification and the empathy—be untangled? Can online representations of Lolita ever be truly unproblematic? These, I fear, are unanswerable questions. 

 
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