Let’s dip into some classic literature, shall we? Listen in as our hero recalls the “lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused.” Hear him muse on “those puerile hips on which I had kissed the crenellated imprint left by the band of her shorts.” (Whoa.) Or imagine her sleeping: “Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed…a velvet hair ribbon still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of a rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock.” (Jesus!)
Fifty years ago, these words appeared in a slim novel by a Russian-born English prof on a dirty-book imprint in France. The New York Times declared it “dull, dull, dull” when it came out here. Dull and— oddly, for a dull work—“repulsive.” It went on to become the number one bestseller in the country and has since sold 50 million copies worldwide, not solely on its literary merits. The writing was stunning—feverishly allusive, with clever anagrams and tart coinages like “nymphet.” The structure was ingenious—unspooling its narrative in a psych-ward confessional—and the sociology was profound, portraying the clashing worlds of a cultured middle-aged European and the dowdy widow he marries in order to be close to her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita. In the descriptions, ruminations, and continent-spanning travelogue of his antihero, Humbert Humbert, Nabokov crafted one of the sharpest, most penetrating portraits of modern America ever written. But it’s safe to say the book’s central topic—a man’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl—was pretty catchy, too.
Yes, it was fundamentally perverse, but perverse in the old-school, Eisenhower-era, clammy-palms-and-raincoat way, a way that makes Humbert Humbert an almost charming figure today. After all, Humbert’s was a love, or boner, that dared not speak its name—other than in the lyrical, anguished, prismatic prose of twentieth-century English literature’s greatest work. Today, though, a quick cybersearch of the book’s title is less likely to yield literary insights than promises of a “tight cherry ass,” “chocolate and vanilla cocks,” and some truly appalling spelling; Lolita—the word Nabokov selected with such exquisitely poetic precision*—is now niche-porn terminology. In other words, the heart and soul of that luminous book have been hijacked by a culture machine forever seeking newer, more envelope-pushing thrills.
In public, the nymphet is hardly “the little deadly demon among the wholesome children…unrecognized by them and un- conscious herself of her fantastic power,” as Humbert describes her. Rather, she is shopping for cherry-dotted panties and baby tees that say pornstar. A quick scan of the commonplace pubescent piercings, the jiggly teens of Laguna Beach on MTV, and the yet jigglier Girls Gone Wildsuggests that now a girl’s consciousness comes early. In fifty years, the nymphet has gone from an unmentionable idea to a ruthlessly propagated ad campaign. This may be progress—open dialogue, less repression, porn home-delivery—but it came at a price.
Since Lolita, the window on innocence has been closing, leaving us benighted souls to wander through the mall confronted by the ass cleavage, thong outline, and hooker makeup on the 13-year-old ahead of us who is veering to enter Hot Topic. Those mythic forbidden nymphets—who have not just puerile hips and pale breastbuds but a dewy eagerness, a trusting vulnerability—are doomed in an era of cardio strip classes and flavored body glitter. Where exactly is the light of our life, the fire of our loins, when 10-year-olds wear juicyon their butts? The quaint days of proto-perv Humbert Humbert are clearly over. Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze? What the hell happened?
It has been a long, slow slide, but a few players warrant special mention in the escalation of American nympholepsy. One is named Brooke. With a lustrous mane and a smoldering visage starkly out of sync with her shirtless, alabaster body, Brooke Shields at 12 in Pretty Baby offered up one of the first truly disturbing images of childhood eroticism to the culture at large: too lovely not to arouse, but in a Louis Malle movie, no less. Is it inherently less skeevy when we appraise such a sight in an arty context? Then came Kate.
In 1992, skinny British teenager Kate Moss fixed a new image of desire on our retinas. At first, she seemed edgy, certainly an acquired taste. Five feet seven and 105 pounds, she was too small, too skinny, too weird to be “hot.” That early black-and-white shot of her in a Calvin Klein ad on a black leather sofa—bare, slender bottom up, breastless torso down, vacant gaze turned backward toward the voyeur—er, viewer— suggested we’d intruded on some imminent assault. Moss worked through variations on the helpless waif in future spreads until the word became a branding term. The bold foregrounding of the taboo, its brazen placement at the glossy center of magazines and commerce, had a silently shocking quality. It was something new for us all.
Then, alas, there was Woody. About a decade earlier, Woody Allen had made a technically illegal affair seem the height of romance in the movie Manhattan. Allen’s character, when he isn’t whimsically futzing with moral issues, dates a 17-year-old high school student played by Mariel Hemingway (whom he was momentarily linked to in real life). Over lushly orchestrated Gershwin, he professed love for his sweet-faced nymphet, saying she was proof of God’s grace. Theirs was a New York–bohemian romance, Humbert without the “bubble of hot poison” in the loins. Somehow it failed to tip us off to the real-life seduction that lay ahead, when Allen, just like Humbert, seduced his mate’s daughter. The difference is, that while Humbert Humbert was hand-wringingly undone by his forbidden lust, Allen was blasé (at 21, Soon-Yi was, in fact, legal). No anguished mea culpas about his sin, his soul; just the shrugging, so-sue-me explanation, “The heart wants what it wants,” though some suspected a more southern organ. It was Humbert Humbert gone Seinfeld.
In the grunge-decadent ’90s, yet more fashion ads made use of shy, pale limbs and torsos against a backdrop redolent of shag-carpeted back-lot porn, with its shoddy camera work and grainy film stock. Add a jittery narrative and you had the movie Kids, by the longtime photo auteur of teenage lust, Larry Clark, which featured a lot of languorously nude teenage bodies intertwining, often in some narcotic stupor. Using the license of being a dead-serious cinema verité exposé—a shocking look at our nation’s bored, troubled youth—the arty peep show reveled in the cluelessness of its “stars.” But if subconscious sexuality was the chief draw of this pseudo-doc, exuberant self-awareness all but defined the precocious ex-Mousketeer lurking in our midst.
Four years after Kids, Britneymania would become so pervasive that it’s hard to recall the shrill weirdness of the first moment we saw the 17-year-old Louisiana-bred blond done up like a Catholic schoolgirl (albeit a midriff-baring one) jump up to sing “…Baby One More Time”—a song title with the most loaded ellipsis in pop history. The dots stood for “Hit Me,” which Spears said simply meant “give me a sign”—odd usage for slang usually associated with lines like “I’d hit that.” As the mistress of erotic doublespeak, Britney made her mark by bringing the two tributaries of pop-Lolita—the virgin and the slutty tart—together in one ruthless marketing strategy.
Gyrating like a pro in pigtails, moaning bay-bah, bay-bah in ersatz-R&B soft-porn style, Britney advanced the jaw-dropping bit of bio that insisted she was in fact still a virgin. A virgin who wore a diamond-studded navel ring, ground against stripper poles in concert, and posed for Rolling Stonepushing a kiddie bicycle in teensy shorts with diamonds that spelled, yes, baby on her buttock. A virgin who pleads for one final, um, sign by falling to the floor and running hands down her open front in a pantomime of sexual desperation. A virgin who does these things and yet declares, in interviews, “I don’t want to be part of someone’s Lolita thing.”
Team Britney continued dutifully pushing whatever buttons remained on this particular console, with song titles like “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” and “Overprotected,” and pouty lyrics like “I’m not that innocent,” in a relentless campaign to turn the young star into everybody’s Lolita thing. With those close-ups of her rosy, wide-eyed face juxtaposed with video cutaways of her churning, thrusting belly and hips, she became the youngest female pop superstar in music history. Sure, masses of her fans hailed from the tween market, although the whipsawing virgin/whore conundrum wasn’t lost on the Humbert demographic. One businessman reportedly offered more than $10 million to hit her just one time, while fathers across the nation were forced to confront wood-making posters Scotch-taped to the pink walls as they tucked their preteen daughters into bed.
By the time Britney started accessorizing with snakes, legions of former child stars were casting off their training bras and racing to fill the void, assuming their rightful place in Lolita-land. The Olsen twins and Lindsay Lohan, who’d been known for their asexual cuteness on Full House and The Parent Trap,respectively, became Website fixations as the countdown began to the day they went legal, thus legitimizing our increasingly dirty thoughts about them. Thanks to the wall-to-wall media coverage of their adolescence, not a few guys felt like the creepy neighbor who’d known them as children, who’d maybe even babysat a time or two, peeking over the backyard fence as they grew breasts and attitudes right before his eyes.
But it all goes so fast, innocence being the first casualty in the age of Paris Hilton. There’s a nice symmetry to the idea that the cyber-Humberts out there have experienced some version of what Nabokov’s antihero did at the end of his tale—finding Britney in the same state Humbert finds Dolores Haze: older, pregnant, and married to a hunky doofus. The tragic sweetness is in Humbert’s realizing he actually loves this wounded adult whose childhood, whose innocence, he robbed.
Yet somehow it’s hard to mourn the loss of Britney’s, Lindsay’s, or Mary-Kate-and-Ashley’s when it’s not clear they had any in the first place. In an age of “rainbow parties”—wherein high school girls use vibrant lipsticks for ever more colorful blow jobs—the charms of the underage seductress have gone from something furtive to a virtual assault; when we’re faced with that much pubescent flesh on the street, the impulse is less to steal a glance than take off our suit jacket, slip it over a girl’s shoulders, and herd her to safety. Or buy the latest issue of Fifty and Fabulous and cultivate a taste for the “mature type.”
What was tragic in Lolita has for us become a farce, a dirty joke, a line of underwear. But that outcome wouldn’t have shocked Nabokov—or even Humbert, who in his saner moments realized that Lolita was, in the end, just an American girl—“the ideal consumer: the subject and object of every foul poster.” Now fifty years old, Lolita is looking more spectacular than ever. The rest of us, though? We could use a rest.
* “For my nymphet I needed a diminutive with a lyrical lilt to it. One of the most limpid and luminous letters is ‘L.’ The suffix ‘-ita’ has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita. However, it should not be pronounced as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy ‘L’ and a long ‘o.’ No, the first syllable should be as in ‘lollipop,’ the ‘L’ liquid and delicate, the ‘lee’ not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress.” —Vladimir Nabokov in Playboy, 1964
ry note of archness and caress.” —Vladimir Nabokov in Playboy, 1964