Picture this. A young girl, sitting upside down in an armchair, pigtails dangling on the floor. She’s sucking a lollypop that makes her tongue go bright red. Her eyes are transfixed on the crotch of the older man sitting opposite her, but every time he catches her gaze, she looks away. She’s a Lolita, right? ‘Lo-Lee-Ta’, a ‘minx’, a temptress.
She’s just a twelve-year-old girl, alone, lost. No one to rely on but this man who wants things from her that she doesn’t understand even know he’ll tell you she does. He’ll tell you she was looking at his crotch when she was really just daydreaming. We’ve forgotten. We’ve let Lolita become a Lolita, forgetting she was ever a Dolores.
Picture this. I’m sitting on my sofa in coffee-stained pyjamas, re-reading Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. On the TV playing quietly in the background, is a news report about Harvey Weinstein. And it hits me. He’s Humbert Humbert. In fact, lately, it seems the earth is full of Humbert Humberts. We have become exactly what Nabokov was first satirizing. Time repeats itself forever and ever again.
The original Lolita was Dolores. She was twelve years old, she was a rape victim, she was a sex slave. Lost and motherless, Dolores was vulnerable and powerless, looked after by the person who was too obsessed with having her to actually care for her. Everything Nabokov wrote in Lolita was written through the eyes of a very manipulative and talented writer. Everything about her was written through her abuser, a man who threatened she’d be taken to an orphanage if she wouldn’t please his sexual desires. We were manipulated by Humbert Humbert just like Dolores was, and it’s only when you look past the beauty do you realise how horrific what H.H did to her truly was.
The book is a reflection of how people are fooled by beautiful things. By clever words or talented performances, if you’re likeable or rich and you’re good at something, you might be able to get away with anything. Even murder, rape or paedophilia. But we know this right? After the truth about our favourite TV presenters came out, our politicians, our police officers, it was clear that even your neighbour could be just like Ted Bundy. But none of it was enough to stop us going down that same path of creating excuses and elaborate apologies for abusers. None of it was enough to stop us blaming the victim and protecting the abusers. None of it was enough to stop Dolores becoming Lolita, forever.
Nabokov made it very clear that Humbert was not insane. Deeply flawed and lacking in self-awareness, definitely. But not insane. We’d like to think that all abusers were somehow driven by the voices telling them to do something awful, but that’s not true for a lot of them. And let’s face it — if either film adaptations of the novel portrayed Dolores as she truly was described in the book; a young girl who was not conventionally attractive who had “monkeyish nimbleness”, both films would have made people a lot more uncomfortable than they did. In fact, the films did the opposite. They made Lolita into, for the most part, a willing party in the sordid affair with her step-father. They made her an iconic sex object, a ‘thing’ to obsess over, just like Humbert did. And unlike the book, which encourages readers to understand the narrator’s unreliable view and question what he is describing, films have a tougher time with expressing that what they’re showing you is only from the perspective of one character. Suddenly ambiguity becomes something solid. The objectified child becomes the willing sex object. Just Google the word ‘Lolita’ and thousands of images of sexualised girls or women made to look younger appear before your eyes.
Hollywood is rife with paedophiles. I was shocked to find out recently that a convicted paedophile, Victor Salva, who sexually molested a twelve-year-old boy who was an actor on the set of a film he was directing, was hired by Disney (and Harvey Weinstein) to direct a film for them. And that’s just one of many, many cases of directors, actors and producers who have been accused and on some occasions like Salva, been convicted of paedophilia or sex-related crimes and still been hired to work with children and vulnerable people looking for their breakthrough role.
In everyday life, if someone gets caught with child pornography, or hurting or molesting a child, it’s near enough impossible for them to integrate back into everyday society. They are condemned, even in prisons where they sometimes have to be sectioned off from the general population for their own safety. For every job I’ve ever had you have to inform them of any criminal history, and if there’s a chance you’ll come into contact with children at your job, you have to get an even deeper background check. Yet in Hollywood, it seems you can do horrific things to children or non-consenting adults, even at your place of work, and be hired again and again. And be successful. And win awards. If you’ve got a way with words like Humbert, or maybe you make pretty good films, or shit, maybe you just know the right people. Hollywood will forgive you for anything.
We’ve forgotten to look past the lights and the camera for the action. “Nabokov ‘never lets us forget that there is something monstrous about Humbert’s desire for Lolita'”, but in real life, we’re too busy wondering what the victim was wearing to think about what the abuser’s intentions, wondering what the victim might have done to spur their abuser on. But there is never a good enough reason for abuse, never a good enough excuse. Mental illness often has very little to do with it, often a person does what they’ve learnt they can get away with. Dolores is not a temptress or a sultry tease who got what was coming to her. She was a child. She was a victim. She is not your Lolita. We are not your Lolita’s.