How a Novel Changed Society’s Perception of Young Girls

Riya Bathina, Staff Writer

“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov was published in 1955, and somehow, it manages to control beauty standards for women and the way attractive women are depicted in major media works. “Lolita” follows the story of Dolores, a 12-year-old girl sexually molested by her stepfather, Humbert. The book is told from the perspective of Humbert, making the story unreliable as it forces readers to start to empathize with certain aspects of Humbert and his manipulative thoughts and supposed love for Dolores. The important thing to note about Nabokov’s depiction of Dolores is that she is just like any other teenager. There is nothing inherently ‘tempting’ about her, as she picks her nose, wears tomboyish clothing, and picks her wedgies. However, Humbert still falls in love with her and sexually assaults her for five years of her life. The story itself is tragic and gut-wrenching, as it gives readers gross and vivid descriptions of how Dolores is molested and how her life slowly starts to crumble under her molester. But this does not translate into the media adaptations of “Lolita.”

In 1997, the movie adaptation of “Lolita” changed how people would view Dolores, and her archetype started to be viewed as sexy and tempting rather than just a teenager who has been taken advantage of. The movie adaptation was made to make Dolores look more like a reckless teenager, and Humber look like the victim of an alluring temptress. The New Republic states, “In her introductory shot, Lolita is (un)dressed in a bikini, propped up on one arm, the posture and lighting carefully coordinated to accentuate the womanly swell of her hips, the smooth perfection of her long legs, and her sultry expression as she looks up to meet our gaze.” The irony of this shot is that Dolores (Lolita) is 12 when Humbert first sees her; she is not yet a woman. The movie continually sexualizes Dolores and makes her into a pin-up model rather than the teenager she is when Nabokov’s original depiction of her is just another teenager.

This movie would inspire the ‘nymphet’ archetype continuously appearing in mainstream media. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a nymphet as “a sexually precocious girl barely in her teens.” The nymphet can be seen in the media as a young girl with red heart sunglasses, pigtails, and a promiscuous smile sucking on a lollipop. The nymphet would appear in several magazines and publications through the 1990s. An example of this is Britney Spears. In the 90s, Spears was subject to heavy sexualization and disrespect from the media and paparazzi while still a young girl. Junior Evanka Singh states, “I know a lot of child stars from the 90s faced inappropriate questions about their sexual history and it is weird because a lot of the stars were female.” Several interviewers would ask a teen Spears questions about her sexual history, virginity, and breasts and continuously accuse her of being a promiscuous woman. This nymphet aesthetic would never be the same after film adaptations and the exposure of young pop stars, as many social media outlets would romanticize “Lolita” and turn it into a desirable aesthetic.

A quick search of “Lolita” in the TikTok search bar prompts videos of girls in cosplay with Lana Del Rey audios and romanticized edits of the 1997 film. Freshman Matthew Finnigan states, “Lana Del Rey is all over Pinterest but a lot of what I see is songs about sexual assault used for cutesy videos of girls and their outfits.” The nymphet aesthetic has a dangerous cross with pedophilia and the sexualization of young girls. This desirable and sexualized view of Dolores and many other teenage stars (like Britney Spears) forces young girls to feel the urge to sexualize themselves to feel attractive. According to The Wake, “Eighty eight percemt of the 26 respondents reported feeling pressure to be sexy starting from a young age. When asked where this pressure came from, respondents said it was from Tumblr, boys and men, the media, and celebrities.” The influence of “Lolita” and the urge to stay young and beautiful are present in dating and beauty standards.

Being pure and innocent is seen as desirable, and many men push that standard in dating. AskMen states, “Men who seek out virgins often have another problematic motivating factor: They are intimidated or disgusted by experienced women. This type of man views women..[as] “sluts” or “hoes” who are, as a result, less moral, clean, and desirable than their more inexperienced counterparts.” Having a high ‘body count’ or how many people you have been intimate with is seen as undesirable, as purity culture pushes the idea that for women, the more people you sleep with, the less attractive you are. Sophomore Evan Chen states, “A lot of alpha male podcasts advertise a low body count for women, but they promote high body counts for men because there is that weird power dynamic when it comes to sexual history.” Innocence and purity are also heavily connected with those at a young age, and the idea of staying young is heavily ingrained in our society for women. Senior Anisa Maggiore states, “I never see body hair on celebrities or even on razor ads.” No body hair is seen as attractive on magazine covers, and the media rarely displays women with body hair. The truth is that body hair is natural, and the only time body hair is sparse is before puberty. Medical News Today states, “At around 12 years old, on average, females will begin to see hair growth under the arms.”

The appeal of staying young for women comes back to the heavily pushed nymphet trope. Society fetishizes young girls and their innocence, and it is difficult to rewire many aspects of the media to understand just how vile it is that “Lolita” is sexualized. Although Nabokov’s intention and critique of society’s obsession with young girls are lost to the media, Dolores and her traumatic childhood will never be forgotten by readers, who are forced to view her as a victim, not a temptress.