Essay: Lolita

Girly: Sarah K. Cleaver on Tumblr nymphets

by Sarah Kathryn Cleaver .

These girls are wasting their youth fetishising it, treating it as a theme to be curated, collected and carefully documented.

In August 2013, paparazzi snapshots of Bradley Cooper and Suki Waterhouse were posted on the Mail Online and several other gossip sites. The two were pictured in various sprawling poses as they relaxed in a park in Paris reading - here's the crux - Lolita. The accompanying headlines all reported a similar narrative, but none more hysterically than Perez Hilton; 'Bradley Cooper’s Life Imitates Art As He Reads Lolita To Barely Legal Girlfriend Suki Waterhouse.' The already easy to grasp point was hammered home with the aid of Hilton’s famous Photoshop paint skills -  '21 is just 12 backwards.’ One of these images in particular, - Waterhouse sitting with Cooper's head resting between her denim dungarees-clad legs as he presumably reads a favourite passage aloud - has multiplied endlessly on Tumblr, liked and reblogged hundreds of thousands of times. fallinhardforhim reblogged this from withloveclaudia, yourlittlegirllala reblogged this from moody-nymph, goodbye-lolita liked this. Spot the trend? 

A controversial book since its publication, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is considered by many to be one of the 20th century's greatest novels but is widely famous largely due to its controversial subject matter - a man in his thirties sexually obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. 

According to an interview in the New Yorker with John Bertram, co-author of Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design, there have been roughly two hundred Lolita covers since its original blank canvas, which featured black lettering over a shade of green reminiscent of old school exercise books. Somehow, in failing (or not even attempting) to illustrate what was inside, erotic fiction publishers Olympia Press managed to create the dirtiest of dirty book covers. Almost sixty years, two film adaptations and countless references and misrepresentations in popular culture later, it's still a book that garners a curious glance or two from fellow commuters on the tube. 

The conflicts inherent in Lolita stem from the impossibility of re-capturing what has been perfectly expressed by Nabokov in those 300 or so pages; the co-existence of obsessive love and self-serving tyranny. Writer Mary Gaitskill in the introduction to The Story of a Cover Girl cites this as the reason why Lolita cover art is so often poorly attempted; 'such impossible, infernal combinations there are in all of us, and we know it. That Lolita renders this human condition at such an extreme, so truthfully… is this book's most shocking quality… It is also why no one will ever succeed in describing it fully on a book jacket.' Despite this difficulty, references are rife, from pop song lyrics to the long-standing Japanese 'gothic lolita' fashion The young women who have appropriated Lolita on Tumblr are practically a trope in their own right. 

The nymphet community is an online subculture revolving around Lolita, its themes and its accompanying imagery. The fandom spans a diverse range of Lolita interpretations, from superficial feeds of anything pastel-coloured, to the almost inventorial, right through to the pornographic and upsettingly dark , As with any following, the community contains those die-hard fans who insist on authenticity alongside those who are along purely for the aesthetic. As one blogger complains; 'whenever I see people that think Lolita is romantic I wanna cry. Have u even read the book/ seen the movie or are you just in the nymphet community to be kool #nymphet #lolita.'

While the spectrum is broad, the average nymphet blog will usually contain at least one of a list of typical references. Firstly, and obviously, Lolita. Quotes from the book, stills, memes and GIFs from either film. Kubrick's 1962 is better stylistically, but Adrian Lynne's 1997 version is the more popular, probably because it's closer to the book, darker, more sexual and far less perfect. Dominique Swain's screen test from the same film denotes a real Lolita buff, as do the deleted scenes found on the DVD. Other 'age-gap' films seen over and over include Pretty Baby (1978), The Crush (1992), My Little Princess (2011), Sleeping Beauty (2011) and Jeune et Jolie (2013). Then there are vintage signifiers, pulp novel covers ranging in levels of bad taste (my personal favourite Daddy I'm Coming), photographs of vintage underwear, Parisian street photographs. There's the personal posts, 'I dropped my pen in a lecture today and two guys and the lecturer went to fetch it for me and is this nymphet power or what? #nymphet #thoughts.' And finally, the porn - huge amounts of porn. 'It's all American Beauty and cum!' exclaims a colleague as we scroll through one of the afore-mentioned pages belonging to a girl named ‘pulp-princess’. All this content is displayed on blogs that have been painstakingly coded to pink-tinted perfection (no basic Tumblr templates for these girls) and soundtracked by the mournful strains of Lana del Rey: 'I'll wait for you babe, that's all I'll do babe, you don't come through babe, you never do. 'Cause I'm pretty when I cry.' 

Del Rey pops up a lot on these blogs. She’s a fellow, if honorary (given her age), nymphet. When interviewed, the singer-songwriter, whose real name is Lizzie Grant, cites Lolita as a reference, describing the sound of her first album as 'Lolita lost in the hood.' There is even a track on Born To Die named Lolita, but it's Off to the Races that borrows most heavily from both the book and the 1997 film. 'Swimming pool, glimmering darling' - a deleted swimming pool scene, 'Light of my life, fire of my loins' - a direct quote from page one, 'Give me them gold coins, Give me them coins' - another scene in which coins spill over an unmade bed as the couple fight over money that Humbert has bribed Lo with in return for sex. The list continues, even the songs that don't reference Lolita still evoke that same type of doomed love. 

Over the years many young women have probably read Lolita, liked the book and maybe even identified with aspects of the character, but it's only with the prevalence of the internet that you can observe the vast, primarily young and female fandom. Why this character? She has no agency or voice of her own in the book or either film, most of her lines are responses to what is being done to her. But it's her they're interested in, not so much her step-father/lover/abuser Humbert Humbert (affectionately known as Hum) even though the nymphets claim to be interested in older men. And though Tumblr is an aesthetically-led form of social media, for many of these users it's not quite as simple as style over substance either.  This isn't a tentative grasp on the vague and various meanings attached to Lo over the years. Theirs is an informed obsession, not just an attraction to Bert Stern's pictures of Sue Lyon in heart shaped glasses. 

With its vast proportion of teenage users, Tumblr is an angsty place. When discussing nostalgia and the internet in a panel discussion on Marques Almeida’s S/S 15 show, SHOWstudio founder Nick Knight pointed out that Tumblr’s community appear to fixate on the dark, the unhappy and the melancholy. 'There's a certain obsession with sadness on Tumblr, sadness seems to be kind of around at the moment… You see things that magazines on the whole won't show. Self harm, food obsessions. Things that are personal. A fascination for death. I do think it ties in with a global movement.'

Western young women today arguably have more options than ever before, but there's a pressure that arises from that to accomplish more. When you never quite feel like you’re getting enough right it makes sense to fetishise the wrong. It's not unusual to find something upsetting enough to make you close the tab in a nymphet blog; the gruesome dismembered body of Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) just down the page from a pinterest-y shot of pastel colour silk dresses hanging in a vintage wardrobe. A violent pornographic image transformed into a meme with the darkly romantic Arctic Monkeys lyrics 'crawling back to you', then later a GIF of spindly spiders fighting in the corner of a ceiling. Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi points out that Lolita's real name Dolores means sorrow, and Lolita blogs are always sad. While at face value a curation of the sexualisation of young girls, on closer inspection nymphet blogs document tragedy. The type of femininity these young women – and for that matter Lana del Rey - have chosen to identify with is one that is doomed from the start. Either Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw said youth is wasted on the young. These particular girls are wasting theirs fetishising it, treating youth as a theme to be curated, collected and carefully documented. It's this juxtaposition of the cute and girlish with the violent that expresses the core theme of Lolita better than any blonde teen sucking a lollypop on numerous book jackets ever can.