Princesses and Pedophiles: The New Anti-Criticism Goes Viral

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A long time ago, on a blog far, far away…

…was a post entitled “No Desert Island: Towards A Gutsy Aesthetics Via Nabokov.” In that post, I wrote the following:

Lolita is a novel about a pedophile; it is about convergences between pedophilia and more normal kinds of love, and it is about the extent to which it is possible for a reader who does not share Humbert’s symptom (to borrow psychoanalytic language) to understand his obsession with Lo. It is about the diseased, tyrannical, and insane facets of consuming love….The irony of Lolita‘s greatness, when Humbert is not metaphorized out of existence but remains a man, is that he uses the rhetoric of parental concern to cover his own incessant surveillance of his “daughter.” Keeping Humbert around, without de-clawing him, helps keep us from becoming him.

At the time, I was concerned that overly formal readings of the novel — as a “record of [Nabokov’s] love affair with the English language,” for example — were obscuring its moral depths. I wanted Humbert to remain a monster; anything else diminishes Nabokov’s achievement. I should have been more careful about what I wished for.

Now, courtesy of Mommyish.Com, comes an article entitled “For The Record, Lolita Was Not Sexually Precocious — She Was Raped.” This is the worst sort of freewheeling cultural criticism — cherry-picking its examples, confidently following the most tenuous of connections, and making headlines with straw men. Nobody thinks Lolita is Humbert’s sexual equal, or capable of giving Humbert her consent. I have been reading, discussing, and analyzing this novel for twenty years, and I have never once heard anyone question whether Humbert is raping Lo.

It would be one thing if the article’s author, Koa Beck, could give examples of this misreading in action. Instead, she successfully proves something else (not disputed by anyone) — namely, that “Lolita” has become part of our cultural vocabulary, and that the word means “a sexually provocative underage girl.”

Beck writes,

Marc Jacobs’ interpretation of Lolita as “seductive” is completely false, as are all other usages of Lolita to imply a “seductive, yet sweet” little girl who desires sex with older men.

She’s wrong on several levels. First of all, using (or exploiting) a popular trope is not the same thing as reading, and interpreting, the book from whence it came. Properly speaking, Jacobs has no interpretation of Nabokov. Otherwise, everyone who used the word “Orwellian,” or riffed on it, would be close-reading 1984. I’d have to write a whole blog post criticizing Steve Jobs for his “completely false” interpretation of Winston. Likewise “Machiavellian,” “Kafka-esque,” and so forth.

Moreover, Lolita is seductive. She wants something from Humbert, and he interprets her nebulous, undeveloped sexuality as permission to use her. This is viciousness on his part. As a child, obviously, Lolita is in no position to negotiate a real relationship with him. She has no idea how sex with Humbert will affect her. He has a dangerous amount of power. In short — as everyone knows — Lolita cannot consent to sex, for reasons that have nothing to do with her own perceptions, desires, or behavior. How dangerous, indeed, it is to assert that children lack all sexuality, all sexual pretension, and that Humbert rapes Lolita because she is asexual, rather than because sex with a normal, confused, twelve-year-old girl is always already rape.

Beck ends on the right note, I guess, if we’re going to count supremely obvious close-readings. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. The novel’s readers have already been divided into the “guilty” (e.g., Marc Jacobs) and the innocent (Beck et al.). The bad readers think Lolita is to blame; the good readers see that Humbert is hurting her. Just like that, the reason Lolita coined “Lolita” disappears. We are all guilty, says Nabokov. Half our culture — the aging, cosmopolitan Humbert — exploits the other half, and glamorizes the abuse. Not everyone commits literal child abuse. That’s not the point. The point is that, in myriad ways, our society puts children at risk.

Moreover, Lolita is not just a literal symbol of statutory rape. Lo is a victim of Humbert’s complex rationalizations and passions, and these frames of mind parallel, and thus suggest, a much wider range of crimes and moral failures. Imploded idealists, like Benito Mussolini or Muammar Gaddafi, are Humbert Humbert. Versions of Humbert Humbert worked at Enron and Goldman-Sachs.

I don’t think it is going too far to say that Beck hates Marc Jacobs’s perfume ad, and puts the blame on Nabokov and his readers in order to avoid sounding shrill or petty. The unintended consequence is that she trivializes reading Nabokov closely and well.

The same is true of linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who (as reported by The Washington Post, among others) have devoted themselves to determining the percentage of dialogue spoken by women in every Disney film.

“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way,” says Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

Fought believes that Disney films socialize girls in quantifiably sexist ways. She probably believes this because it’s true, except for the quantifying part, and everyone knows it. Even if you think Disney princesses are wonderful, just the way they are, you’d probably still allow that these characters have something to do with gender and the identities we expect of girls.

ANYWAY, in order to get yourself a TED talk these days, you need to hit upon a surprising irony:

That’s when they hit upon a surprising irony.

In the classic three Disney princess films, women speak as much as, or more than the men. “Snow White” is about 50-50. “Cinderella” is 60-40. And in “Sleeping Beauty,” women deliver a whopping 71 percent of the dialogue. Though these were films created over 50 years ago, they give ample opportunity for women to have their voices heard.

By contrast, all of the princess movies from 1989-1999 — Disney’s “Renaissance” era — are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 68 percent of the time in “The Little Mermaid”; 71 percent of the time in “Beauty and the Beast”; 90 percent of the time in “Aladdin”; 76 percent of the time in “Pocahontas”; and 77 percent of the time in “Mulan” (Mulan herself was counted as a woman, even when she was impersonating a man).

What is the meaning of this? Is it true that Snow White is less sexist than The Little Mermaid?

To me, that’s an interesting, arguable question. It’s the argument that matters, actually. No matter which film “wins,” such a discussion is bound to identify problems with both films, as well as some redemptive (i.e. feminist) elements. (Hopefully, but not necessarily. Maybe one or both films are just sexist.)

Instead of this conversation, we get numbers, followed by other random facts presented out-of-context. For example, article author Jeff Guo notes that Ariel loses her voice in The Little Mermaid. Well, first of all, this isn’t Disney’s fault. The same thing happens in the original tale. Second, her silence is evil. It is a devil’s bargain. Ariel makes it because she thinks men expect it of her, even though her love interest is a better man than most. She gives her voice to Ursula, setting off a series of fantastically complicated scenes in which “ugly” Ursula becomes pretty, a la Shallow Hal, because of the person Ursula appears to be: Ariel.

However, since I already analyzed The Little Mermaid here at The Kugelmass Episodes, let’s return to the article:

Part of the problem is that these newer films are mostly populated by men. Aside from the heroine, the films offer few examples of women being powerful, respected, useful or comedic.

Sure, unless you’re talking about The Little Mermaid (Ursula), Mulan (the matchmaker), or Pocahontas (Grandmother Willow). In this case, however, one cursory reading of Beauty and the Beast is apparently good enough:

“There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” Fought says. “There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things. Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.”

Fought’s complaint about the dearth of women leading frenzied mobs is just perfect. Should women lead frenzied mobs? Did women commonly lead hunting parties in long-ago France? These are questions Fought cannot answer, and does not want asked, because they’re too specific and the answers (I mean, in relation to the film) are too complex. One would have to assign Beauty and the Beast to a historical era, and then sleuth out what is (and isn’t) appropriate to that era. The questions only multiply from there. If there is an anachronism, why is it there? What audience is watching? What is that audience going to think?

You don’t have to read Lolita to be Marc Jacobs, and frankly you don’t need to read Lolita to be Koa Beck either. You don’t have to watch The Little Mermaid to count the lines of dialogue; you just need a copy of the screenplay. You need the words, but not the music.

What is The Little Mermaid without the music? It is a grotesque, like these bits of scholarship, which do “critical thinking” while doing away with the critic. There is no substitute for the text, nor any for its reader. Linguists and fiction writers care about art, and that is just fine, but if you want to argue about art, you must become a critic, at least ad hoc. That is why the collapse of literary criticism is so dangerous. The work must be allowed to speak; the text must be given back its voice.

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Until next time, this is Kugelmass saying…

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