From Tumblr to TikTok, teenage girls have revered Vladimir Nabokov’s eponymous nymphet for decades
It’s one of the most striking images to come out of 20th-century culture: a visibly young girl, one blue eye glistening over the rim of her heart-shaped glasses, her lips puckered around a lollipop. She is, of course, Lolita.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel centres on the abusive relationship between the book’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, and his teenage stepdaughter Dolores Haze – AKA, the eponymous Lolita. When Lolita’s mother is killed in a car accident, Humbert abducts the teenage girl and begins to sexually and psychologically abuse her, before she manages to escape him years later. The story was adapted for the silver screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 – with that iconic photo of Sue Lyon as the film’s promotional poster – and again by Adrian Lyne in 1997.
The book, unsurprisingly, was met with controversy upon publication. It was subsequently banned in the UK and France, with the editor of the Sunday Express calling it “the filthiest book I have ever read.” While many of the story’s harshest critics have often been men of Humbert’s age, the responses of younger, female audiences have been less visible in comparison (Lyon, aged 15, wasn’t even allowed to go into the theatre to watch the film at its premiere in 1962).
But there is evidence that the story has always piqued the interest of girls Lolita’s age. In a 2018 article, writer Lacy Warner – who was 13 when Lyne’s film was released – recalls flicking through pictures of lead actress Dominique Swain in Esquire in the 1990s: “I spent years searching for the same shoes and romper [...] I tried my hardest to mimic the clothes and posture of Swain.”
Following the advent of the internet, the growing fandom moved online. Teenage girls flocked to forums on Livejournal dedicated to dissecting nymphet culture, and Lolita-inspired outfits consisting of high-waisted shorts and bardot tops began to abound on fashion website Polyvore. Then came Tumblr in the early 2010s, and the story’s popularity exploded.
The film developed a cult following and introduced Nabokov’s original work to a new generation of readers. If you were on a certain corner of Tumblr, you could hardly scroll through your dashboard without stumbling across a GIF of Lolita eating a banana or the infamous “light of my life, fire of my loins” extract. It helped that Swain’s outfits in the film – heart-shaped glasses, cutesy co-ords, and red lipstick – were cute, as Warner noted herself back in 1997.
Lana del Rey catalysed this resurgence. Lolita has had a monumental impact on her work, from overt references to the book (like the “light of my life, fire of my loins” refrain in “Off to the Races” or her 2012 song “Lolita”) to the recurring themes in her work: unequal relationship power dynamics, the loss of innocence, violence and abuse. Given the deification of Lana on Tumblr, it’s unsurprising that legions of young women were keen to dig into her source material.
Now, today’s young women are discovering the story, largely thanks to TikTok. The ‘coquette aesthetic’ is everywhere on the app at the moment – the hashtag has racked up over three billion views – with countless videos of young women draping themselves in pearl necklaces and decorating their rooms with framed photos of Lana del Rey. More often than not a copy of Lolita will be lingering in the background of a shot, too – failing that, signifiers of Lolita, like heart-shaped glasses, cherries, or a bottle of Coke.
Kellen-Pippa, 17, is a self-professed coquette. She explains that she’s a fan of the “visuals and clothing” depicted in the 1997 adaptation of the novel. “There’s this beautiful character in this beautiful setting,” she says. “The heart-shaped glasses, the summer setting, the vintage Americana vibe – I think that’s what captivates young girls.” Evidently, it would be a reach to say sharing a screenshot of Swain reading a magazine or guzzling an ice cream soda is inherently ‘glamorising abuse’ – the charge so often levelled at the Lolita fandom.
But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the beauty in Lolita is shot through with ugliness. In her article, Warner goes on to recall an instance where an adult man leered at her walking down the road: “I thought I was the powerful one [...] I thought I was intimidating, hard to catch, not easy, like prey.” On the early forums dedicated to Lolita, men who styled themselves as ‘Humberts’ looking for ‘Lolitas’ began to pop up.
On Tumblr, meanwhile, the GIFs of Lolita dancing and blithely chewing bubblegum were juxtaposed against GIFs of Lolita getting hit in the face by Humbert. It was a perfect storm: the popularity of Lolita on Tumblr grew in tandem with the proliferation of images of aestheticised violence: bruises the colour of blackberries, razor blades and roses, beautiful women crying. Many now-adult women look back at their time on ‘nymphet Tumblr’ with disgust and regret, and accuse the community of encouraging them to romanticise self-destructive behaviours.
As Lolita is discovered by a new generation of young women, it begs the question – are they, too, at risk of sexualisation? Of confusing victimhood with empowerment, powerlessness with power? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Kellen-Pippa has her concerns. “It’s becoming common to see young girls romanticising something so dark,” she says. “There’s a fine line between just taking inspiration from a character’s outfits and actually applying the sickening parts of the story into your own life. A lot of young girls don’t see that.”
Writer Ione Gamble discussed the romanticisation of Lolita on The Polyester Podcast last week. “What we’re seeing on TikTok definitely also happened on Tumblr when Lolita aesthetics became popular; the trend quickly descended into fetishising whiteness and glorifying eating disorders,” she says. “I don’t think these aesthetics are to blame entirely, but I do think it's important to think meaningfully about why we are drawn to specific cultural artefacts and the feelings they produce within us.”
On the other hand, it would be patronising to assume that every young reader of Lolita doesn’t ‘get it’, or that it’s ‘wrong’ to identify with Lolita. “Gen Z re-discovering all the things that my generation discovered in our late teens isn’t troubling in and of itself,” Gamble adds. “There are some TikTok creators pulling the Lolita and coquette aesthetic away from these damaging associations – Black creators and plus size creators in particular.”
“A lot of girls on the internet resonate with the character,” Kellen-Pippa adds. That’s not to say every Lolita fan has experienced abuse – as Jamie Loftus puts it on the Lolita Podcast, these online spaces are “curated mainly by teenagers who are figuring shit out under constructive and complicated societal pressures – not unlike Dolores Haze trying to figure herself out as a young teenager under the most traumatic circumstances you could imagine.” Female puberty is a time blighted by pain, and the Lolita fandom has historically offered young women a way of reimagining their anguish and finding community. Sometimes this veered into romanticising suffering, sure – but, equally, it also gave young women a valuable space to be vulnerable.
It’s ironic, too, that so many people can’t resist chastising young women for their interest in Lolita, blaming them for soliciting the attention of older, predatory men and accusing them of ‘misreading’ the text. As Margaret McGladrey writes in her essay ‘Lolita Is in the Eye of the Beholder’, “the conflation of the concepts of sexualization and sexuality” neglects to acknowledge the liminality of teenage girlhood and the ways in which young women explore their identities. Ultimately, Nabokov makes it clear that there’s only one person to blame for Lolita’s abuse, and that’s Humbert – to imply that young women who relate to Lolita are somehow ‘asking for it’ is the real misreading. The issue has always, always been with men who prey on young girls – it’s never been with young girls wearing lipstick.
In any case, the new generation of Lolita fans on TikTok are aware of all this. They’re simultaneously aware of the pitfalls of glamorising the story, and able to appreciate a nice pair of heart-shaped glasses. “It’s not really something to like or dislike,” Kellen-Pippa shrewdly says of the book. “It’s just something that makes you think.”