A beautiful piece of literature, or romanticized child abuse?

How far can we push the line for acceptable art? “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the…

Elsa Fridell Avatar

How far can we push the line for acceptable art?

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

The opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel undeniably stands as a memorable one. Its rhythm, together with the conflict between burning declarations of love and the subtle but violent obsession creates a captivating introduction to an extensively discussed piece of art. A beautiful opening, to a not-so-beautiful story.

It was with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension that I sat down to watch the two film adaptations of the 1955 literary classic Lolita. The story is about -and narrated by- the literature professor Humbert Humbert’s sexual obsession with his twelve-year-old step-daughter Dolores Haze. The story is upsetting, but through the poetic language and the narrator’s constant interpretations of Dolores’ mannerisms as seductive- the book compels you to repeatedly forget that Lolita in fact is not a powerful “nymph”– but a child. This conflict of ideas challenges your critical thinking, forcing you to sympathize with a child rapist is what makes the book so disturbing, yet fascinating.

However, regardless of my appreciation for this book, I can say without hesitation that watching the screen adaptations felt immoral. On the big screen, Dolores was no longer only being interpreted as seductive, but acting seductively. This is problematic as it shifts the audience’s attention from what the adult is doing wrong, to what the girl is doing to lead him
on. Normalizing victim blaming, disregarding the unequal balance of power between the two parties, and enforcing the harmful narrative that the child is equally responsible for the crime he committed against her. Therefore, while watching Lolita– all I could think was that this type of art should not be acceptable to create. Or should it? Is it justifiable to deny certain art from being produced?

I have a deep appreciation for art and believe that it not only serves a great importance for humanity but also fosters humanity. Literature, cinema, paintings, and music–art stimulates creativity, community, and compassion as it encourages us to use our imagination to see the world from another perspective. This contributes to both the process of finding belonging and forming identity. Therefore, the more art available, the more perspectives we get, leading to a more humane environment.

Furthermore, art is politically significant because it allows marginalized voices to take part in society and express the inequalities of our time. This in turn enables people to unite, and organize themselves to fight against oppression, resulting in more democratic and inclusive societies. Consequently, restricting art would inhibit this process from occurring in the first place.

Nevertheless, despite all the positive aspects of art, there are valid grounds for restriction. Works of art can be overtly harmful, or the interpretations by the audience can be hurtful –even if this was unintended.

Lolita can be considered a member of the first group as it is arguably an extreme case of child sexualization– even if this type of framing of girls is very common. While you can argue that this piece is only as problematic as our reality is and that controversial art is an effective way to shift attention to very real issues, we cannot deny that unrestricted content can be damaging. Early sexualization can have long-term consequences of depression, eating disorders, and anxiety, and in the context of Lolita– not only for the actresses portraying the character but also for the audience consuming this content and internalizing the role presented to them.

Moreover, once the artist reveals their work to the world, its intended meaning becomes quite insignificant as the audience will create their own interpretations. Endless interpretations can be regarded as one of the many beautiful qualities of art, but it can also be a reason to restrict what is being produced. Just because I could watch Lolita, occasionally sympathize with Humbert, and still never question if their relationship was love or abuse, does not mean that a pedophile would not be able to use the same scenes as justification for their preying. It is not easy to limit people’s minds, but it is easy to enforce limitations on what content we approve of, so how can we not limit art more?

However, the answer is not so simple as just restricting art; this, like harmful works or interpretations can also have negative repercussions in our society. In my opinion, the difficulty in restricting art does not lay in the process of limiting itself, but rather that someone- just as biased as you and I- will have to do it. Even though I cannot pinpoint exactly who this someone will be, I know it won’t be the single mother of three, working night shifts at the local hospital. Instead, it will be the part of our population that already operates at the top of the socio-economic hierarchy that will distinguish “good” art from “bad” art. This allows the elite to further increase their power by limiting the common population from utilizing art to speak up against oppression. With this increase in power centered at the top, what guarantees do we have that the limit of acceptable art will not just continue to be restricted? Who will eventually protect our freedom of speech and ensure that our society does not end up in a world where communication is so restricted that people can no longer form critical thoughts- like in George Orwell’s book 1984? Limiting art can lead to perpetuating, or worse—enhancing inequality.

I do not support offensive art. Art that sexualizes children or art aims to perpetuate other types of offensive messages. But art is a powerful tool for change and maintaining a democratic society. Hence, restricting art increases the risk of a positive feedback cycle that will only amplify inequality and gradually give the elite a greater influence over art and minds. Something that can be even more harmful in the long run.

(Lolita Productions, 1997)

(Image used: https://picryl.com/media/lolita-1962-film-poster-cropped-0bb7c1)

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