Elle Fanning in Neon Demon
The movie Neon Demon is being slammed for being provocative, exploitative, and even repulsive. It was booed at the Cannes film festival and has had its fair share of bad reviews. The film is about Jesse (played by Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl who moves to LA in hopes of becoming a model. An agent signs her on immediately, and she moves up in the ranks quickly, to the envy and displeasure of “older” models. Jesse encounters the abusive nature of the industry and the world that surrounds it.
Spoilers ahead. Two people attempt to rape Jesse, including a motel-owner played by Keanu Reeves (51 years old). The movie shows other disturbing content—including Reeves getting Jesse to “deep-throat” a knife—but I want to focus on the elements that show sexual predation and brutalization of an underage girl, whilst idolizing her youth and beauty.
The director of Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn, has revealed a very strange fascination with young girls, their looks, and even their destruction in a roundtable interview with the movie-news website Vulture . During that interview, Refn was questioned about his belief that every man dreams of being a 16-year-old girl. His long-winded response waxed-poetic about the glamour of teen girls, to which the reporter said: “There is something very powerful about a 16-year-old girl’s ability to turn men into idiots.” Refn’s reply was even more disturbing.
I mean, one of the great controversial novels of all time is Lolita, and you can certainly discuss who is the demon and not in that. Because men are easy. They are really dumb, and women are so much more complex and sophisticated.
The shout-out to Lolita isn’t a coincidence. Beyond the themes of adoration and abuse of a young girl, Refn has Neon Demon’s motel owner tell Jesse’s boyfriend to check out a 13-year-old in another room, saying it’s “some real Lolita shit.” The fact that it takes place inside a motel, the same seedy location where Lolita experiences a majority of her abuse from Humbert Humbert, isn’t exactly subtle, either.
It’s not difficult to see the implication that Refn is making about Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Refn is saying that the narrator Humbert isn’t the demon of the story—Lolita is. Humbert is a man, who is “easy” and “dumb.” Lolita, is a “woman” (she enters the novel at the age of 12) and apparently complex and smart. Despite Humbert’s age, experience, and position of power, Lolita is still the manipulator. Humbert is the victim at the mercy of her mysterious powers.
Misunderstanding Lolita in Pop-Culture
Refn’s statement is not the first, and sadly won’t be the last, to misunderstand Lolita. Many have seen Lolita as a story to be believed at face-value: a tragic tale about a man enchanted by a coy, sexually mature girl. It’s likely that these people have only seen the movies, which eliminate the circumventing language and unreliability of the narrator Humbert Humbert. It’s possible they’ve never encountered the book or movie at all, and have only heard the term passed down in a twisted case of broken-telephone.
The movie portrayals of Lolita present a young, naïve, but seductive girl. Just look at the image we associate with the movie: a young girl with heart-shaped sunglasses, coquettishly licking at a lollipop. We remember Lolita, the underage sex-pot, as Humbert remembered her. Do we remember the father figure who kidnapped, raped, and used her? Of course not. The name “Humbert” isn’t a cultural term used beyond literary circles. It’s not popular to call older men going after younger women Humberts. The John Mayers, Wilmer Valderamas, and Woody Allens of the world don’t get a cute Nabokov-nickname.
We remember Lolita, the underage sex-pot, as Humbert remembered her.
Lolita continues to be referenced as a temptation. We can see this in Selena Gomez’ Lolita-inspired photoshoot for the magazine V. Photographers saw Gomez’ baby face and thought they’d play on her child-like features. They got her to pose topless with short-shorts, and put tiny cowboy hats and bows in her hair, and got her to pout while covering her breasts.
Or there’s the advertisement for Marc Jacobs’ perfume starring Dakota Fanning (Elle Fanning’s older sister—we’ve come full circle!) sitting in a sundress and holding a perfume bottle between her legs. The ad was released in June 2011, when Fanning was 17 years old. The perfume was called “Oh, Lola!” Lola, not far from the name Lolita, was one of Humbert’s nicknames for his obsession: “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.” Some caught the ad’s upsetting implication, leading to it being banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.
Or there’s the popular Young Adult novel/TV series Pretty Little Liars, about teenage girls who find themselves manipulated by others in order to keep their secrets safe. The series stars Alison, who is considered a clever manipulator. Over time, it’s revealed that Alison is fascinated with the novel Lolita, to the point of giving herself the alias Vivian Darkbloom (an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov). She hides secrets in her copy of the novel, which of course has the image of the heart-shaped sunglasses on the cover. In Season Four, it’s revealed that Alison lies about her age (15 or 16) in an attempt to seduce a college-aged man named Ezra, who is immediately infatuated, but ends their relationship after discovering her lie. This would be a comforting aspect of his character, if he didn’t later—in pure Humbert style—become a high school English teacher and start a romanticized relationship with his student, the 16-year-old Aria, who is played by the 5’2”, baby-faced actress Lucy Hale.
Or there’s the TV series Californication, which has a plot where a teenage girl has a sexual encounter with a much older writer, Hank Moody (played by David Duchovny, 47 at the time). A publicist’s assistant looks over the teen’s manuscript inspired by that secret sexual relationship and says: “This thing is going to be huge. Can you imagine the headlines? 16-year old girl writes smartest, sexiest book since Lolita!” (Season One, Episode 10).
The Oscar-winning movie American Beauty, is probably the best example of contemporary pop-culture inspired by Lolita. Again, we have a story about a grown man, Lester (played by Kevin Spacey, 40 years old at the time), who has intense sexual fantasies about a young girl, Angela Hayes. It’s no mistake that ‘Hayes’ is very similar to Lolita’s surname Haze.
Angela’s age is no mystery to Lester; she’s friends with his daughter, Jane. His first fantasy about Angela happens during her cheerleading routine in a high school gymnasium. The audience believes that she is the seductress because of Lester’s fantasies, but it is later revealed that she is a virgin. Lester ignored common sense and boundaries, and knowingly pursued a sexual relationship with Angela. He imagined her as an enchanting seductress as a way to relieve himself of responsibility and guilt.
He imagined her as an enchanting seductress as a way to relieve himself of responsibility and guilt.
But what is the image of Angela that people remember? It’s not the girl, vulnerable, telling Lester that it’s her first time. It’s the girl lying naked in rose petals, in the middle of Lester’s fantasy. We remember the young seductress. We remember the lie.
Refn on Nymphets
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
In the Vulture interview, Refn often returns to his idolization of young beautiful girls like Elle Fanning, and how they have a power with their youth and beauty. It’s incredibly familiar to Humbert’s description of “nymphets.” Nymphets are young beautiful girls who hold an unknowable power over their victims, who can’t be blamed for what they do under the influence of a nymphet. He describes them like mystical creatures, sirens that lure in weak men like him:
Between the age limits of nine and 14 there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”
To compare, just read Refn’s answer, which he gave right before demonizing the character Lolita. He describes the fantasy of being a 16-year-old girl in intense detail:
Well, I can fantasize about all the good things—all the glam and the acceptable narcissism that’s even celebrated, and the idea [of a time] when self-discovery of the body and the sexuality and beauty is the one theme that just surrounds you. There is something very sexy and intoxicating and powerful about being the beautiful girl in your school, because there’s so few of them. It’s a very provocative thing to even fantasize about, because we tell each other that beauty is all about the inside. But there’s also this part of everyone—I don’t care who they are—that has vanity and is haunted by physical beauty.
Look at the way Refn talks about these teenage girls—they sound inhuman. According to him, they are occupied only in their sexuality and vanity. In his mind, teenage girls would never think of friends, school, family, goals, or dreams. They don’t worry about bad grades, getting acne, or heartbreak. They are sophisticated and complex, but by definition very simple. They are beautiful, powerful, and incredibly vague. They are whatever he wants them to be.
Humbert used poetic language, romantic allusions, and outright lies in order to wash over his terrible actions and transform his crime into a romance. Stripping the book of Nabokov’s skillful sheen, we have a grown man who preyed on a young girl for years. Neon Demon involves a teenager who is sexually/physically assaulted and violated by people that should care for her.
It is horrifying when teenage girls are exploited, raped, and hurt. The predatory, coercive, and violent acts against them carry real consequences. These consequences are glossed over in the worlds described by Humbert Humbert, Refn, and the like. These people—these wanderers, dreamers, and hopeless romantics—believe that young girls are simply blank slates on which to project their fantasies. And they don’t have to worry too much, because fantasies don’t have feelings.