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.
-from the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
America and Japan give the word lolita different meanings. Most of you reading this know Lolita is a fashion and a subculture. However, in most of America, Lolita is a name almost as infamous as Jezebel. A lolita is a teen sexual vampire thanks to how Hollywood handled Nabokov’s novel Lolita.
Lolita tells the story of the pedophile Humbert Humbert and his efforts to corrupt the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Nabokov draws on a Victorian view of a perfect, cultured feminine myth to construct Humbert’s obsession with Dolores. However, Dolores – who Humbert calls Lolita – is never anything but a girl typical of her age and time period. She doesn’t do anything to attract or encourage Humbert’s advances. She doesn’t dress herself up for him, unlike what happens in the movie versions of the novel. Nabokov’s book is about Humbert’s obsession and how he victimizes Lolita.
The novel isn’t exactly the type of story American moviemakers can show on screen. In fact, Nabokov was advised not to publish: “It would be a suicide to publish it. No matter how much we believe in it as a work of art, for your own protection-do not publish” (Diment, 2014). So what did American filmmakers do? They advanced Lolita’s age and made her physically mature. She is also shown as sexually aware in order to make the idea of an older man trying to seduce a very young girl more acceptable to American culture (Hinton, 2013).
Basically, the film completely misses the point of the novel and the horror of Humbert’s obsession. Instead, the myth of Lolita becomes of a temptress that seduces men. This idea then mixed with news coming out of Japan in 1994. During that year, Americans heard about enjo kousai, compensated dating. Compensated dating involved Japanese school-girls being paid by middle-aged salary men for dates, such as dinner and karaoke. But this also sometimes involved sex. The Western media pinned the phrase “Oriental Lolitas” on the story (Hinton, 2014).
In Japan, the Lolita or rorikon originated in erotic manga and male escapism before women took the term and changed it (Hinton, 2014). Many men felt threatened by the increasing influence and power of Japanese women. Men suddenly found themselves confronted with sophisticated and confident women. Soon men began to turn toward the rorikon in order to escape their anxieties of dealing with real women. The Lolita character was undeveloped, cute, childlike, nonthreatening, and obedient to male erotic wishes.
The West labeled this interest in under-age looking girls “Lolita Complex Virus.” Many thought some Japanese men were sickened by this distorted view of sexuality and feared it would spread outside of Japan through anime. Never mind how the vast majority of anime in the late 1990s lacked Lolita-esque characters. But it was a concern nevertheless. The prescription? Censorship of rorikon anime.
As usual, the West was confused with Japan. Rorikon does resemble the Western definition of Lolita in many ways. Japanese Lolita and rorikon may share some of the same fashion styles, but they are different at their cores. Lolita subculture is the complete opposite of the male-oriented rorikon manga.
The Lolita Subculture
Out of the kawaii subculture came teens and twenty-somethings that enjoyed elaborate, antiquated dresses from the Victorian era of the West. The style was mostly inspired by Mana, a cross-dressing guitarist of the Japanese rock band Malice Mizer. Fairy-tail motifs called rorita or Lolita prevailed. The subculture took its name from these popular motifs (Gagne, 2008).
Japanese kawaii and Lolita subcultures came from the awareness that high school girls had the greatest freedom. Unlike high school boys who must face “examination hell” that determine what college or job they have, girls faced less pressure. They were expected to work until marriage (before the age of 25) and then work as homemakers. The small window between girlhood and motherhood provided the space for kawaii and Lolita (Hinton, 2014). Japanese Lolita, unlike the Western idea, is an escape from adulthood. The idea is to dress childlike, have childlike enjoyment of the world, and embrace girlhood. The fashion taps into the frilly dresses and dolls of past childhood for one last hurrah before becoming an adult.
Lolitas aspired toward looking, acting, and speaking like princesses. In fact, they even revived and recreated a long lost manner of speaking that was exclusive to Japanese women: joseigo (Gagne, 2008). This language separated the subculture from kawaii and other subcultures of the late 1990s. Joseigo is a way of speaking in a polite, upper-class, educated way. The language and dress challenged both contemporary culture and other subcultures. Japanese media attempted to peg the Lolita culture as a social problem and a representation of Japanese youth’s declining morals. But the accusations failed to stick because of the politeness and modesty of Lolitas. The language also allowed women to express themselves outside of the male-dominated culture.
Joseigo basis in history is unique, but many Japanese subcultures have their own language. In the 1980s, infant speech patterns called noripigo became popular. The language was coined by idol singer Sakai Noriko (her stage name was Nori-P). Noripigo imitated a child’s handwriting. The speech pattern rejected responsibility and adulthood. However, joseigo‘s focus on being well-mannered, educated-sounding genteel women doesn’t deny adulthood as noripigo did. Joseigo does much to raise Lolita culture above many other sillier or cruder subcultures. For example, gyaru appeared at the same time as joseigo. Gyaru features brash, masculine ways of speaking that uses causal and vulgar forms of speech in public (Gagne, 2008). It is hard to paint a target on politeness but easy to do so on caustic language.
Most Lolitas graduate, as it is called, from the culture in their mid to late 20s. Graduation involves giving away or selling their dresses (Gagne, 2013).
Untangling the Knot
Lolita is knotted by Western media misconceptions, sensationalism, and confusion. First, Japanese Lolita has nothing to do with Nabokov’s book. Women who call themselves Lolita are not sexual vampires (as movies based on the book portray Dolores). Nor are they the victims of a pedophile society. The Japanese Lolita shares little with the male-fantasy rorikon female. Sometimes a rorikon character will dress like a Lolita. However, the word rorita doesn’t come from rorikon. The name of the subculture comes from its embrace of Western and Japanese fairy tales. Think Cinderella.
Japanese Lolita subculture also doesn’t seek to rebel or seek approval of other people (Gagne, 2013).
The point of Lolita subculture is to “highlight their increasing awareness of the twilight of their adolescence” (Gagne, 2013)
In the States, Lolita culture is looked upon much like in Japan. It is seen as rather strange or immature. However, because of the long association of sex and pedophilia with Lolita, the culture in the United States faces other challenges. From my (admittedly) limited conversations with American Lolitas, I get the impression that the culture lacks the same awareness of time’s passage as the Japanese version. Dressing as a Lolita is something akin to cosplay. While in Japan, it is something of a way of life because of the practice of joseigo. A Japanese Lolita may not be able to dress as a Lolita all the time, but she can speak as one. American Lolita culture lacks this language component. Lolita culture may revolve around the fashion, but joseigo is perhaps the most defining characteristic. The language provides a unified community despite the sometimes different fashion subdivisions. There are cute, goth, sweet, punk, and aristocrat styles. But the subculture, despite being sometimes thought of as a fashion culture, doesn’t fracture. That is because of joseigo acting as glue and a source of identity.
American Lolitas generally lack this glue. It is a fashion more than a culture from what I’ve observed. Of course, I could be wrong. I am an outsider looking in. It would be interesting to see if American Lolita culture develops beyond a focus on fashion and develops its own language. Perhaps adopt the language of Britain’s royals?
The nature of the Japanese Lolita is what keeps the culture alive. Even as women graduate, others are entering. The culture is one last embrace of girlhood and cuteness before becoming an adult.
Diment, G. (2014). Two 1955 Lolitas: Vladimir Nabokov’s and Dorothy Parker’s. Modernism 21 (2) 487-505.
Gagne, I (2008). Urban Princesses: Performance and “Women’s Language” in Japan’s Gothic/Lolita Subculture. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 18 (1). 130-150.
Gagné, I. (2013). Bracketed Adolescence: Unpacking Gender and Youth Subjectivity through Subcultural Fashion in Late-Capitalist Japan. Intersections: Gender & Sexuality In Asia & The Pacific, (32), 1.
Hinton, P. (2013) Returning in a Different Fashion: Culture, Communication, and Changing Representations of Lolita in Japan and the West. International Journal of Communication. 7. 1582-1602.
Hinton, P. (2014). The Cultural Context and Interpretation of Japanese ‘Lolita Complex’ Style Anime. Intercultural Communication Studies. 23 (2). 54-68.