As a new generation of TikTok coquettes emerge, we look back at why the controversial film continues to find a misunderstood audience.
“Murder me! Murder me like you murdered my mother!” If you have TikTok — and everyone has TikTok, sadly — you will know this sound. It’s the centrepiece of a number of so-called “female rage” compilation videos that have millions of views on the app. Smushed between clips from Pearl, Prozac Nation, Girl Interrupted and Thirteen, teenage girls mouth along or stare into space in a performance of catatonic anger as it plays in the distance. The sound in question is from Adrian Lyne’s film adaptation Lolita, which turns 25 this year. The book by Vladimir Nabokov tells the story of Dolores Haze (AKA Lolita), a child who becomes the object of obsessive love of her mother’s adult lodger, Humbert Humbert. The movie, which was finished in 1997, was held back due to controversy over the age of its eponymous actor (and wasn’t released in Australia until as late as 1999). A quarter-century later, the film is just as misinterpreted today as it was when it was first released.
Lolita’s most recent version — an original, black-and-white adaptation made by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, starring a 13-year-old Sue Lyon, focused more on double-entendre than outright eroticism thanks to the Hays Code censorship laws at the time — might have come out at the nascent period of the internet but its visual language has lived online for years, and TikTok is just the most recent home for it.
The character’s heart-shaped sunglasses and saddle shoes appeared on Polyvore, Lookbook.nu and Instagram as examples of so-called “nymphet fashion”, with teenage girls borrowing Humbert Humbert’s twisted terminology to justify his attraction to minors (he calls a nymphet a girl “between the age limits of nine and fourteen […] 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”) to create a strange aesthetic world of the childlike and uber-feminine. Think mid-century, Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola-inspired, Rookie-influenced pink and red moodboards; candy, strawberries, maraschino cherries, tennis skirts, milkmaid braids.
The aesthetic thrived on Tumblr, where vintage twee reigned and celebrities could become mascots on nymphet aesthetic blogs. Alexa Chung was a nymphet icon, and so was Alizée, the French singer who had a song named after Lolita. Perhaps more obvious idols were Melanie Martinez, who created a concept album, K-12, in which she played a schoolgirl, and Lana Del Rey, whose entire early on-stage person was heavily influenced by Lolita and the idea of a young ingenue seducing older men (lyrics from “Off to the Races”, a song featured on her debut album Born to Die — “Light of my life, fire of my loins / Gimme them gold coins, gimme them coins” — are directly lifted from the book and film).
But more problematic than adopting the aesthetic in earnest was Tumblr’s embrace of the so-called “love story” at the heart of Lolita, which the film romanticises as much as it characterises it as cruelty (Salon accused the film on its release of turning the book’s cruelty into a “gauzy romance”). In spite of it being a story of abuse and murder, this hasn’t stopped Lolita from appearing on lists of the “Top 10 Forbidden Hook-Ups On Screen” or on the feeds of Tumblr’s teenage users who pined over Nabokov’s prose and the dreamy way Dominique Swain looked at a very handsome Jeremy Irons behind her sunglasses and said, “you look 100% better when I can’t see you”. More problematic still was the complex relationship the film had with pro-ana culture, which thrived on the app. To be a Lolita fan or a self-confessed “nymphet” was to have one look: white and wide-eyed and wan and thin.
When the Tumblr renaissance began to emerge at the beginning of this year then, alongside nostalgia for indie-sleaze and twee visuals, it was perhaps inevitable that the films, subcultures and aesthetics adored on the website would find a new and interested audience to captivate all over again. “On TikTok,” Daisy Schofield wrote of the Tumblr renaissance, “many of the harmful trends associated with Tumblr are alive and well. Videos seeking to emulate the ‘Tumblr girl’ aesthetic and ‘heroin chic’ — a look characterised by waifish bodies and dishevelled hair popularised in the 90s — have been amassing millions of views on the platform. This more recent wave of content valorising skinniness marks a shift away from the 2010s, which saw a cultural embrace of ‘Kardashian’ curves and a wide variety of body types (although arguably, the privileging of smaller bodies never really went away).” A new generation of nymphets are thriving on TikTok, but now they’re called “coquettes” instead.
Coquette — one of the FYP’s endless “cores”, which currently accounts for 9.2 billion videos stored under the hashtag — borrows a lot of the same aesthetic language of the nymphet and thus Lolita. But the very nature of the platform itself, the fast-paced flattening effect it has, the way it forces us to watch films in clips, ideally in a split screen format with Subway Racer games and videos of vegetables being chopped on the other screen, and categorise them in TikTok’s prescriptive language of tropes and genres (“enemies to lovers”, “forced proximity”, “dark academia”, “female rage”), means that it’s inevitable it will be consumed and misunderstood again, consigned to being either a “coquette” classic or a “forbidden love hook-up” or a “female rage” movie of the prehistoric 90s. TikTok is where nuance goes to die. Our attention spans are too short to pick up on hidden meanings when we’re scrolling ourselves to death. If it’s pretty, we look at it.
Maybe this feels unfair to the Zoomers of TikTok, and of BookTok, who are often credited with democratising literature and cinema and allowing new audiences to rediscover new and old cult classics (like The Secret History and that movie where Natalie Portman has a baby in a Walmart). And it’s true that there is skepticism around, or at least acknowledgement of, the romanticisation of Lolita on TikTok — creators include it in lists of “films they watched too young” and “the most disturbing books they’ve ever read” and unpack Lana’s references to the book in visual essays — but there’s also accounts made under the character’s name that make edits of her and Humbert’s relationship and recreate her signature hair and make-up from the film, looking uncanny in red lipstick and braids, blowing bubbles to the camera with chewing gum.
The problem is the speed at which information is disseminated on TikTok. Plenty of us have watched the movie Pearl in five-second clips without ever watching the movie Pearl. Films and books that used to be cult classics to be sought out are chopped up and removed from their original context, and while this makes them more accessible to a wider audience, it inevitably means we’re going to romanticise them and misinterpret them more than ever. Media literacy has become a gag in itself on the platform, usually where people make fun of commenters and creators for making the most asinine or obvious criticism of everything from Normal People (“the first line is what defines their relationship for the whole book!”) to Succession (“the season should end with a flash forward to Shiv’s baby running the company”). Many of the clips of Dominique screaming about her murdered mother include the hashtag ‘power’, which is odd considering the fact she has been kidnapped by her stepfather and lives a doomed, short, sad life before literally dying at the end of the film.
And while Gen Z is a generation of online natives more internet savvy than any that’s come before, it’s also inevitable that these aesthetics or cores and cult classics will re-emerge onto the FYP as they did for millennials on Tumblr. Finding them, adopting them, misunderstanding them and discarding them is — for good or for bad — simply part of the online adolescent experience. Trends come in cycles. Coquettes replaced nymphets. Wes Anderson edits replaced twee fashion blogging. Each generation might have more information than the last on how problematic and exclusionary these trend cycles are, but that doesn’t stop the cyclical juggernaut that delivers them back to us again and again. We can only hope that it means we approach them with more scepticism and caution than those who came before us.
In fairness, though, long before Gen Z misunderstood the film, 90s audiences misunderstood it (especially in Australia, apparently), as did audiences in the 60s and readers in 1955, when the book was originally released. The manuscript was turned down so many times that Nabokov was forced to publish it in France, where it was classified as a “dangerous book” and swiftly banned in several countries. He spent most of his life decrying “moralists”, who assumed writing it in the first place meant he was a nonce. “I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere,” he once told Playboy, calling Humbert a “hateful” man. “And, anyway, cases of men in their forties marrying girls in their teens or early twenties have no bearing on Lolita whatever. Humbert was fond of ‘little girls’ — not simply ‘young girls.’ Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and ‘sex kittens’. Lolita was 12, not 18, when Humbert met her. You may remember that by the time she is 14, he refers to her as his ‘aging mistress’.”
Although the author died in 1977, 20 years before the internet’s favourite adaptation was finished, so he never got to experience the FYP-ification of his work, he seemed pretty resigned to the fact that as new audiences discover the book or the film, they’d be swept away by the prose or the visual language at first and then find the real meaning afterwards. “Lolita is not a sex film,” wrote one reviewer 25 years ago, when it was first released. “It’s about characters, relationships, and the consequences of imprudent actions. And those who seek to brand the picture as immoral have missed the point. Both Humbert and Lolita are eventually destroyed — what could be more moral? The only real controversy I can see surrounding this film is why there was ever a controversy in the first place.” In fairness to them, though, they also didn’t have Insta shops selling heart-shaped glasses if you liked a related video. They didn’t know how bad it could get.