Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

<< Models of Victimization in Contemporary Cultures

The Nymphet as Consequence in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Sam Mendes's American Beauty

Tracy Wendt Lemaster (University of Tulsa, USA)



My essay "The Nymphet as Consequence in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Sam Mendes's American Beauty" compares the use of the "nymphet" figure in the novel Lolita to the film American Beauty as reflecting the sociological construction of female children into the paradigmatic artistic vehicle for the male psychological portrait. Raising questions about the use of pedophilia in these two genres, I argue that the reciprocity between the pedophile and the nymphet stems from the Victorian invention of the concept of childhood and the metaphoric, dual, and even sexual parameters the child's definition operates within.

Since its inception in the Victorian era, the image of the sexualized female child has been an aesthetic vehicle for the artistic expression of men's internal desires. As portrayed through pedophilic tendencies, these desires are superficially for the child but represent a separate, more complex psychological need or sketch, the supposed larger goal of the author or filmmaker. The child as metaphor begins with the invention of the concept of childhood, therefore disallowing the child from having any actual referent, only theoretical ones. James R. Kincaid argues in Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture that attempting to imbue this "nothingness" with social idealizations of a child's innocence and purity, the primary qualifier of childhood being that a child is not yet sexual, paradoxically calls to light the issue of sexuality and unwittingly makes "the definitional base erotic" where "the child is the embodiment of desire and also its negation." If the "vacant child" is a "blank image waiting to be formed," "a state of being that was pure nothingness, secretly nourished by its opposite," then pedophilia becomes more a response to an inherency rather than a separate, incongruous malady. Therefore, sexualized girls are positioned as owning this definition, or their sexuality, and thus encouraging the pedophilic response. Thus artists eroticize, and victimize, the child both under the pretext of metaphor, or as an artistic venture, and as a reaction invited by the victim.

While Nabokov is effective in creating a pedophile who, despite his brilliant composition skills, is nonetheless presented unreliably and fallibly as a victimizer and murderer, contemporary society has misread and reinterpreted the nymphet and pedophile in romanticized, aestheticized terms in the film American Beauty and numerous other adolescent female media representations, thus ignoring and/or deflating the victimizer-victimized component.

Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-10-10