Let’s start with the magazine cover. It’s like this — for its recent “Men of the Year” issue, British GQ released five different covers featuring five different men, including one that was actually a woman. On these covers, all the men are photographed standing in black suits, looking well dressed, suave and powerful. But the lone woman — who happened to be Lana Del Rey — is sitting curled against a wall, naked except for jewelry and makeup.
In the interior of the magazine, Del Rey poses in various states of undress in an opulent hotel room: wearing a sweater, heels, and nothing else next to the window; then in a strapless one-piece on the balcony; and finally, in one of the more controversial photographs, a man stands behind Del Rey (whose dress appears to be falling off), gripping her face and her bare breast with his hands. Meanwhile, the article about John Slattery, British GQ‘s “International Mad Man of the Year”, does not come with pictures of him naked and getting groped. Men: wearing suits. Women: naked on the floor. Message received, loud and clear.
These British GQ covers are an almost laughably clear example of sexism in pop culture. They’re ridiculous — but they aren’t very surprising. Regardless of who you think is responsible for the photos, Del Rey or the editors, they fit in very well with Lana Del Rey’s coldly meticulous public image. That girl in the magazine looks like maybe she’s got “Daddy Issues”, like she just wants you to give her more jewelry and probably some expensive alcohol and take her places to show her off. Like she’d do anything you want her to.
Del Rey has been one of the most divisive artists of 2012. She had been making music since the age of 18 under her given name of Lizzy Grant, but in 2011 she got a record deal and released the single “Video Games”, and the full length Born to Die followed in January of 2012. It was massively successful, debuting at number two on the Billboard charts. In fact, Born to Die was so successful that Del Rey felt she needed to re-release it in the same year, putting out the Paradise Edition with eight new tracks.
Some may have objections about her overwrought vocals or melodramatic lyrics, but much of Lana Del Rey’s music isn’t too bad, and she can, her notorious live appearance on Saturday Night Live aside, sing. (I especially enjoy listening to Born to Die when I’m feeling angsty and sinister, which is often.) Del Rey has described herself — as every article about her must note — as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” and “Lolita lost in the hood”. She has characterized the sound of Born to Die as “Bruce Springsteen in Miami”. With her allusions to Whitman, the Smiths, and Jackie O (among others), and her retro-glamorous style, Del Rey is a hodgepodge of cultural references. She looks a bit like a blow-up sex doll that was made to resemble Julia Roberts and then cast in Mad Men: plumped-up grimace/pout, intensely-styled hair in retro waves, winged eyeliner. As far as I can tell, she’s really into Americana, fake eyelashes, and pouting. She has a lot of style — but what, exactly, is her substance?
There has been a lot of discussion, much of it skeptical and even accusatory, of Lana Del Rey as a persona, a fiction invented by Lizzy Grant to somehow fool us into liking her music. Except that to attack Lana Del Rey, specifically, as being “fake” because she has a definable and separate stage persona isn’t exactly valid — many pop stars create exaggerated personas with elaborate aesthetics. (See: Lady Gaga, Beyonce — hell, even Ani Difranco is a persona.) It’s part of being a successful public figure. The interesting thing here is who exactly Del Rey has chosen to be: she’s decided to be Lolita.
It’s not just that she has a song on Born to Die called “Lolita” — there are many other pop songs named after the character. (Or, rather, the pop culture idea of the character. And pop music is awash with the Lolita archetype–most infamously, perhaps, Britney Spears in a schoolgirl outfit in the music video for “Baby One More Time”.) It’s that three other songs on Born to Die also contain direct references to the novel, and elements of Lolita echo through other songs. (I had considered walking you through them all in a giant, David Foster Wallace-style footnote, but I’ll spare you.) And it’s that her entire oeuvre is an ode to the same beautiful, self-destructive, damaged, unstable, sexually precocious, young American girl. It’s all “good” young girls falling for “bad” men. They know he’s bad but they just can’t help it. They’re seductively submissive; they conflate love with a kind ownership. They have big hair, red nails, short shorts, white bikinis, bare feet, and they know they’re hot. They like ice cream and chewing gum. They’re lost, reckless, doomed, “crazy”, and — in the music video for “Born to Die” — dead. But don’t worry, it’s a sexy dead.
I’m not trying to complain that Lana Del Rey is setting a bad example for “Today’s Young Girls”. She probably is, but that’s not the point, and that’s not the interesting thing. There are plenty of things and people setting bad examples for children. Del Rey seems to be a symptom of something larger that already existed — a cultural Lolita obsession, stemming from a preoccupation with youth and beauty; a fascination with relationships between young women and older men; a fear of women and their sexuality; and a tendency to blame the victims of sexual violence and characterize them as temptresses.
The character of Lolita has reverberated throughout our culture ever since she was created — Nabokov once said, “Lolita is famous, not me.” Even people who don’t know what the book is about have heard of Lo. She’s become a word in the dictionary, the shorthand for a precociously sexy and seductive young girl, a definition which has far too many overtones of “She-Was-Asking-For-It” for my liking. One constantly has to be reminded that the actual character of Dolores Haze in the actual book was, in fact, kidnapped and raped by her stepfather. (And then, also, another older man tried to make her star in his pornographic films.) That is what happened — and it’s not sexy. But the Lolita that has emerged since the publishing of the book somehow is. The iconic image associated with her is the poster for the 1962 film adaptation, in which Sue Lyons is peering over the top of her sunglasses and licking a lollipop; that gets interpreted to mean that Lolita was a porny schoolgirl fantasy who seduced Humbert Humbert. She is a flat character, shallow, unrealistic, and without any nuance.
So is that the Lolita that Lana Del Rey is channeling, a repetition of this sexy schoolgirl trope? Certainly there are radical ways to explore who Lolita is and what she means by writing about her or as her. I just don’t know that there’s anything new or radical or critical in the ways that Lana Del Rey has imagined and appropriated Lolita. All the girls in her songs are the same perfect, sexy, damaged nymphets — does writing in their voices make that okay? Is she adding anything? And if so, just what exactly?
One theme that Del Rey seems to be attempting to explore is, as she puts it in one of her songs, “the dark side of the American Dream”. And her lyrics are dark, sure, but it’s not like they’re about working double shifts for minimum wage at a meatpacking factory or getting your house foreclosed on or, well, watching The Vampire Diaries on Netflix Instant for hours on end while eating Pizza Rolls until you fall asleep alone. Del Rey is more the dark side of “Rich Kids of Instagram” than something as big as “the American Dream”. Her lyrics, her characters, and her persona are meant to be glamorous — they’d have to be, or they wouldn’t sell. She makes these identical, messed-up girls seductive and cool, and people love it. They eat it up. This whole Lolita thing is really working for her.
Ironically, Lana Del Rey is doing the same thing that Nabokov has Humbert Humbert do in his manuscript: using poetic language and the rhetoric of true love to describe something that is, of course, not at all remotely beautiful nor good. Every other Lana Del Rey song, it seems, has a Lolita reference. Are any of them actually about the book or the character, though? Or are they about the trappings of Lolita, the visual aesthetic and cultural associations?
One of the most important things about Lo as a character–as a person, as a girl — is her strength. We never seem to be able to remember that she is able to escape Humbert Humbert — and Clare Quilty, too, when she realizes that he doesn’t love her. Vera Nabokov, Vladimir’s wife, had it right when she wrote, “I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage[.]” When we treat Lo as if she was some kind of pre-pubescent sexpot, we are seeing her through Humbert’s eyes; we are letting him win.
But that kind of Lolita doesn’t really exist. And if Lana Del Rey is trying to be her, or feels like she is her, maybe she knows that. Nabokov wrote that his first inspiration for the novel Lolita came from a newspaper article he saw about an ape at a zoo that had been taught to draw — the first thing the ape drew was the bars of his cage, and from that we get Humbert Humbert writing a book about Dolores Haze. Perhaps when Lizzy Grant created Lana Del Rey, that’s what she was doing: drawing the bars of her cage.