It might be easier to introduce the Lolita subculture to a western audience if it had been named anything else. It has little connection to sex, and it does not serve a male gaze. Rather, it’s mostly a group of young women who participate in a fashion subculture that allows them to embody the innocence of childhood and the sexless purity of cuteness. While it has existed in some form in Japan since the ’70s, the subculture has been adopted by many outside of Japan.
Jane Mai and An Nguyen establish the Japanese origins as wholly created and maintained through Japanese street culture and fashion magazines that give performers an attainable aesthetic to reach: cuteness. While most enthusiasts of Japanese pop culture know “kawaii” from chibi anime characters to character goods based on anime and manga, the Lolitas embody kawaii. Unlike the aesthetic of beauty that has artistic and critical properties of perfection and unattainability, a person can use the fashion to create a kawaii self that embodies complex layers of social resistance and personal empowerment.
We learn that to be in the subculture means that not only do members have a knowledge of fashion, but they buy or make clothes of very high quality. For Japanese Lolitas, this could mean creating an outward appearance that mirrors the qualities of the kind of person they are inside. The authors differentiate this clothing from costumes because it represents an everyday self instead of playing a character. Through the interaction the wearers have with the clothing, each learns to connect to the qualities of the person within or the person each wants to be.
These clothes have ranged from simple looks similar, according to the authors, to those worn on Little House on the Prairie (1974) to clothing that has the billowing skirts similar to rococo dresses seen in paintings. All clothes fit a current street style while maintaining a personal preference. With high-quality fabrics, lace, and often designer labels, the clothing becomes central to the person’s preference, finances, and often, socialization. Lolitas live their fantasy while constructing a subculture identity.
One of the most helpful sections of the book is written by Novala Takemoto. He is the author of Shimotsuma Monogatari, the novel that became the film released to English-speaking audiences as Kamikaze Girls (2004). He became interested in the subculture in the ’80s, and even though he identifies as a man and straight, he wears Lolita clothes without attempting to perform any specific gender. He writes about the time before his novel and the film helped make the Lolitas more accepted. “You may not believe this, but just wearing Lolita fashion, just for walking down the street, people would be attacked and hit or spit on for being eccentric, or refused by restaurants for not wearing appropriate clothing” (123).
At about the same time heavy metal and hip-hop subcultures faced a wave of public harassment in North America and England, Japanese underground music influenced the fashions that helped develop more recent branches of Lolita fashion. Girls who attended the concerts would see each other and share tips that led to the development of the style.
While there’s no reason to develop the idea beyond a general explanation, the authors try to help readers understand that “Lolita” does not have the connotations in Japan as it does in cultures where Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, has ingrained connotations to pedophilia and the male gaze. In the US, we often study the book and both the 1962 and 1997 films in college, and the name “Lolita” becomes shorthand for the obsessed mind of a middle age man infatuated with a girl whose coquettish sexuality drives him to perversion.
In Japan, Lolita has no connection to Nabokov’s work nor to lolicon, Japanese media that exploits an attraction to sexless, prepubescent girls. Novala Takemoto explicitly states that the Nabokov Lolita is a man’s attraction to a girl with adult sexual features, but the Japanese Lolita complex is based “on the characteristics of young girls prior to having any sexual attractiveness” (130).
Lolitas are a group of people who engage in a somewhat sexless performance of innocence, fairy tale femininity, and cultural resistance. The authors connect some of these through classic art and western literature. Even as we see the strength Lolitas muster by engaging Japanese society dressed in clothes that make them stand out or feel in control outside of cultural expectations through the performance of Lolita, not everyone feels a consistent reward.
A large portion of So Pretty / Very Rotten offers elements of Lolita culture demonstrated through sequential art. While much of the book seems to focus on the self-fulfillment of participating in the culture, much of the art sections tell stories of emptiness as a person loses the ability to find gratification. One character leaves the Lolitas when she comes to terms that her reason for becoming one was her need for others’ approval. Even when things go well, it seems Lolitas face both internal and external dualities with their identity.
Being a Lolita is fundamentally a solitary thing, even though there is a larger subculture. The consumer aspects drain personal finances, and the individuality places one in conflict with the greater culture. Even though this seems to be a performance for the self, it threatens to further isolate Lolitas who don’t have strong social relationships.
While acquiring the clothes and performing Lolita has the ability to bring pleasure, it also has the potential to end up being hollow as the identity loses its meaning when consumption becomes empty, leaving a person without a purposeful identity. One weakness stands out. While the authors are clear that Lolitas are not limited to a specific sex or gender identity, the only male examples are only Novala Takemoto and Visual kei musical performers.
Mai and Nguyen have produced an interesting glimpse into Japanese and western Lolita practice, but the book also laments the ability to really study the subculture due to its ephemeral, fashion-centric existence and the lack of Japanese scholarship and cultural barriers to disclosure. They offer readers a good primer on the Japanese subculture and illustrate key differences with Lolitas in other cultures who have different reasons for participation. Even though some sections of the book have been adapted from scholarly work, this can be fully appreciated by readers without specific scholarly knowledge.
As the characteristics of Lolita culture have frequently appeared in western translations of manga and anime since the boom in the early ’00s, this book offers fans a new way to understand those characters. Beyond fans, it offers a general reader an introduction to a consumer subculture that resonates in the nostalgia of fairy tale worlds and external performance of a genderless self.