PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

Dressing Like Dolls as a Form of Resistance: 'So Pretty / Very Rotten'

Unlike the western understanding of the word, "Lolitas" engage in a somewhat sexless performance of innocence, fairy tale femininity, and cultural resistance.


So Pretty / Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture

Publisher: Koyama Press
Length: 304 pages
Author: Jane Mai, An Nguyen
Price: $18.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-05
Amazon

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.