Behind the Heart-Shaped Sunglasses
Lolita and Lana
by Charlotte Wall
Light of my life. Fire of my loins.
This hook is enough to make Comparative Literature majors look twice. For indie music followers, this line is enough to make eyes roll.
Today, many recognize the line, “Light of my life, fire of my loins,” as the hook from Lana Del Rey’s song “Off to the Races.” However, those who have actually read Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece, Lolita, know it is the book’s opening line. Those familiar with both find Del Rey’s allusion offbeat since the references seem to suggest that she sees herself as the young “nymphet,” Lolita.
The book “Lolita” is not to be confused with the “Lolita” now common today. Nabokov’s Lolita transcends time because of an extraordinary ingenuity that makes readers overlook how shocking the plot and characters are. The socially constructed Lolita is one created each decade by those who make quick assumptions—a Lolita less enduring and rather a free-flowing figure of diminishing societal values.
It is the book’s wide-ranging covers that fuel these social constructions. When “Lolita” was first published in 1955, the novel had a plain, green cover design, upon Nabokov’s request that no girls be depicted on the cover. Since then, the book has inspired hundreds of front cover designs. Many of these covers include the common visual tropes of lollipops, red lipstick, ruffled panties and strawberries, among other risqué references to female anatomy and most prominently, the heart-shaped glasses, the heart-shaped sunglasses made iconic by Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaption of the book.
These cover designs convey misleading representations of Lolita as a young seductress rather than a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Undeniably, these images are far from the gray, sad matters tucked between the covers of the novel. The sexualized Lolita on the cover is one fans loathe, and outsiders romanticize. Readers fantasize an entire story and character based on faulty assumption, fueled by the red lipstick and frilly underwear that hide themes of dehumanization and lost youth. Although America has been taught to not judge a book by its cover, the opposite occurs with“Lolita.”
Every person needs a role model, right? Perhaps. But not if the role model is a child who was raped and kidnapped by her stepfather. Del Rey misses the point of “Lolita” in her appropriation of the girl’s relationship with her stepfather, Humbert Humbert. She implies that Lolita intentionally sparks a relationship with an older man.
Throughout Nabokov’s book, readers question whether Lolita is truly an innocent child, victimized by Humbert’s desires, or if she is a true sex kitten, exploiting Humbert’s obsessions for her own lasciviousness. Del Rey perpetuates this confusion in her song “Diet Mountain Dew,” which includes the lyrics: “Baby, put on heart-shaped sunglasses, cause we gonna take a ride.” This lyric accompanies a romanticized notion of intentional seduction of older men to appease one’s selfish interests. This relates to Del Rey’s self-described music and image style as “Lolita who got lost in the hood,” a statement that is not only politically incorrect, but also racist. Intentional precocity is not the case in Lolita because she was only 12 years old. Therefore, Lolita was too young to understand that Humbert was exploiting her innocence. Del Rey makes it seem like Lolita was luring Humbert into her own hedonistic trap. In so doing, the pop star perpetuates the social pattern of blaming victims of sexual violence as temptresses and undermining their helplessness.
To diminish Nabokov’s “Lolita” to a lollipop, flouncy, floral skirt and heart-shaped sunglasses is to encourage the fashion industry to print magazines with article headings like, “Get the Lolita look!” However, those who have actually read the book understand that this advertises “the look” of a sexual abuse victim. Del Rey either has read the novel and completely misinterpreted it, or has not read the novel, and instead created a character solely based off social constructions and scandalous cover designs.
Of course, the more sexually provocative a cover is, the more it is likely to sell—even if this means that the cover strays considerably from the core meaning of what is actually being sold. In the case of “Lolita,” the cover images are far more alluring than the true, cold, disgusting brilliance that actually comprises the novel. Therefore, it is safe to say that the circulation of Lolita’s character in pop culture’s imagination is more profitable than a cover that actually captures the ethos of the story.
Since the novel resists safe interpretation and no befitting cover has been designed, perhaps Nabokov’s 1958 letter request for the book to feature “an immaculate white jacket (rough texture paper instead of the usual glossy kind), with LOLITA in bold black lettering” is the only sound way to market the book. A cover such as this may actually represent the novel for its literature. However, this would not sell as well as sex—like Lana Del Rey, the book’s shocking subject matter is glamorized for the market.
Ironically, Lana Del Rey merges the simplicity of Nabokov’s cover request—block letters—with the sexy allure of a seemingly virginal female body. Her covers feature a face that expresses both innocence and scandal, tempting listeners to uncover what her inviting eyes and lips are hiding. She misses the mark in what Nabokov intends his readers to pick up—the disgusting nature of his book—furthered by her lyrics in songs “Cola,” “Gods and Monsters,” and “This is What Makes Us Girls” that alludes to how girls can be both innocent and racy. However, like Nabokov, Del Rey’s risqué material is hidden behind her soft, feminine outward appearance. Nabokov’s Lolita contains a brilliant detail that distracts from the overtly sexual, like the fruit Lolita devours.
Although Del Rey is a disinclined feminist, many of her song’s allusions are presented in a way that emphasize the resilience of adolescents. Likewise, Lolita’s character possesses underlying strength in the novel. Nabokov’s Lolita maintains her wits through orphaning, kidnapping, rape and captivity by a pedophile. Del Rey dealt with her own hardships as an adolescent, having to be sent to a rehabilitation boarding school for alcoholism at age 14. For this reason, perhaps Del Rey finds common strength with Lolita and expresses this in her songs.
Arguably, the Lolita-Humbert dynamic represents the media industry itself. Whether it be publishing or music producing, young girls routinely become sexually-objectified possessions of male obsession. In this way they are idolized for their innocence and therefore inadvertent sex appeal. This is the marketing technique Del Rey uses on her cover designs.
Rather than visually, Nabokov makes female objectification apparent by writing through the point of view of the pedophilic narrator, Humbert. Readers realize Lolita’s loss of her childhood in this man’s perversity. Lolita endures. Yet the novel is misconstrued in such a way that pop culture creates a romanticized and glamorized character of a good girl gone bad. This “good girl gone bad,” the heroine Lana Del Rey recreates in her songs, is the character picked up most readily by popular culture listeners. It is this socially constructed Lolita that readers fantasize about emulating from time to time, overlooking the reality of being a victim of forced sexual abuse and underage sex slavery. As a result, the glamorized Lolita ensures that poetic justice will never be served to Nabokov’s original work.