From Nabokov to Now: The Objectification of Young Women

How is Russian Literature of the 40s connected to elementary dress codes now?

October 27, 2021

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s magnum opus warning about the hypersexualization of women, was written in 1951 and, despite having been written over half a century ago, it still affects modern society’s depiction and treatment of women. Issues that affect women currently, especially young women, are represented in the writings of Nabokov and other modern writers.

The novel centers around Humbert Humbert—a European man with paraphilia for young girls. The young girls he calls nymphets are alluring because they are unaware of their own temptation. Throughout the novel, Humbert observes the young girls around him and divides them into nymphets and girls using arbitrary criteria. 

Paraphilias for young girls and fetishizing young girls did not start with Lolita and did not end in its fictional world. Facets of the real world are reflected in Nabokov’s writings. Like Humbert’s nymphets, elementary-school-aged children are essentially being penalized by virtue of being female. 

Elementary school teacher Stacey Wagner says, “Some of these girls are eight or nine and getting called into the principal’s office for wearing something revealing. Apparently what they wear is distracting.” Experiencing the same dress-coding throughout her school days, she makes sure that her own students are never treated unfairly. “I’ll get a call saying a student is getting sent home for distracting others and wearing something inappropriate. She came to school wearing a t-shirt and shorts.” 

When Lolita was written, it became embroiled in numerous controversies for its portrayal of women. But, literature in the post-Lolita world continued to objectify young women. Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 describes a scene in which an 18-year-old office worker is to blame for the protagonist’s distraction. Lerner writes that “she knew what she was doing.” 

I’ll get a call saying a student is getting sent home for distracting others and wearing something inappropriate. She came to school wearing a t-shirt and shorts.”

— Elementary School Teacher Stacey Wagner

Despite all of the progress society has made, there are still massive issues in portraying women. Wagner said, “I don’t want my girls going through what I went through. It sucks getting hurt for existing. My shoulders aren’t any more inappropriate than a boy’s shoulder.” 

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