by Aviv Rau
Being an introverted teenaged girl with tons of free time and a newly acquired driver’s license, I spent a lot of time alone this past summer. Except that I was not really alone. Everywhere I went—bookstores, cafes, stores, restaurants, even on the street—significantly older men making inappropriate comments approached me. Thankfully, things did not escalate past a few foul comments in my case. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many teenage girls in our society and in the media, where portrayals of older men preying on young girls are not only commonplace but also idealized.
This past summer, I also watched the film Palo Alto, which is based on the book of short stories written by the generally questionable James Franco. The film, which is about a group of angsty, middle class, white teenagers, shows a relationship unfold between April, a high schooler, and her shady soccer coach, Mr. B. Appropriately, James Franco plays Mr. B which, considering the fact that he got busted trying to hook up with a 17 year old, is a casting choice (that he himself made!) a bit too close for comfort. In the film, Mr. B is a predatory, twisted adult, whose social ineptitude and immaturity draw him toward vulnerable teenage girls. Mr. B manipulates April by masking his cruel intentions behind a front of concern for her wellbeing. In an appropriately misogynistic, entry level-Freud move, the film portrays April as lacking a positive male role model. Therefore, she goes along with Mr. B’s advances. Sadly, our society is filled Mr. B’s, who slickly “mansplain” their way out of criminal charges and major scandals, and James Franco is just one of them.
Old guys who lust after young girls have found their way into plenty of other popular movies, too. American Beauty covers similar ground to Palo Alto, depicting a middle-aged guy, Lester Burnham, lusting after his daughter’s best friend, Angela Hayes. Like Mr. B, Lester is portrayed as a laid back, chill guy who gets fed up with women his own age. So naturally, like any pedophilic creep, he turns to a high school girl. Just like April, Angela is portrayed as “emotionally damaged” and therefore super susceptible to Lester’s advances. Additionally, like James Franco’s Palo Alto character parallel, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, where an older guy falls for a younger girl, has a real life parallel in its director’s life. Allen is currently 79 and married to his 44-year-old ex-wife, Mia Farrow’s, adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
The older man-young girl dynamic isn’t just present in a few films, either. (It’s actually present in a concerning number of movies, some of which appear in this list.) All over the media, we see older men “date down,” in doing so objectifying girls, most notably in the Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita. Interestingly, even the original Lolita-worshipping creep, Nabokov’s anti-hero Humbert Humbert, was written to show off the perversion of the older-man-worshipping-younger-girl dynamic. Yet he’s somehow become an icon in the Icky Old Dudes Who Fetishize Young Women game. In fact, the whole book has become a cultural icon, which should say a lot when you consider that not everyone reading it is doing it for the feminist critique. You can thank our culture for that one. Anyway, the “Lolita,” or a hypersexualized young girl, has since become an archetype romanticized by both men and women. Lana Del Rey has a song called “Lolita,” for instance. She also quotes the popular, “Light of my life, fire of my loins” line from the novel in her song “Off to the Races” and describes herself as a “Lolita [who] got lost in the hood.” In Japan, there’s an entire subculture devoted to the “Lolita” aesthetic, which has since been exported and co-opted by dozens of other countries. Sexualized schoolgirls have become a common fantasy. In fact, children’s online dress up games involve selecting sexy outfits for said “Lolita” dolls. Plus, there’s “barely legal” porn, which is exactly what it sounds like, if it sounds like the fetishization of newly “legal” but baby faced, “virginal” (whatever that even means) eighteen-year-old girls.
We’ve created a subculture surrounding “Lolitas” that somehow manages to both dismiss and glorify the predatory aspects of the older man-young girl dynamic. While putting down the biggest victims of the dynamic, young girls, dismissing them as precociously sexual, we admire the men who date them. The common, immediate response is that younger girls attracted to older men have “daddy issues,” which is itself a belittling term. The men attracted to these younger girls, by contrast, are typically seen as emotionally intact. We find every excuse to defend these guys’ actions. We blame their stress at work, their overbearing wives, their boredom, the pressures placed on them by society. It’s the innocent young Lolitas that we view as master manipulators, “mythical nymphets” (disgustingly enough, this is an actual term Nabokov used to describe the original Lolita) whose only desire is to wreck the lives of older men because of said “daddy issues.” Thanks, Freud.
Most recently, Kylie Jenner has been making headlines for allegedly dating rapper Tyga. Kylie is 17, while Tyga is 25. While both Kylie and Tyga have denied the claim, insisting that they are just friends, that in itself seems shady. Tyga is a father, and Kylie is still a minor, legally bound to her parents. As a 17 year old myself, I can’t imagine my parents would be particularly thrilled if I were super close friends with a 25 year old guy. Whether or not Kylie and Tyga are dating, plenty of people (including Kylie’s half-sister, Khloe Kardashian) are defending their relationship. Regardless of how old Kylie might look, we should remember that she is only 17—still just a kid. By allegedly dating her, or even by maintaining a close friendship with her, Tyga, who is an adult, is exploiting Kylie’s youth.
Movies like Palo Alto, American Beauty, Manhattan, and countless others, mirrored by real life shady actions–James Franco’s Instagram scandal, Woody Allen’s relationship with his stepdaughter, Kylie Jenner and Tyga’s alleged relationship, or the comments I hear from significantly older men–promote a culture that is damaging to everyone but its privileged offenders. Teenaged girls are fetishized and infantilized by these older guys. “Lolita” complexes have become so central to our society, though, that we’re reluctant to criticize the older men who perpetuate this problematic dynamic.