Lollita and Censorship
Lolita: A Warning to Viewers.
Around the time when Jaws was released, not being a particularly empirically minded kid, I became too scared to swim in our backyard 3 foot 6 swimming pool. Silly enough, but even more senseless when you consider that to this day I have never seen Jaws. Rightfully, I had disqualified myself from any kind of response, rational or otherwise. But the impact of a film emanates from more than its production values, cast, direction and script.
Again and again we return to this question of censorship, suggesting we have yet to resolve the conflicting interests of commercial media, social responsibility and government intervention. In fact, the questions raised are unanswerable and to a certain extent what we are dealing with each time another scandal erupts is fear of the unknown. The complexity of identity and its relation to image and social meaning is simply beyond the scope of criminologists, spectator surveys, cultural critics and an array of lobbyists, from Family to Feminist.
In Lolita dissension surrounds the unknowable relationship between the incidence of child sexual abuse and its portrayal. Each of the arguments put forward betrays a dangerously vague and unrefined understanding of representation of any form, film or otherwise, in the workings of identity and society.
It is as though any contentious social issue is marked by the assumption that to make something visible or available is to promote and encourage its use. In truth, be it condoms, heroin or this film, the conditions of their exposure is more defining of their potential to do social harm.
The Office of Film and Literature Classification (our version of controlled conditions of availability) has given Lolita a R+ rating. This and the outcry surrounding its pending release will serve to increase its audience. They will also effect the way people view the film, making them watchful for whether it eroticises and romanticises child sexual abuse. It is precisely the encouragement of this critical viewing that can change the impact of this film from a damaging endorsement of child sexual abuse to inciting revulsion at the criminal victimisation of young girls through the coercive manipulations of abusive men.
The OFLC has viewed Lolita as already being a critical appraisal of paedophilia and the destructive impact of sexual abuse on young girls. It is their assessment that the intentions of the director are to expose the paedophile as a contemptible criminal. Though for this particular director the supposed ambiguity of women’s consent constitutes a theme in his films. But the problem remains, whatever his intentions and in spite of the scandal bolstering an audience attuned to the consequences of how the subject matter is treated, no guarantees can be made on how it will be viewed by men who actively look for romanticism of their paedophilia.
But such men needn’t look to notorious scandals for endorsement. One of the more dangerous aspects of this film is that it has monopolised the outrage we should be directing at a plethora of material, which eroticises child sexual abuse. In 1991, while counselling at the Bendigo Sexual Assault Centre I bought the pulp novel Insatiable Masochist from the local porn shop. A typical passage reads: “He liked the idea of turning his beautiful daughter into his sex toy” or “She knew that allowing a man to violate her in this way was part of being a good lover even if it did hurt a lot”. The passages that describe her rape and sexual torture are harrowingly explicit about her sensations of pain, bleeding, screaming, and about the pleasure she takes, which serves as a justification for the sheer sadism of her father, and ultimately the reader. I was so sickened I formed the Coalition against Sexual Violence Propaganda.
But explicitness should not be the focus of our concern. A film scene can be more justifying and mythologising of rape in the way it is joked about around a family dinner table than an explicit but critical depiction of rape. The late Stanley Kubrick’s film is insidious in its casting of Lolita as manipulative and as using the helpless sexual entrancement of Humbert as her means of power over him, which she then uses competitively against her oppressive, pathetic mother. Her later rejection of him seems more a callous disregard of his genuine ‘love’ for her, than her refusal to be the object of his obsession.
The liberal balancing act between social freedom and social harm remains at the heart of the debate - in spite of the daily evidence that harm of any kind, social or environmental, no longer has any bearing against the perpetually empty promises of economy and jobs. What is lost in the quest for empirical proof of cause in the portrayal of criminal acts is that any representation constructs social meaning which can grant or take power away. It is not only the incitement of paedophilia that could be at issue, but the delegitimising of victim’s pain, or its decriminalising in the eyes of the wider community.
Child sexual assault is epidemic in the west, and its individual and social damage warrants that any media dealing with the subject should be shown under special conditions. The dynamics of child sexual abuse, who its perpetrators and victims tend to be, how prevalent it is, and its individual and social impact should be screened as a notice before the film, in a similar format to the viewer warnings that precede television programs that include violence, atrocities or animal slaughter.
If the conventions in viewing Hollywood film are of consumption of entertainment, this should be counteracted by the encouragement to view any portrayal of child sexual abuse with a circumspect and vigilant eye.