She’s twelve years old when the story begins, and her skin is a rosy brown from long, lazy hours spent lying on the beach at summer camp. He is thirty-eight, with a handful of sleeping pills and the keys to a private hotel room. Literary critics are divided on whether or not the word “rapist” is an appropriate descriptor. “It was she who seduced me!” Humbert cries. And they believe him. Without question.
Blushing on the casting couch, she bashfully announces that she is eighteen years old. In fact, she blew out the candles on her cake this morning. The director licks his lips and trains his camera on the triangle of pale, private skin between her breasts. “This might sound creepy,” he says – and you can’t see him, but you can hear his voice, and it is thick with lust. “But, you know, I wish I’d shot you yesterday.”
He is a movie star. You know his name. You’ve seen his films, seen him on the red carpet at the Oscars, seen him touted on the cover of GQ as this generation’s James Dean.
You are seventeen, and you hail from a small, sleepy town – population, at last count: 2,877 – where nothing of import ever seems to happen. You are in New York City for the first time. Your mother brought you here for your eighteenth birthday. You’ve seen the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and the glittering lights of Broadway, but nothing can compare to when you open Instagram and see that he has left you a message.
When you reply – a tentative greeting, a starstruck emoji – he rapidly launches into a barrage of invasive questions.
Where do you live? How long will you be in New York?
Just a few days, you explain; you are here for your eighteenth birthday.
You’re 18? Who are you with? Do you have a boyfriend? When is your birthday? Where are you staying? What’s your number? You’re single? What’s the hotel? Should I rent a room? Yes or no?
“I’ll come back when I’m 18,” you type.
Unbelievably, James Franco is actually insisting that he didn’t know what he was doing.
In an appearance on Live with Kelly and Michael, he chalked his behavior up to the pitfalls of digital communication: “You don’t know who’s on the other end,” he said, tossing his hands skyward, rolling his eyes. “You don’t know who you’re talking to.”
His account of events, of course, doesn’t match the public record of his aggressive, pointed line of questioning. He knew. Of course he knew. The girl announced her age in the eighth line of their conversation. His invitation to a hotel room and subsequent insistence that she keep their discussion private occurred well, well after she mentioned that she was “nearly eighteen.”
Seth Rogen, at least, was honest about Franco’s motives during a Saturday Night Live sketch intended, I suppose, to rehabilitate Franco’s image. “I decided to prank James Franco,” Rogen announced, to a giggling crowd. “I posed as a girl on Instagram, told him I was way too young. He seemed unfazed.” The audience laughed, and applauded. A few minutes later, Franco himself emerged from the wings, smiling, waving, and welcoming thunderous applause. He turned to Rogen. “Great prank, buddy. I’ve been waiting at the Ace Hotel for like three days.”
The whole bit is unapologetic, shameless – Franco knowingly, consciously solicited sex from a teenager. He attempted to lure her into a private hotel room, away from her parents. These bare facts are punch lines, and they are well-received. The studio audience at 30 Rock on Saturday Night clapped. They cheered.
Make no mistake: we are living in a rape culture. Sexual violence is normalized in our legislation, in our language, in every aspect of our behaviour. Present within rape culture, and yet distinct enough to merit its own category, is a phenomenon that, in (dis)honour of Nabokov’s narrator, I’ve dubbed “Humbert culture” – society’s steadfast commitment to sexualizing young girls and protecting men who prey on them.
You can see Humbert culture in action on PornHub, RedTube, and any number of other online porn repositories, where “teen” is its own category, filled with images and videos of very short, very young girls. They dress like Catholic schoolgirls, like cheerleaders. They clutch teddy-bears to their naked chests. They wear pigtails.
Humbert culture is pervasive in film, too, as leading men age into their sixties and their co-stars get younger and younger, more nubile. Johnny Depp was 43 when he played opposite Keira Knightley, 21, in Pirates of the Caribbean, and 48 when he starred in Dark Shadows with Bella Heathcote, 24. Richard Gere was 40 when he filmed Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts, then 22. The Wolf of Wall Street featured a sequence where Margot Robbie, 22, lies on the floor of a baby’s nursery, swathed in pastel pink, and hikes her dress up over her waist. Leonardo DiCaprio, 38, looks on, licking his lips. “What’s wrong, Daddy?” she coos.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, James Franco’s upcoming film Palo Alto, starring and written by him, will chronicle the tale of an adult football coach’s sexual conquest of a fourteen-year-old girl. Franco was 35 when the movie was filmed. Emma Roberts, playing the fourteen-year-old, was 22. Some critics have speculated that his Instagram solicitations were nothing more than a botched publicity stunt for this film, but James Franco has, thus far, neither confirmed nor denied this speculation. Meanwhile, the media’s treatment of Franco as a harmless, well-intentioned victim of a young girl’s deceit has continued unabated.
In Humbert culture, little girls are like Nabokov’s narrator described them in Lolita: “little deadly demons” among “wholesome” children, unconscious of their fantastic power and their capacity to ensnare men. Why else would the New York Times, reporting upon the rape of an eleven-year-old by eighteen men, remark upon how the girl “dressed older than her age” and hung out with “teenage boys” on the playground? Why else would the theory that Dolores Haze seduced Humbert Humbert have any salience in popular culture? Why else would James Franco insist that he was deceived by a conniving seventeen-year-old hell-bent on ruining his career? In Humbert culture, girls are wolves, and men are lambs.
The presumption of innocence accorded to Franco by a culture that dotes on Humberts allows him to turn his abuse of women, and appropriation of their voices, into performance art and public spectacle. The seventeen-year-old girl he propositioned has deleted her Instagram, scrubbing public record of their conversation from the Internet, while Franco has taken to Saturday Night Live and Kelly Ripa to disseminate his slanted account of the discussion. His stories about the abuse of a fourteen-year-old girl by an adult man have won publication, acclaim, and a film adaptation in which he is the centrepiece. His recent whole-cloth appropriation of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, now on exhibition at the Pace Gallery, even see him becoming the young girl. He steps into Sherman’s wigs, her costumes, her lipstick, naming himself master and commander of archetypal girlhood and feminist narratives.
James Franco’s actions, and the public’s reaction to them, are symptomatic of the misogynistic, rape-apologizing culture we occupy. While girls and women are silenced, barred by the impossibly high hurdles of systemic discrimination from sharing their own stories, Franco is fêted. Naming Franco for the predator he is, refusing to stand for his flippant, casual dismissal of his behavior – and repeating this process for every Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Terry Richardson to come – will allow us to dismantle Humbert’s power, and give Dolores a voice.