Humbert Culture and the Case of James Franco

April 17, 2014 • Culture

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.


Source: NBC SNL


 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.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

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.

Detail from James Franco's New Untitled Film Still 21 (2013); detail from Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still 21 (1978)

Detail from James Franco’s New Untitled Film Still 21 (2013); detail from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still 21 (1978). Source: Phaidon Club

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.

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  • Amazing article! I was wondering for so long why didn’t anything happen to James Franco? It was gross and Lolita-esque. Didn’t all those seasons of To Catch a Predator mean anything? Humbert Culture needs to die. smdh

    • Seb

      Are you fucking retarded? She is LEGAL in New York how is this on any level like on “To Catch a Predator”.

      This article just screams “I’m-an-old-hag-with-no-value-and-jealous-Franco-didn’t-pick-me”

      • Nope i am not retarded fyi. This chick wasnt even a citizen of New York.just becwuse its legal foesnt mean its right. And i dont think its pretty wise to support a man who tries to prey on/ lure teenaged girls and get away with it b/c of his money, connections, and status. On To catch a Predator we learned adults arent supposed to try to have sex with kids/teens because that is just uber gross and fucked up. And no bro. This article was shedding light on how people are getting away with this and why it needs to stop. I cant speak for you but i can speak for myself: James Franco and other creeps dont try to have sex with teens. Dont ask teens for sexual favors. JUST STOP IT. Why are you supporting rape culture ,Seb? So if you are in New York right now with your seventeen year old daughter/son are you gonna be okay with her/him getting hit on or fucked by some 30-50 year old man? And if hes a celebrity does thst make it even better? Pfft get outta my face with that shit. And take some damn feminism classes while you are at it.

        • Seb

          I don’t think you know what rape culture actually is… You’ve just read a bunch of articles from women who talk about what it’s like to have a dick. Also the gap between 30-50 is quite a bit haha oh God how stupid are you?

          Also do some research and look at the actual texts Franco sent. At no point was he aggressive and even bailed out when she didn’t believe him.

      • Jack

        “jealous franco didn’t pick me” you know this might BLOW your mind but there are people in this world who… wait for it… aren’t attracted to men

        • Seb

          Well that would make this article even more stupid. Why is a woman who is not attracted to men writing about a man attracted to women?

          • Ali

            The author’s sexual orientation doesn’t affect the article’s message, or their ability to perceive issues within our society. It doesn’t revoke her right to voice her opinion. I don’t get what is so hard to understand about that?

          • Seb

            There is no issue here, Franco is using his status and money to attract young women anyone will do the same. And there’s nothing wrong with voicing her opinion but don’t spout this garbage online keep it between you and your other feminist friends.

      • Sara

        You all are wrong…yes the legal consent age in many states is 17, but that means consent to have sex with someone YOUR age. Statutory rape is still illegal in EVERY state. And the consent age is NOT the issue. The issue is the overly aggressive style in which he tried to lure a young women away from her parents in a large city she is unfamiliar with to have sex. And when she stated that she would “come back when she was 18”, he simply said “bye” and ended the conversation. If that doesn’t sound like a predator to you then you are either a man with no women in his life or you are in serious denial.

  • James Hill

    This article completely undermines itself in its final paragraph – before that it’s pretty good.

    ‘While girls and women are silenced, barred by the impossibly high hurdles of systemic discrimination from sharing their own stories, Franco is fêted.’

    Franco hit on a girl who was legal in the state they were in – as a 17 year old. The way he did it was pretty crass, and yes, hitting on a 17 year old in your mid 30s is weird, but it’s only men who ever get called out on it, which I’d argue is the main reason for this post-event media circle jerk about the incident in the first place.

    Case and point, Aaron Johnson and Sam Taylor-Wood. He was 18 when he met her (she was in her mid 40s at the time), and they were engaged a year later with a kid on the way. Nobody batted an eye-lid. Madonna and her ‘toy-boys’ also come to mind.

  • Alyson Cruise

    I feel like maybe you want to be a bit careful about implying that she was underage. 17 is the age of consent in NY.

    And there’s probably an argument that when Franco uses the “boys will be boys” defense against the teenage sexual witches, it is just plain old rape culture, not some new thing related to the Lolita Effect.

  • Exactly

    The argument of her “technically not” being underage in the state (she was visiting in
    from another country), and other excuses for Franco perfectly support the very
    article commenters are trying to detract from.

    It’s not at all about the “legal limit”. It’s about rich and famous James Franco aggresively soliciting young teenage women without provocation. And he hasn’t gotten any flack at all.
    We/you/the general public are looking for ways to excuse his behavior. And why?
    For what? Because young women deserve it and obviously want it by them..well being alive.

    Weird? What grown man who can have the pick of the litter from adult NYC women (and trust me – there are plenty who would love to have a hotel parlay with sleezy Franco) virtually tracks down a young woman and when told “I’m in NYC with my mom, I’m 17” goes “should I get a room?”

    I also find it interesting that James F. is getting (positively) noticed for inserting himself in classic feminist artwork. and that’s the praise-just the fact that he did. Clearly , he hates women. And everyone loves it.

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