Evaluating Violence Towards Women in Salò and Lolita
Lolita and Salò are unnerving works of art that are clearly meant to shock. Both depict a fantastical, perverse utopia where adolescents with no agency are subjected to the sexual desires of older men in power. Consequently, both have encountered censorship and outright denunciation, among other obstacles. Although Salò dehumanizes both the male and female adolescent, both are particularly attentive to reducing the female adolescent down to her naked body. Moreover, both make clear that this perverse, fantastical achievement is only realized by removing the mother figure. To the plethora of objections these multifaceted works of art have encountered, I add one more challenge: Is this artwork really that necessary?
“Necessary” is a word I use to assess the experience and impact of the artworks in question. Ultimately, my purpose for analyzing the treatment of women—particularly the female adolescent—is to compare how Lolita and Salò intend and perpetuate detrimental or necessary messages on the treatment of female adolescents in the context of a capitalist society. I first compare how Nabokov and Pasolini each objectify the female adolescent, reducing her down to her naked body; then, I consider the significance of removing a mother figure as the last obstacle in completing the male characters’ perverse, fantastical utopias of power. Whereas the trope of a sexy preteen “Lolita” has unnecessarily become an identity reshaped and ingrained into the Western ideal of teenage “freedom” and self-expression, Salò is attempting to make a necessary critique on the very power structures that allow such destruction of individual autonomy to happen.
Although Lolita and Salò may be misogynistic and objectifying to the casual audience, critical observation reveals that each has greater intentions for its cruel content. (However, as I will later assess, “greater” may not mean ethical.) Lolita strives to create a thrilling high of “aesthetic bliss”1; Salò strives for the audience to develop and maintain a lasting consciousness that one has been, and still will be, subjected to the dehumanizing powers of consumerism, capitalism, fascism, and more. To do so, both pursue an eternal objectification of the female, adolescent body.
A particular scene in Salò that is evidently an objectification of the adolescent body can amusingly be called the “‘most beautiful ass’ contest.”2 In this scene, as described by film theorist Joan Copjec, “the libertines survey a sea of bare bottoms in order to choose the one most pleasing to them.”3 Ultimately, the already vulnerable adolescent is thrust into full nudity and anonymity. They are forced to kneel on the floor, cover their faces, and expose their asses for the libertines’ voyeurism. On display for the libertines’ enjoyment are the areas of the body these adolescents have yet to discover for themselves; however, it is exploited before private exploration, and this is representative of an individual’s loss of agency due to the intrusive power structures the libertines represent. Simply, the individual is another body to exploit.
Copjec insists that there is a quality of “monotonous anonymity” in the way these adolescents are reduced to rows of asses. Copjec asserts that this establishes “the parallel Pasolini wants to draw between these sadistic sodomites and Italy’s fascist leaders.”4 This metaphor illustrates that the unbreakable power of the fascists arises from the monotymization and defacing of their vulnerable inferiors. In other words, agency is attained through eternal objectification. Indeed, Copjec observes: “The comely, young bodies in the ﬁlm are well fed, well formed, and in some fantasmatic sense indestructible; in this scene, for example, they are lit with a kind of silver-screen glow.”5 Her fruitful description of young bodies attaining an indestructible state in a “silver-screen glow” resonated with the treatment of Lolita’s body by Humbert Humbert; he, too, idolizes the fleeting adolescent form, exploiting its eternal objectification for his personal pleasure. However, Copjec illustrates how, in Salò, beautifying the body into a state of eternal objectification is clearly an aesthetic choice of higher intent; that is, signifying the body’s objectification (monotonous anonymity) and the body’s disposability (focusing on the ass, with connotations of excrement) only emphasizes the dehumanizing effects of fascism, capitalism, and consumerism. Clearly, Pasolini is eternally objectifying the body with the greater intention of criticizing the power structures we operate in. In this light, it is a sad reality that after the most beautiful ass has been chosen: “‘Don’t you know,’ one libertine asks the boy with the most beautiful ass, ‘that we’d want to kill you a thousand times to the limits of eternity, if eternity has any?’”6
Humbert Humbert in Lolita also maintains an attitude of using and disposing; the impermanent, adolescent body is nonetheless desired “‘to the limits of eternity,’” as the libertine in Salò had exclaimed. But rather than displaying this desire to critique a reality—the unethical subjection to cruel power structures—Nabokov’s H.H. desires Lolita for the greater intention of creating a fictional, thrilling chase of ecstasy. Many scholars have deemed this novel to be, simply, “aesthetic bliss.” Similarly, Lila Zanganeh asserts that Nabokov’s intent is for the reader to completely indulge into fiction without moral consequence:
Lolita has never been a novel about psychological realism; nor is its ultimate objective the crucifixion of a sinner… Lolita is about lending earthly shape to the most volatile of fantasies. It’s about entering the realm where everything is permitted and God perhaps does not exist.7
Nabokov himself claimed there is “no moral in tow” in Lolita’s “Afterword.”8 Thus, scholars and Nabokov generally contend that there is no higher, ethical intention for the novel. The greater intention is this—aesthetic bliss. This brings us to the following question: What does this ecstasy fixate on? What creates such “aesthetic bliss?” Combined with Nabokov’s excellent prose, a principal notion in Lolita is that her adolescent body is an ungraspable, fleeting essence found between childhood and adulthood, and that H.H. is determined to do the impossible, and quite frankly, do morally wrong—eternalize the fleeting, adolescent body of his step-daughter by possessing Lolita with sexual objectification and paternal agency. A particular scene in Lolita that could not stress more her eternal state of objectification is when H.H. first achieves sexual gratification. H.H. discreetly climaxes while rubbing against Lolita’s body as they sit on a couch:
Her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shiften in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing matters, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body.9
H.H. references the philosophical idea of solipsism: “Lolita had been safely solipsized.”10 Writing about the novel, Anna Cheema explains solipsism as “a philosophical theory resting on the belief that the self is the only reality.”11 Essentially, H.H. can not see another individual’s autonomy that exists outside of his own, conceited perception of the world. Thus, his existence is the only reality he knows.
Consequently, H.H.—and the reader, who has access only to his first-person account—are oblivious to Lolita’s thoughts and are denying her autonomy. They consume only a narrow perception of her: her body and her youth. Objectifying Lolita is both the justification for her abuse and the door to indulging in her abuse without severe guilt. Given this, I implore readers to recognize that if Lolita’s voice and opinion were vocalized, it would not be so easy to indulge in her abuse. If Lolita were humanized, scholars would be quick to denounce H.H.’s fantasies rather than partake in his chase for ecstasy. Let me be clear that the real Lolita is never discovered within the prose, for Lolita lacks the self. Many scholars agree that Lolita is only ever seen in an objectified manner. Zanganeh remarks that she “no longer is a subject in her own right—she melts entirely within the porous confines of Humbert’s fantasy.”12 Wilson Orozco draws the conclusion that “‘Humbert has possessed Lolita… first physically and then finally for eternity.’”13 The reader does not hear her inner dialogue or perspective because fundamental to “aesthetic bliss,” is the eternal objectification and removal of agency of the targeted, vulnerable body.
Overall, both Salò and Lolita portray older men abusing agency to eternally objectify the nude, particularly female, adolescent body. In Salò, the facelessness and fixation on the ass in “the most beautiful ass” scene evokes the fascist state’s desire to eternally subject the masses—reduced to their bodies—to systems of power. Pasolini’s purpose is to show how the dehumanizing effects of facism, capitalism, and consumerism render the people exploited and helpless. Whereas Salò harshly critiques the desire for adolescents’ bodies for the higher intention of condemning the dehumanizing effects of systems of power, in Lolita, H.H.’s romanticized obsession of the adolescent body evokes more than just desire, but a thermal state of ecstasy. For in Salò, the pleasure of subjecting the body is only observed coldly; in Lolita, the reader partakes in the thrill. One might argue that Salò blatantly presents sexual violence while Lolita highly romanticizes sexual violence.
An additional violence toward women that precedes the violence on the adolescent body in Salò and Lolita alike is the removal of the mother figure. This is an essential obstacle to both narratives, for it is only after the matriarch’s removal that the consummation of the perverse, patriarchal utopia is realized. The mother motif is elusively haunting in Salò, while the mother (or the lack thereof) in Lolita is a stark event in the plot. A mother may symbolize the private sphere, the intimate relationship between child and mother—security, nurture, and care-taking. In patriarchal society, one may equate the public sphere with the masculine and the private sphere with the domestic and mother’s love. Moreover, these spheres can be at odds with each other. Thus, by removing the private sphere, it is only then that the power structure of the public sphere may encroach onto the vulnerable, unprotected body for profit.
In Salò, the loss of the mother is ever-present: it is both manifested in the character Renata, one of the kidnapped, and signified in a crucial scene where a mother says goodbye to her son. When a libertine remarks that he has never known a “‘subtler pleasure than the last day [his mother] closed her eyes,’” Renata bursts into tears, ensuing a hard-to-watch seen where she is punished for crying for her dead mother by being forced to eat the libertines’ shit.14 She explicitly recalls her mother: “‘I’m suffering so, at my mother’s fate. She died for me and I’ll never see her again.”15 While they undress her to begin punishment, she screams: “Kill me, but don’t dishonor me.”16 Here, Renata is symbolic of a helpless being deprived of her mother. Her cries echo loss and vulnerability, which provokes scholar Armando Maggi to stress the following in his analysis of the film: “Let me repeat that Renata is the loss of the mother. Renata lives as a reminder of the mother who died before the beginning of the film. The film, we could say, is the funeral of the mother.”17 The notion of a funeral and the subjection to the patriarchy coincides with the cold, dreary atmosphere that is the Republic of Salò. Maggi later claims that Pasolini maintains a “pedagogical” role to evaluate the current fascist Italian Social Republic in the ’70s.18 Conversely, Nabokov does not aim to teach; as Zanganeh remarks, Lolita is mostly a book of ecstasy and “aesthetic bliss.”
In an early scene of Salò, a mother reluctantly lets go of her son as he is kidnapped by the libertines. This scene represents a crucial loss of power for the mother. In addition, it is significant that a scene soon after shows the death of someone else’s son. Attempting to escape the car’s journey to the mansion, the young man is quickly shot dead for rebellion. This scene is emblematic of the fact that his only protection is submitting to the men of power who control him, for there is no longer a mother to offer protection. Generally, the entirety of Salò can be interpreted as a mourning for the mother—a loss of protection, agency and nurture. Maggi writes:
The closed space of Salò is where the absence of the mother is felt and mourned as the loss of humanity per se. This mythic and emotional vacuum is invaded and raped by the Fascists, the brute and obscure forces of an external world that has no meaning.19
Observed in this light, the removal of the mother does more than fulfill the libertines’ agenda; her absence makes clear that their utopia is unethical, evident in the cold atmosphere that Maggi describes as a “mythic and emotional vacuum.”
Similarly, the removal of Lolita’s mother is the final step in completing a perverse, sexual utopia. However, the mother’s absence is not mourned as it is in Salò. In fact, the atmosphere is much more thrilling and fulfilling for the reader (Finally! Our protagonist H.H. has his way.) The clear absence of Lolita’s mother is the key that opens the door to H.H.’s utopia of ecstasy. Now, I do not deny that at moments Lolita may leave the reader feeling morally apprehensive. My purpose for juxtaposing the two is to emphasize that Salò coldly presents evil while Lolita entices us to partake in its evil, creating a rollercoaster of bliss (for the most part). In Lolita, the words leave the reader craving to read on. This is not the case for Salò, for we are even further repulsed as the events unravel and feel more empathy for the objectified. On the other hand, readers find themselves rooting for H.H., feeling less empathy for the objectified. This juxtaposition further reveals that Pasolini’s greater intention is the most necessary: He desires for the audience to realize that the characters they feel empathy for are, in essence, in the same state of existence as the current viewer is. His necessary realization on the violating systems of fascism, capitalism and consumerism makes Lolita feel, in comparison, quite unnecessary. I am not denying Lolita’s potential impact and experience; however, it is important to acknowledge the fact that Lolita has little of a higher, ethical intention, and as I will assess later, a dangerous impact, making it an unnecessary piece of artwork.
Thus, the mother motif is elusively ever present in Salò, yet starkly made present and then removed in Lolita. If we are to regard Salò as “the funeral of the mother,” then there must be a layer of regret and moral disgust that permeates the scaffolding of the film and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. In Lolita, the mother’s clear absence is more so a key to opening the door to a utopia of “aesthetic bliss.” At moments we may feel moral apprehension, but for the most part, we crave this high: indulging into a rollercoaster of bliss—the Lolita experience. Certainly, this is not the case for Salò; its morally reprehensible content and downright disgusting depictions make it difficult to watch even once. But for Lolita, the withdrawal of the book leaves many readers looking for something more. Granted little space to sympathize with Lolita, but maintaining just enough space to remain fascinated by her, what has happened in pop culture is the immortalization of Lolita’s archetype.
The immortalization of Lolita is an unnecessary and dangerous consequence of the novel. Still at the brink of discovering her sexuality, a “Lolita” has become a celebrated and desired object of beauty, assertiveness, and desire. Film, fashion, music and more, all consumed by teenage girls, have embodied and perpetuated the Lolita trope. She is the “re-appearance of an enchanting female creature in the midst of our material modernity.”20 From the image of an innocent Lolita toying with a cherry lollipop in Kubrick’s rendition of Lolita to Lana Del Rey’s pedo-daddy aesthetic, these pop culture moments have instilled in teenagers, still at the brink of sexual discovery, that they must display their sexuality and assert independence. In a collection of essays called Teaching Nabokov’s Lolita in the #MeToo Era, Marilyn Edelstein remarks that “young women in the United States are especially susceptible to—even if some of them become aware of and try to resist—this ‘reduction [of women and girls] to appearance.’”21 Consequently, teenagers spend their money on the latest fashions trends, listen to music that all too well expresses their problems, or indulge in movies that romanticize their specific freedoms.
Although some would argue that pop-culture trends are just superficial idealizations of self-expression and beauty (Who would say that we should not have fun and independence?), I implore those who argue as such to look deeper at why such trends are being perpetuated. Is it truly a movement of self-expression and self-acceptance founded by women? Or is it another agenda of capitalism? Let me make clear that many of these pop culture trends are actually a projection of false freedoms, targeted towards teenage girls. In fact, a “teenager” is actually a capitalist, American concept. The word “teenager,” typically conjures a nostalgic period of freedom and exploration. But upon closer examination, the “teenager” concept is actually a method of containment. Popular-culture critic Giulia Pivetta asserts that, “The phenomenon of the teenager, in fact, was invented by this United States of the ’50s.” She elaborates that this phenomenon had “two overriding purposes: offering adolescents a welcome interval of freedom” while simultaneously containing “their urges and desires”22 It also does not come as a surprise that other cultures simply refer to their youth as “kids” or “adolescents” if the word “teenager” has yet to be appropriated from American English; the fact is, many languages do not have an equivalent to “teenager” because it is a word created for containing a group of adolescents who in a newfound capitalist, consumerist society of the 1950s, had newfound freedoms that capitalism needed to control.
Some would argue that Nabokov did not write Lolita with the greater intention or knowledge that her archetype would be immortalized into pop culture. I agree that Nabokov would not have intended for capitalism to perpetuate the Lolita trope by over-sexualizing young women. So why can’t we simply enjoy the artwork for what it is, “aesthetic bliss?” But today’s encounter with the artwork inevitably leads to a discussion of its impact. And in this case, impact certainly supersedes intention. Besides, Nabokov’s intentions with Lolita are to a degree misguided; an experience of “aesthetic bliss” is certainly thrilling, but a romanticization of sexual abuse and pedophilia are unethical because they can lead to real harm. In the end, society can afford to do without Lolita and her dangerous immortalization and idolization that has been exploited by capitalism. The Lolita trope is essentially an extension of the eternally objectified body; “Lolita” is a vessel that is endlessly reshaped by capitalism and consumerism to push new trends, and only further encroach on young women’s autonomy—the epitome of the very exploitation of the individual that Pier Pasolini warns us of in Salò. It is rather unfortunate that Salò has not been afforded the opportunity to impact the world to the extent Lolita has, given Salò’s more necessary intention and realization it affords the viewer. Both have faced censorship and denunciation—so why has Lolita had such a vast impact while Salò still has not? Besides the contrast between romanticized, suggestive text to shocking, pornographic visuals, in truth, perhaps the discrepancy in their impacts is because in order to achieve such vast influence, an artwork must benefit from the encroaching powers of capitalism and consumerism in order to attain a broad audience. But for the case of Salò, it is difficult for such artwork to benefit from capitalism and consumerism, considering that Salò is an explicit critique of capitalism and consumerism. As Maggi reminds us: “The core of Pasolini’s poetics is his relentless opposition to conformity, because he rightly contends that conformity identifies with social and cultural oppression, intellectual death, and violence.”23
In the end, my hope is that Salò, or at the very least, the realizations it attempts to instill in its viewer, can be made more accessible and attain a broader impact. Choosing not to consume Salò for its visual difficulty would be a disservice to the necessary, ethical impact that Pasolini intends, and that Nabokov lacks. Both Salò and Lolita are shocking works of art that display violence towards young adolescent women and remove the mother figure in order to fulfill their perverse utopias. The discourse associated with each are rather unique, but as I have shown, there is a fundamental overlap of the two in the realm of capitalism, consumerism and the treatment of young adolescent women. If so many individuals can readily embrace Lolita, I challenge these same individuals to, at the very least, understand why we should embrace Salò.
- Lila Zanganeh, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Lolita,” Lolita in the Afterlife, edited by Jenny Minton Quigley, 225.
- Joan Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation (MIT Press, 2003), 146.
- Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman, 146.
- Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman,146.
- Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman,146.
- Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman, 146.
- Lila Zanganeh, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Lolita,” Lolita in the Afterlife, edited by Jenny Minton Quigley, 225.
- Vladimir Nabokov, “Afterword,” Lolita (Vintage, 1989)
- Nabokov, Lolita, 60.
- Nabokov, Lolita, 60.
- Anna Cheema, “Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: Humbert Humbert’s Psychological Transition from Desire to Remorse,” Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan 57, no. 1 (2020) 57.
- Zanganeh, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Lolita,” 220.
- Wilson Orozco quoted in Cheema, “Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.”
- Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (United Artists, 1977), 01:02:55.
- Salò, 01:04:15.
- Armando Maggi, The Resurrection of the Body Pier Paolo Pasolini from Saint Paul to Sade (University of Chicago Press, 2009), 269.
- Maggi, The Resurrection of the Body Pier Paolo Pasolini from Saint Paul to Sade, 391.
- Maggi, The Resurrection of the Body Pier Paolo Pasolini from Saint Paul to Sade, 257.
- Giulia Pivetta, Lolita: Style Icon:The Myth of Youth in Fashion, from Brigitte Bardot to Chloë Sevigny, from English Colleges to the Streets of Tokyo (24 Ore Cultura, 2017), 9.
- Marilyn Edelstein, “(How) Should a Feminist Teach Lolita in the Wake of #MeToo?” Teaching Nabokov’s Lolita in the #MeToo Era, edited by Elena Rakhimova-Sommers, (17).
- Pivetta, Lolita, 11.
- The Resurrection of the Body Pier Paolo Pasolini from Saint Paul to Sade, 5.