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Bitch (Elizabeth Wurtzel)


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  I've never hidden the fact that I love young girls," Roman Polanski yelled at the nagging press corps that pursued him all around the 1977 Cannes Film Festival as he ambled about the Croisette with a fifteen year-old Nastassia Kinski on his arm. "Once and for all, I love very young girls."

Considering the accelerated aging process that wastes away and wears out Hollywood's sweet young things with a fast-forward so fast it's as if they were living in dog years (bitch years?), it almost seems reasonable that Polanski should be a sucker for raw meat, for milk-fed tank-bred veal. In this context, our culture's fascination with the virginal victim--who is, if nothing else, a break from the tired woman--is understandable. In these oversexed times--when Tracy Lords retired from her pornography career by the time she was eighteen--it is only the girl who knows nothing about sex, perhaps doesn't even know where babies come from, who can guarantee that a man will feel his dominance, and will experience himself as breaking and entering. After residing in this erotic gray zone of date-rape confusion, with seduction and sexual harassment and who made the first move all constant questions, there is something so nice and safe about surefire violation, about fucking a child, or a comatose hospital patient, or a mentally retarded woman--all of them offer the relief of certainty, since they are not even in a position to express, experience or exercise volition.

"You ain't never had no pussy like that," the pimp played by Harvey Keitel in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver says of his underage hooker Iris, portrayed by Jodie Foster in her first Oscar-nominated role. "You can do anything you want with her."

But Iris' appeal is that she is quite knowing, a stray cat made smart by living on street scraps--that she is twelve but not really. It is the Untouched and unmolested that fuels our latest array of fantasies. The fascination with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey would seem, at first, like a good example of the public's prurient interest in a tender, taboo sex object, except that there is nothing sexy about a child so done up she looks like she belongs in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Our interest in this dead six-year-old is indeed perverse--but perverse in a social, not a sexual, sense. This little girl is just so peculiar: doomed at birth by being christened with a name that's a cross-pollination of Jonathan with the title of a frequently administered IQ test, a name that, whatever its origins, could only belong to a Bourbon Street stripper, a name that is about as French as french fries, French kisses, French vanilla, French roast, French braids and French-cut jeans, a name with hoity-toity aspirations that are meant to obscure the very trashiness they spotlight. This little girl had glamour photos that paid homage to Francesco Scavullo's Cosmo covers, and played dress-up in clothes that actually fit her, with no blue eye shadow misplaced on her cheeks and no coral lipstick smeared sloppily on her chin. This little girl wore "outfits," matched purses and shoes, coordinated bonnets and gloves, symbols of leisured gentility last seen at Sweet Briar College in 1957. Anyone concerned that baby beauty pageants sexually exploit girls so young that even Larry Flynt would blush are missing the point: which is, of course, that it is all just so cheesy. It's embarrassing. It's the kind of thing that allows the French to make fun of America even as they watch their Mickey Rourke movies and Jerry Lewis telethons. It's silly and infantilizing. I'm sure the participants in these pretty-baby contests are thoroughly damaged by the experience, but in ways far stranger than anything having to do with sex. The fuss and focus on this tacky subculture provided a momentary freak distraction from a dominant culture in which the lust for sweet young things--a few years older than JonBenet Ramsey, and more likely to be wearing flannel and blue jeans than broad-rimmed hats and twinsets--has become perfectly normal, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it.

In the little-seen art-house film The Babysitter, Alicia Silverstone has no idea what kinds of perverse and extreme fantasies her charges, the father of the kids, and various teenage boys are having about her as she wanders around, blissfully unaware, attending to the children, giving them baths and getting her shirt all wet, basically lying in wait for whatever may happen because her alarm system is not yet installed. Uma Thurman in Dangerous Liaisons is similarly there for the taking as John Malkovich does just that. In the movie Kids, the HIV positive philosopher of the delights of defloration--who is supposed to be sixteen but looks no more than eleven, and actually looks a lot like a walking penis--goes on about how he loves to fuck virgins, loves that there's no "loosey-goose pussy."

And let us not forget the way Bill Wyman, the seemingly most unrolling of the Stones, reminded us never to underestimate still water when at age forty-seven he took up with, then eventually married and later divorced, the thirteen-year-old Bardot-in-a-kilt Catholic school girl named Mandy Smith (for good measure, at some point, her mother hooked up with his son). It reminds us of some of this century's great romances: Elvis and Priscilla, Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra, Frank and Mia, Woody and Soon-Yi, Seinfeld and Shoshana, Roman Polanski and whoever, Hugh Hefner and whatever. Harold and Maude, sort of. Charlie Chaplin and his succession of teenage brides, definitely. (Chaplin's second wife, whom he wed when she was fifteen and knocked up, was actually named Lilita, a fact not unknown to Nabokov, whose literary legacy was just a vowel away; by the time Chaplin married his last wife, Oona O'Neill, he was fifty-four and the bride was his oldest yet--at seventeen.) I would add to that list Charles and Diana, but he doesn't count because position compelled him to marry a virgin, and because, frankly, he just doesn't count.

And of course, so many movie jokes would never exist without the May-December possibilities. Woody Allen's now much-bitten line in Manhattan--"I can't believe I'm dating a girl who does homework"--became much funnier, or much sadder, when its real-life implications were realized. In When Harry Met Sally..., Billy Crystal mocks his unserious serial monogamy by saying of his new girlfriend, "I mentioned something about the Kennedy assassination and she said, 'What? Was Ted Kennedy shot?'" And in real life--more like sort-of real life--Amy Fisher offers the tidbit that when she and Joey met for love in the afternoon at a local motel, he would turn the clock radio to the classic rock station and quiz her to make sure she knew it was the Doors who did "Light My Fire" or the Eagles performing "Peaceful Easy Feeling." And Boston cabby Jimmy McBride, the MTV alter ego of actor Donal Logue, made fun of Alanis Morissette's misuse of the title "Ironic" when he inserted this couplet: "It's like meeting the girl of your dreams / And finding out she's five years old."

Meanwhile, the archetypal virgin--meaning Lolita, not Mary--has apparently been thoroughly misunderstood by posterity. In an interview in Vogue, Jeremy Irons, who plays Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne's almost unreleased film adaptation of Lolita, points out that despite the notion of teenage temptress that has been attached to the moniker Lolita, in Vladimir Nabokov's novel she is actually rather vile, obnoxious, not in the least bit seductive. She chews on gum with bovine vigor and blows enormous pink bubbles that pop into sticky puddles across her face. She prefers her sleeve to napkins and tissues. Her nail polish is always chipped. She may be the subject of blue movies, but Nabokov's Lolita is green, still picking at earwax in public, an unwashed phenomenon. "In the popular imagination, Lolita is this stupendous little kitten," Irons says. "And in the film we certainly paint her so. But in the book she's absolutely ghastly--cheap, not pretty, bad teeth, bad skin, smelly--that's the drama, that he's besotted by this awful girl." In the same Vogue article, mistress of vampires Anne Rice is quoted as noting that Lolita "was a very ordinary girl who didn't herself have profound sexual feelings and never really enjoyed the illicit relationship." It seems that in the void created by Nabokov's beautiful and complicated text (lack of reading--not misreading--is the culprit here), a cultural version of the game Telephone--with Freudian phantasies and wish fulfillments guiding it along--has turned a girl who is the object of perverse desire into the subject of a rapacious sexual appetite. But the literary Lolita's appeal is not in the way one can partake of her supple, youthful flesh in that moment of ripeness and unspoiled beauty that explains why teenage fashion models are lust objects, girls in their luscious prime. To be a man and be hot for Bridget Hall is perfectly normal; to be Humbert Humbert and hung up on twelve-year-old pudge is to be a pervert, a pedophile--to wag one's tongue after youth with vampiric intent, to pursue it only to destroy it, to be the agent of the girl's downfall, turn her into the wretch that any man preying upon such a childish subject must believe all women are. "Humbert Humbert," British novelist Martin Amis has said, "is without question an honest-to-god, open-and-shut sexual deviant."

And Jeremy Irons is right: the uncouthness of Lolita is precisely the point. She reminds us that men who take up with teenyboppers and believe that they are getting a woman that has not, in the language of used-car salesmen, been "pre-owned" are not much different from Humbert Humbert. For they are actually hooking up with the same pimply baby that Lolita was in print if not in practice, but fooling themselves with the high gloss of femininity in bloom.

They think that statutory rape laws were written for other men. That Amy Fisher isn't really a teenager and Joey Buttafooco isn't really a pervert.

Meanwhile, a romanticized notion of what is really a violated little girl allows for the counterimage, the celebration of innocence as front, of ignorance as sexuality. It allows for the lovely, unadorned black-and-white photographs of Christy Turlington in ads for Calvin Klein underwear, a woman in her twenties looking slightly fleshy and all pouty, curves suggesting baby fat, not even showing much cleavage in basic briefs and no-push-up bras that create a sexiness that is the opposite of what one would get with anything that might be called "lingerie." (Interestingly, Victoria's Secret, catalogue of decolletage and dishabille, has mimicked Klein's success by putting Claudia Schiffer and Stephanie Seymour in television and print ads selling its "underware" line of practical, ribbed cottons.) It allows for a magazine-- known in jargon as a "stroke book"--called Barely Legal. It allows for baby-doll dresses and kinderwhore fashions, for chunky highheeled Mary Janes from Prada and solid-silver pactfier pendants from jewelry designer Helen Bransford.

It allows for the entire career of Liv Tyler, who in Heavy, Stealing Beauty, that thing you do! and probably in as many more roles as can possibly tolerate this act, plays the virginal sweetheart, the very very very nice girl with coltish gracelessness and unscathed beauty, whose mere presence irradiates everyone around her, whose luminescence wakes up the long-dead urges and makes people want, in each of those respective films, to go to cooking school, to face death with dignity or to take up improvisational jazz drumming. It allows for Carroll Baker in Elia Kazan's film of Tennessee Williams's Baby Doll, the child bride who lounged in a crib, sucked on her thumb and whom a much older Karl Malden spends much of the movie just trying to keep under his thumb. It allows for the ongoing fascination with Edie Sedgwick, the most celebrated of the Warhol superstars, subject of an oral history called Edie that portrays her as the Forrest Gump of the demimonde, a dead girl whose memory outlives her life as the Pop Art pop tart, the girl on fire with silver streaks in her hair, an ectomorphic little frame, bone-white skin stretched on her skeleton like a lampshade. But Edie's longevity in the afterlife, which would seem to be because of her youthquaker cool, is actually a product of the belief that all that was just a facade: we're in fact infatuated with the photographs that show her when she wasn't in costume, pictures that reveal such innocence, snapshots of little girl blue with long black hair fresh from a spot of shock; at Silver Hill, pictures that focus on her big huge eyes that shine like flying saucers, liquid sky, pure as a really pure batch of Burmese heroin, pure as Ivory soap. This photomontage of a reconstituted Lolita--frail, fragile, dead by her own hand, a girl whose good looks make you imagine potential that was never there, a girl who makes you sigh and say, So beautiful, so sad--allows us to be in love with the Edie we believe was worth saving.
 
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Excerpted from Bitch by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Copyright © 1998 by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.