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Strictly no adults allowed

Peter Walsh wonders what a pedophile looks like in pop culture

Humbert Humbert and Lolita in Lolita (1997)

Recently, I was asked to leave a park in Harlem, NYC. The security guard—apologetic—pointed to a sign that read “NO ADULTS ALLOWED UNLESS ACCOMPANIED BY CHILDREN”. It stung, mostly because I had just been turned away at a bar for not having ID and so instead of being able to kill time on the swings, I had to ride the F Train on my lonesome back to Briarwood. The whole thing felt like satire. Did I really resemble a pedophile? Hell, what does a pedophile even look like?

I couldn’t even begin to come up with a coherent, consistent image of a pedophile—at least not one in pop culture. Humbert Humbert in Lolita looked quite respectable, at the start. In contrast, the murderer in M was all wild-eyed and deranged. Surely there’s an insidious middle ground: the pedophile who doesn’t look much like anything, the one that would necessitate excluding adults from our parks. What’s more, while we’re practically hysterical over the possible pedophiles lurking in our playgrounds, we still—fifty-eight years removed from the publishing of Lolita—entertain a voyeuristic glee in watching these moral transgressions in our art. So what does the pop culture pedophile look like?

Humbert Humbert and Lolita in Lolita (1997)
Humbert Humbert and Lolita in Lolita (1997)

An episode of South Park—‘Miss Teacher Bangs A Boy’—interrogated both pedophilia and sexual double standards. While the whole town is outraged at the thought of a teacher seducing a student, they soon realise this teacher is a blonde busty female. They couldn’t be more impressed. “Nice”, says the police chief. “Ni-ice”, a fellow officer adds. They’re just happy that Ike, the child, is “scoring”. The more I looked, however, the more I found that this pedophile—deranged and unsympathetic—was not representative anymore.

Think Cate Blanchette in Notes on a Scandal. While the boy she sleeps with is much older than the five year old in South Park, she’s still undoubtedly crossing some lines. But rather than dismissing her outright for her transgression, she becomes an object of sympathy. She didn’t necessarily touch the kid out of any sexual dysfunction, just out of old relatable middle-class boredom: a snap reaction to the pressures of work and home. What’s more, we hate the kid (little scouse bastard). Some victim he turned out to be. The same sort of moral quagmire appears in Hard Candy where we hate-hate-hate the pedophile, but at the same time sort of feel sorry for him. Ellen Page is just ruthless as the 14 y.o vigilante who convinces him to commit suicide. Spoilers, by the way. Still, there’s the control group, of Ronnie in Little Children who ultimately finds himself incapable of resisting his urges, and so castrates himself at the neighborhood park.

I was feeling pretty down at this point, so I found myself circling back to South Park, this time an episode titled ‘The Wacky Molestation Adventure’. South Park, like Harlem, is suffering from pedophile hysteria. The news carries a story saying that children are most likely to be abused by their parents. So, the parents evict their children from the town, so they can’t get to them.

By the time I finished watching all this, I realised the pop culture pedophile could be anyone. Not easily spotted from a crowd, not singularly male, singularly deranged, or singularly deformed. What’s more, they’re marginally sympathetic, portrayed as passengers to their own illness. Still, the contemporary pedophile is irredeemable, only now they’re also indefinable. It’s this rampant possibility—that they could be anyone or anywhere—that has us closing off our parks and keeping our children and young siblings so firmly under thumb.

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