Content warning: This article includes references to pedophilia.

I first encountered the word “coquette” while reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel follows a middle-aged narrator, under the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, and his lustful pinings for the titular 12-year-old girl. It was revolting not only for its disturbed content but also for its ambiguous rhetoric. Because the novel is told through Humbert’s perspective, it reads defensively, attempting to extract pity for a pedophile—and I have no interest in granting any moral grace to predators. 

After shoving the book to the depths of my bookshelf, I assumed I’d never have to think about that piece of perversion again. And yet, years later, when Instagram and TikTok became flooded with bows in theme with the “coquette trend,” I was immediately reminded of Humbert’s slimy voice, begging Lolita to release him from her “coquettish temptation.” The trend itself is innocuous: put bows on anything and everything from Britas to headphones, boyfriends, and even chicken nuggets. Besides its name, the trend has little in common with Lolita or anything remotely deviant. Still, it’s not the “bow” or “pink” style. It’s the “coquette trend,” but I’m not sure whether those partaking in the trend understand why. 

The word “coquette” traces back as far as 1611, defined as “a woman who trifles with men’s affections; a woman given to flirting or coquetry.” This definition already has questionable undertones; it sets the expectation that a woman owes something to men by simply engaging with them and accepting his “affections.” It seems the word coquette has always been aimed at vilifying women. This rhetoric becomes even more problematic considering that “coquette” is most often associated with little girls, Lolita being the ultimate poster child. 

Clearly, the trend’s namesake has inherently sexist and perverted origins. Yet, it seems ignorant of its seedy history. The only real remnant of these darker tones can be found in the music videos for the song “Let The Light In” by Lana Del Rey, featuring Father John Misty. Lana is known for glorifying tortured femininity in her music. While this romanticization may come across as problematic, Lana purportedly melds beauty and distress to make a statement about the relationship between femininity and pain.

She writes songs for the “female manipulator,” whose narrative men have always held sole license over. She even has a song titled “Lolita,” where she plays the Nabokov character, beckoning her listener to kiss her in the park. It’s uncomfortable because Lana fleshes out the male perception of a “Lolita”: a young seductress acting upon impulses far beyond her age. However, the song’s lyrics and nursery rhyme lilt emphasize a tone of youth and naivete, which only becomes an issue when men pervert those innocent desires for their own manipulation. 

Based on her discography, Lana seems conscious of the origins of first encountered the word “coquette” and the general distortion of femininity. At one point, the coquette trend was knowledgeable of this, too. Why else would it be associated with Lana, the poster child of the “female manipulator”? But the internet has since diluted the trend, shedding any profound connection to its name. The “coquette aesthetic” now consists of anything pastel, frilly, and doll-like, often described as a kind of hyperfemininity. Some could argue that this way of dressing is similar to what Nabokov envisioned when he dreamt up the “coquette woman”: a young girl who uses her feminine aesthetics to attract and ensnare the men around her. But the idea that women want to dress well to be desired is entirely concocted by the male gaze, and it shouldn’t be. Shouldn’t women be able to be feminine without bringing men into the conversation? 

There have been trends that more blatantly refer to coquette’s darker origins. In Japan, there exists an entire fashion subculture titled after Nabokov’s nymphet. The “Lolita fashion” mirrors the coquette aesthetic to a saccharine degree. Frills and porcelain makeup signal the cosplaying nature of this trend: that of the childlike, vulnerable girl—the Lolita. However, the Japanese Lolita aesthetic uses dark undertones—chains, black hues, and leather—to display the suffocating nature of femininity. By physically expressing the more insidious elements of coquette, they illuminate how the pressure of femininity can turn women into ideas, inextricably tethered to a perverted male fantasy. But there’s a cost to their approach. In choosing to make such an overt statement, these women dedicate their lives to representing themselves in the exaggerated male gaze, rather than trying to move beyond it.

By comparison, the “coquette aesthetic” seems like a much quieter voice in this conversation of twisted femininity. Yet, perhaps it doesn’t need to be a voice at all. I appreciate the awareness of trends like Lana’s “female manipulator” and the Japanese “Lolita aesthetic.” Making bold artistic statements is essential for cultural dialogue. However, they come with setbacks. In choosing to take a more combative approach to reclamation, these trends and artists risk reinforcement of the harmful stereotypes that they are trying to dismantle. 

For years, women have been indoctrinated to think they owe a part of their femininity to men, thereby forcing them to employ a kind of double consciousness: balancing what they want and like with how that will be subjected to male scrutiny and violence. Because of this hyperawareness, the choice to emphasize one’s beauty or show a little more skin is assumed to have ulterior motives, and therefore, a reason to blame women for unwanted attention. This pressure is sadly linked to the “coquette” trend, as the word was ultimately created by men to justify their mistreatment of young women. Part of the reclamation process requires the acknowledgment of the past in order to properly rewrite it; yet, reclamation also requires moving forward.

The coquette trend is unique to me because it aims to separate femininity from the male gaze. Today, when girls put bows on their water bottles, wear pink, and muse at how “coquette” everything is, they are thinking about themselves. They’re embracing femininity because it makes them feel happy, and I think that’s its own kind of reclamation.

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