Let me introduce you to a 17-year-old girl. She’s gorgeous. She’s both girly and womanly – hanging on to the cute pinks of childhood, but the cuts of a much older woman. She lounges around in a bikini, even though she’s nowhere near the beach. She’s a daddy’s girl, and she’s spoiled because she has the magical ability to get the men in her life to give her absolutely anything she wants. She seems somehow much older than her years: she’s wise, worldly and emotionally intelligent – which also makes her manipulative. She dates much, much older men, but she has all the power.
This girl doesn’t exist. She’s a stereotype dreamt up by men – hovering somewhere between sexual fantasy and misogynist anxiety – the honey trap of your dreams, or maybe your nightmares. It’s a stereotype that has been legitimised and deconstructed throughout history: be it Dickens’s Estella, Cathy in East of Eden, Nabokov’s Lolita, Balthus’s “angels”, Tracy in Manhattan, American Beauty’s Angela, Leelee Sobieski in Eyes Wide Shut, Lux in The Virgin Suicides, Audrey in Twin Peaks, the girl from The Rolling Stones’s “Stray Cat Blues” or Abba’s “Does Your Mother Know”, or the women in countless porn films. Now, we meet her again, played by Chloë Moretz in Louis CK’s new film I Love You, Daddy.
The trailer for I Love You, Daddy was released this week: it confirms that the film, which debuted at Toronto film festival earlier this year, is about a screenwriter Glen (Louis CK) who watches in horror as his daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) and a filmmaker he has admired his entire life (John Malkovich) seemingly begin a sexual relationship. It immediately earned comparisons to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, with many seeing the film as a comment on the allegations made against Allen and CK himself.
The trailer fetishes China’s sickly adoration of her father. If the title of the film itself wasn’t enough to make that point, take the first four of her lines (half of her total eight lines in the trailer): “Hey, daddy, is it okay if I stay here for a few more days?”, “I love you”, “I don’t know, daddy” and “Ok, I love you”. The character’s every other word is a pornographically sultry “daddy” (a word now mainstream in its sexualised form), while other characters note how much China “loves her daddy”, or assume she is her father’s girlfriend.
When Glen asks her what she wants do with her life, China smiles and pokes her tongue in into her cheek as she looks her father up and down in way that seems almost flirtatious, shrugging off the question as though it’s never occurred to her to think about her future. She stands in her father’s living room in a bikini in a centrefold pose: one hand on her hip, the other stretched above her head as she leans on a wall. Her wardrobe of high-waisted shots, white shirts, strings of pearls and multiple bikinis feel like throwbacks to Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s Lolita.
The casting of Moretz feels specifically uncomfortable. She rose to fame as a child, starting her career at just seven, and giving a number of performances as a surprisingly precocious preteen. One of her first roles was in 2009’s 500 Days of Summer as the 11-year-old half-sister of Joseph Gordon Levitt – here, she is the emotionally intelligent foil to his stunted, immature Tom. “What do you know about PMS?” he asks her. “More than you, Tom,” she deadpans. Later, she shouts at him, “Just don’t be a pussy!”
She’s played the foul-mouthed and violent Hit-Girl in 2010’s Kick Ass, the icon of teen girl sexuality in the 2013 remake of Carrie, a teen prodigy cello player in a loving relationship with an older musician in 2014’s If I Stay. In short, we associate her with powerful, smart preteens and teens with emotional and sexual knowledge far older than their years.
Moretz was mostly desexualised as a tomboy in very early roles, but like Emma Watson and Maisie Williams, she has been aggressively fetishised since she was as young as 14 by sites like 4Chan and Reddit (screenshots of Moretz in this new trailer are already doing the rounds). She has transitioned from girlhood to womanhood in the public eye, and, at 20, has become a woman with supermodel, if baby-faced, beauty.
Now Moretz has been hired to play 17-year-old China in I Love You, Daddy, all these cultural associations converge unnervingly. The casting of Moretz encourages us to read China as sexually and emotionally mature, powerful, even manipulative, to place her in the category of fille fatale.
This is in no way to disparage Moretz’s bags of acting talent: she will clearly do as much as she can with the role, and apparently rewrote some of China’s dialogue. Nor can I outright condemn a film I haven’t seen. I Love You, Daddy might yet turn out to be a powerful deconstruction and rejection of the concept of the teen seductress, just as Nabokov’s Lolita was, or 2015’s excellent The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
But it seems unlikely. Early reviewers describe China as “done up for maximum teen-Lolita effect” and “learning how to weaponise her feminine wiles while playing up her daddy’s-little-girl affectations so Dad will let her do whatever she wants” (Rolling Stone), whose “superficial claims of affection have brainwashing powers” (IndieWire). “If the movie ultimately hinges on the bittersweet rite of passage of a man watching his daughter grow up and leave the nest,” Variety notes, “then it needed to make China more of an independent character. As good as Moretz is, she is seen, in almost every scene, from a man’s point of view.”
Much has been written about the discomfort audiences may feel watching I Love You, Daddy’s scenes which deal with allegations of abuse against Malkovich’s character, knowing that its writer, director and star Louis CK has also faced allegations of sexual misconduct. While there are, of course, plenty of mature, sexually active, incredibly smart 17-year-old girls who are charmed by older men, the character of China, with her mysterious powers of manipulation, unshakable self-confidence, and uncomplicated desire for a much older lover seems like a useful tool to muddy the ethical waters of what is, in reality, a fairly straightforward abuse of power: an older, famous man seducing a teenager.
Or perhaps CK believes that simply all three-dimensional modern teenage girls spend their days lounging around the house in bikinis and sheer kaftans, purring about how much they simply adore their fathers, giggling with surprise when anyone asks them if they have goals or ambitions, and lusting after 63-year-old men.