It’s easier to find advice for what not to do than what to do. This is true in general, but is overwhelmingly true of one of the greatest cautionary tales on why not to be a beta male that literature or the screen has seen: Nabokov’s novel Lolita, and in particular, Stanley Kubrick’s often forgotten 1962 film adaptation.
Lolita is worth a watch or re-watch; or even better, a read or re-read. We all know the one sentence summary: a grown man falls in love with a barely out of puberty hot girl. But the one sentence boildown loses all of the subtlety of the movie—and it is in the subtlety that the timeless wisdom is found.
But there is one group (a group which your humble writer was a member of; and perhaps still may be) that needs to listen to the wisdom of the movie. A sub-group of the “beta male” category: the “nerdy beta male” or, slightly less euphemistically, the “pseudo-intellectual beta male.” He prides himself on the size of his bookshelf, on his knowledge of obscure words, on his superior wit and intelligence as compared to those around him. The protagonist of Lolita, the doubly-named Humbert Humbert, is the consummate pseudo-intellectual beta. He is a disaster, whose life falls into greater and greater disaster as the narrative goes on, and the cautionary tale is clear: don’t be Humbert Humbert.
This general lesson becomes clearest in eight particular ways throughout the movie. Let’s go through them.
1. Supplicating yourself to a girl will make both the girl miserable, and you miserable. When Lolita complains to Humbert Humbert that she’s not happy, he gives a cringe-inducing speech about how he does everything for her and cleans up after her while painting her toe-nails. Even without words, the toe-nail painting scene would have made the same point. The result of the supplication? She’s even unhappier—and so is he.
2. Beta males never learn. Humbert Humbert keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again. This point becomes unequivocally clear in the last scene of the movie. Lolita had run away years earlier and they had not seen each other for years, she is now married and pregnant, and yet, again, he makes one last attempt to convince her to run away from her husband and elope with him. Of course, she rejects him.
3. Oneitis is fatal, literally. Our sad professor Humbert falls in love with the little girl and can’t get over her. He ends up killing the alpha male, going to jail, and dying in jail, as the final credits tell us.
4. Once a girl has dated an Alpha, she’ll always be an Alpha Widow. Lolita confesses, at the end of the movie, a key detail that ties the whole plot together: that she had been in-love with her mom’s old boyfriend, who had been the person following them around. He was the alpha male that she couldn’t get over. What did he do right? He was the opposite of Humbert. He had the balls to do risky and fun things—like pretend to be a German school psychologist to trick Humbert. Plus he hung out with artists and other cool kids.
5. Once an Alpha Widow, the girl will marry the supportive, nice guy beta loser. This is precisely what Lolita does, and the final part of the movie goes to pains to show what a loser he is. He can’t even open his beer can properly. It’s important to note that the husband isn’t the intellectual beta, but the manly beta. He works with his hands, and comes off as a classic lower middle class type guy—that type of guy beats the intellectual beta for the alpha widow, any day.
6. Some girls are just slutty. Both Lolita and her mom have the “Thousand Cock Stare.” In the movie, neither the mother’s nor the daughter’s sluttiness can be tamed. The mother even gives a speech to her husband’s dead ashes, promising that next time she’ll find a better guy—a speech reminiscent of many conversations girls have had with me and other female friends, promising to find a better guy next time. They never do.
7. Like mother, like daughter. There is truth to the ancient cliche: you want to know what a girl will be like in a few decades? Look at her mom. And what will your daughter be like? Probably a lot like her mom. This is an under-rated risk of slutmating.
8. Admit to yourself who you are. One of the Humbert’s core problems was that he never seized his strengths to make himself attractive and find his own path. Instead, he let his own Achilles’ Heels seize control of his destiny. He married Lolita’s mom, even though he was never interested in her, just to get to her daughter. He never searched for someone with whom he could have an adult relationship, instead using his position of power over Lolita to pressure her into a relationship with him. He tried to control Lolita by not allowing her to do anything, rather than trying to charm her so she would want to be with him. He shacked up with her in an illegal manner (she was his underage step-daughter, after all), so he could always be intimidated by the police, and scared they were after him even when they weren’t—leading to a timid life of fear.
Looking back at it from today, there’s a meta-lesson in Kubrick’s movie, and the original book, beyond the obvious of not Humbertizing yourself. It’s that human nature doesn’t change, across time or space. The movie was released 55 years ago; the book published over 60 years ago. With some updated language and details, the same lessons are just as true today as they were then, but it is even more important that the lessons are spread and listened to today, since there are far fewer good role models for men to follow today, than there were in 1962.