Amy Fisher and the 1990s Invention of the Criminal Lolita

Amy Fisher and the 1990s Invention of the Criminal Lolita

Illustration: Elena Scotti; Images: Getty

In 1996, when an 18-year-old Fiona Apple was wrapping up work on her seminal debut album, Tidal, executives from Sony Music asked her to write a “more obvious” first single. And so Apple, who wrote most of the album’s songs as a 16-year-old battling an eating disorder and PTSD following a sexual assault, sat down, slammed out a few angry chords, and in 45 minutes had composed the lyrics she correctly intuited the suits in the room wanted to hear: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl/I’ve been careless with a delicate man.” The music video for “Criminal,” which remains Apple’s biggest hit to date, opens on abandoned stuffed animals littered amongst empty beer bottles and a detritus of bodies taking a break from what seems to be an ongoing orgy. The entire video has the overexposed look of an illicit Polaroid.

While Apple was legally old enough by the time the video was filmed to record herself doing sex acts with as many consenting adults as she pleased, the video for “Criminal” is a clear reference to a popular narrative of the time: ravenously sexual, spoiled teenaged bad girls were making criminals of the adult men who couldn’t help but look at them. and becoming criminals themselves in the process. Many of the emerging female stars of the 1990s got their starts playing America’s collective, incredibly inappropriate Lolita fantasy: Drew Barrymore, Alyssa Milano, Alicia Silverstone. Even Britney Spears was ultimately a beneficiary and victim of the underage allure her marketing team built up around her. And perhaps nowhere was the decade’s fascination with “sexy” stories of minors spectacularly colliding with sexual maturity more fully on display than in the media feeding frenzy around the tale of 17-year-old Amy Fisher. Tabloids branded her the “Long Island Lolita” after she shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, wife of 37-year-old Joey Buttafuoco, with whom Fisher had allegedly been having what the tabloids labeled an “affair” since she was 16.

For the tabloid press, Amy Fisher was better than fiction. Here was a real teenage girl the tabloids could paint as a Nabokov creation mixed with the 1956 Ed Wood-penned suburban nightmare The Violent Years, which featured an affluent, all-girl rape gang. But unlike the Lolitas these men dreamed up, Fisher was a real-life “bad girl,” and her story had all the attractions of pulpy entertainment—illicit teenage sex, prostitution, and violence—given a thin veneer of faux public interest, packaged as a fable about the dangers of spoiled girl children with too much freedom.


On May 19, 1992, 17-year-old Amy Fisher showed up on the doorstep of Mary Jo and Joey Buttafuoco’s suburban home in Massapequa, New York. Fisher, carrying a t-shirt from the body shop owned by the Buttafoucos, told Mary Jo Buttafuoco that her name was Anne Marie and that Joey Buttafuoco had been having an affair with her 16-year-old sister. “I think the idea of a 40-year-old man sleeping with a 16-year-old girl is disgusting,” Fisher reportedly told Mary Buttafuoco. Supposedly, she responded: “Well, he’s not 40 years old yet.”

Unconvinced by the t-shirt, after Fisher failed to satisfactorily answer questions about where she lived, Mary Jo Buttafuoco turned to go inside the house, and Amy Fisher shot her once in the head before fleeing in a car driven by a young male acquaintance. Buttafuoco was left permanently deaf by the gunshot wound, with lasting facial paralysis. Later on, when Buttafuoco made the talk show rounds to discuss an assault that was consumed by the public as both an outrageous tale of teenage immorality and a joke about the Long Island accents of those involved, even Mary Jo’s injuries became fodder for ridicule.

The shooting came at just the right time for New York City tabloids, desperate for another high-profile case after the recent conclusion to the trials of Carolyn Warmus, a 29-year-old Westchester schoolteacher convicted of murdering her ex-lover’s wife in what the news outlets described as a fit of obsessive jealousy. The murder itself seemed like a real-life retelling of the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, in which a professional woman, heartbroken at being discarded by her married partner, stalks and attempts to murder his family as punishment. But while Warmus’s two murder trials and eventual conviction spawned the typical tabloid frenzy for a murder deemed headline-worthy because a middle-class white lady did it—books, made-for-TV movies, the Snapped treatment—it was nothing compared to Amy Fisher. Warmus’s story only contained one lurid element, while Fisher’s contained multitudes. Privilege and suburban crime, sure, but also the secret ingredient for which it would soon become clear 1990s America was gluttonous: teenaged girls as criminals, driven to madness by their own outsized desire.

People magazine headlined its coverage of the assault and trial “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” after a popular erotic thriller of the time; Maria Eftimides, one the feature’s authors, would later name her book on the subject Lethal Lolita: A True Story of Sex, Scandal, and Deadly Obsession. In other tabloids and even in more respectable outlets like Larry King Live, Fisher was branded the “Long Island Lolita.” Yet, despite readily slapping Fisher with the Lolita label, news coverage was loath to make any specific reference to the idea of statutory rape. A New York Times headline said Joey Buttafuoco had “admitted to sex” with Fisher rather than “been found guilty of one count of statutory rape,” which is what actually happened.

The story of a girl shepherded from “innocence” to experience by an older and eventually indifferent man is an old one. In Greek mythology, Leda was a beautiful young princess either “seduced” or raped by Zeus, depending on the telling. Io, another young princess, was turned to a cow as punishment for Zeus’s unasked-for affections. Danaë, hidden away by her father in order to protect her virginity, was discovered by Zeus anyway, and he impregnated her by turning himself into an, ahem, golden shower. In each of these stories, the difference between rape and seduction is negligible. But the common thread is that whether they are seduced or assaulted, each girl is left to sort through the consequences of Zeus’s actions long after the bigger figure loses interest, and the ways she handles the indifference makes her either a good girl or a bad one. 

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which up until at least the early 2000s sported a Vanity Fair blurb calling it “The only convincing love story of our century,” provided a new term for a girl who unfortunately catches the gaze of a grown man. The novel is told from the first-person perspective of Humbert Humbert, a child molester who kidnaps a 12-year-old and rapes her for years before murdering a second child rapist who lures her from him. In the 66 years since Lolita was first published, conversation around what the novel is has never really ceased. Lolita has been labeled an erotic love story, a comedy, a postmodern metaphor, pedophiliac propaganda, and the greatest novel of the 20th century. But what a Lolita is has never been up for debate. From the moment Humbert’s infamous justification of the first time he assaults Dolores—“She seduced me!”—was initially published, a “Lolita” (Humbert’s nickname for Dolores) has been cultural shorthand for a female child who is at least partially responsible for her own rape.

Amy Fisher was not a perfect victim of statutory rape, which in turn made her a perfect subject for the tabloids. Her family was relatively wealthy, and she met Joey Buttafuoco in a body shop after totaling an expensive sports car, which her father replaced with a second expensive sports car. Reporters latched onto these facts as indicators that Fisher was both spoiled and deranged, bashing in her cars to spend more time seducing Buttafuoco. Fisher was too hot for a 16-year-old who didn’t want sex with an older man, Newsweek intimates in its coverage of the case: “Amy had a walk-on-the-wild-side allure. She rinsed a cunning violet into her auburn hair and wore cutoff jeans that fit her like white on rice.” In a particularly cruel Saturday Night Live sketch, Danny Devito attempts to sell spray-on hair to a Mary Jo Buttafuoco, played by Jan Hooks, in order to cover her bald spot from the bullet wound, and Amy Fisher is called a “crazy teenage bitch” twice, just in case the audience didn’t get it the first time.

But the story may never have garnered the kind of international attention and place in cultural memory that it did if the tabloids hadn’t dug up and occasionally orchestrated further proof that Fisher was a “crazy teenage bitch.” Television tabloids aired tape of Fisher working as a prostitute, tape they obtained from an adult man who paid Amy Fisher, legally a child, for sex. Just before Fisher received her sentence of 5 to 15 years in prison for the shooting, another adult man who admitted to having sex with the 17-year-old Fisher negotiated a fee for yet another video he took without her consent, this time of Fisher asking him to marry her in exchange for conjugal prison visits and saying she hoped to buy a Ferrari with the profits that came from selling her story to the major networks and publishers clamoring for it.

For his part, while Buttafuco at first admitted to the statutory rape of Fisher, he soon recanted, joining the tabloids in painting Fisher as a spoiled teenager with an obsessive crush. In media statements, Mary Jo backed him up, calling Fisher a “sick girl” and denying her husband’s involvement. Later, however, the Buttafuco’s attorneys would paint Fisher’s two suicide attempts (which the Seattle Times casually headlined, “Love Triangle Defendant Attempts Suicide Twice”) leading up to her plea deal as something other than the actions of a sick girl; instead, they were the attention cries of a diabolical kid looking to sway public sentiment in her favor. “They’re trying to spin-doctor this,” an attorney for the Buttafucos said at a press conference. “Amy Fisher is no victim.”

And that struggle around how seriously to take Amy Fisher as a victim is evident in cultural imaginings of her story. There were three TV movies made about Fisher, one from each major network at the time, two out of three starring former child actors with “wild” reputations, Alyssa Milano and Drew Barrymore, respectively. The 1993 TV movie The Amy Fisher Story featured Drew Barrymore trying at and missing a Long Island accent she would later pull off in Grey Gardens, but also playing a tabloid fixture personified fairly close to the way tabloids were currently also portraying her. Just one year younger than Fisher, Barrymore had released her own tell-all autobiography, Little Girl Lost, a year before Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco. The details that linger from the biography are the facts that Barrymore was drinking by nine, snorting coke by 11, and in rehab at 13, but it’s also a horrific tale of abuse by her father and neglect by her mother that a teenaged Barrymore, still very much a captive to this home life, attempts to depict as something from which she is far along in the process of overcoming. At 16, Barrymore herself would be engaged to and living with Leland Hayword III, the 24-year-old grandson of a famous Hollywood producer.

And a year before she made the televised Amy Fisher movie, Barrymore made a B-movie that told the story in spirit. Poison Ivy is a cult classic film in which a teenaged Barrymore seduces a high school friend’s father and then wreaks havoc on what was an imperfect but relatively normal upper-middle-class family—if not for the wrecking ball of a teenager’s lust, anyway. Starring Barrymore, 16 years old at the time of filming, opposite a 58-year-old Tom Skerritt, the film is labeled an “erotic thriller” when it is actually closer to child pornography. While many of the more graphic sex scenes between Skerrit’s character and Barrymore’s, like the fondling of a naked breast, clearly use body doubles, there’s no way to substitute a double for scenes featuring a man old enough to be Barrymore’s grandfather kissing her naked neck as the child simulates ecstasy against his body. To his credit, Skerrit looks deeply uncomfortable throughout the film and nearly ready to vomit while kissing a child, which does not seem to be the way the character was written.

But however uncomfortable anyone might have been on the set of that first film, Poison Ivy became a late-night pay cable classic. Alyssa Milano, fresh off her own turn as Amy Fisher, would go on to star in a sequel. Jamie Pressley would star in a third installment. And before she was the ultimate spoiled but big-hearted good girl, Cher Horowitz, Alicia Silverstone the teenaged actor, born two years after Fisher, had already played a Lolita-type figure in multiple Aerosmith videos, including 1993's “Crazy,” in which she played a novice child-stripper. In Silverstone’s 1993 film debut The Crush, she was cast as a hypersexual teenage genius intent on destroying hot neighbor Cary Elwes’s life after he made what the film seems to think is the completely forgivable mistake of making out with a 14-year-old.

Fourteen actually seems to be the magic age for films about hot 1990s bad girls with outsized brains full of sex and violence. Though she is only 12 in Nabokov’s book, the 1997 film adaptation of Lolita (in which the titular character was played by 16-year-old Dominique Swain, opposite a 49-year-old Jeremy Irons), changed her age to 14. The fascination with this number, especially in the Amy Fisher era, makes a certain dark sense: At 16, Amy Fisher was too much of an adult to drum up much sympathy for her status as a child, but a 12-year-old Lolita was, by the 1990s, too much of a child to make room for any grey area in which an audience might buy the girl as a willing, and in some cases murderous, participant in her own abuse.

The legal question of how young is too young has been a source of back and forth in the American court system for over a hundred years. In the 1916 case of Rosa Colletti, a 15-year-old factory worker found to be living with two adult men, both of whom admitted to having sex with her, the law found at least one man guilty of statutory rape, which historian Stephen Robertson highlights as a case illuminating the early twentieth-century fracturing of childhood, which struggled to separate teenagers having sexual encounters with grown men from children who were sexually abused by adults. The question of how high to raise the age of consent was almost exclusively asked of cases involving sex with teenage girls, which Robertson explains “separated sexual children, those in the years around puberty, from younger, innocent children, was a necessary precondition for the emergence of teenagers as a separate class positioned between childhood and adulthood, for their reconceptualization as adolescents.” For Nabokov, or at least Humbert, the age of iffiness hovered around 12. For Hollywood directors in the 1990s, the number had jumped to 14. But for Amy Fisher, and the actors who played her, 16 was too old for the idea of stolen innocence to mitigate the severity of their actions.

While Drew Barrymore’s 1990s persona is defined by her stint in rehab at 13, and Amy Fisher’s by her indisputable assault on Mary Jo Buttafuoco, what’s lost in the “bad girl” narrative is the fact that their stories aren’t born from the whims of pretty children with too much money. They’re the dangerous climaxes of stories featuring girls who had suffered abuse of such life-altering magnitude that is difficult for those who have not suffered similar abuse to imagine. In Little Girl Lost, Drew Barrymore writes about her first memory of her father, the actor John Barrymore, who broke into their home and violently assaulted both her and her mother. The story is a paragraph, while the partying and drug abuse get pages.

Likewise in the straight-to-paperback Lethal Lolita: Eftmiades ostensibly tries to parse how Amy Fisher got so fucked up, asking in its initial chapters: “Who was Amy Fisher? A lovestruck ingenue, desperate for attention? Or a hardened temptress, willing to stop at nothing to possess the man she craved?” without ever seriously considering a third option: Amy Fisher was fucked up because adults made her that way. In the book, which is standard for the Amy Fisher coverage of the time, the author gives just two paragraphs to the fact that sources say Fisher was raped as a 12-year-old by a friend of her father’s doing renovation work on their home.

“She boasted to friends that she’d lost her virginity in the seventh grade,” Eftmaides summarizes. “She’d ‘fucked the tile man.’ Sex had become a gateway to acceptance,” is all the author concludes of the rape. Likewise, the book classified a brutal beating Fisher received from a classmate just prior to the abuses by Buttafuoco, a beating so severe it resulted in facial fractures that required missing extended amounts of class time and a lawsuit between the Fishers and the school, as a relatively minor to the story scuffle between girls. What Eftmaides’s book focuses on is Amy’s wardrobe, her cars, her parents’ affluence, what the book calls Fisher’s “unbridled promiscuity” in her senior year of high school, never suggesting that promiscuity might be wrapped up in the previous violence or the fact that one of her next sexual experiences after being raped by the friend of her father’s was with a 35-year-old man. Not to mention the fact that Amy Fisher would allege that her father had been physically abusive, and eventually even Mary Jo Buttafuoco (in a wildly backhanded forgiveness) would allege that she had been told Amy had been possibly molested by her father, who himself had married her 21-year-old mother as a 39-year old man.

In a verse of her “obvious” single, Fiona Apple begs, “Heaven help me for the way I am/Save me from the evil deeds before I get them done.” Both Amy Fisher and Drew Barrymore’s stories are threaded with that same sense of shame around the inherent evil of growing into bodies irresistible to adult men. Joey Buttafuoco pled guilty to one count of statutory rape and served four months in jail for his “affair” with 16-year-old Amy Fisher, while a detective who worked on the case summarized what authorities believed to be the disparity between Amy Fisher’s assault on Mary Jo Buttafuoco and Joey Buttafuoco’s assault of Amy Fisher thusly: “That guy’s an asshole. But come on. Do you know what would happen if we locked up every guy who made love to a sixteen-year-old?”

Even the title of Barrymore’s first memoir, Little Girl Lost, implies that girlhood is a fragile state of being that can be given or taken away with a hit of a blunt, bump of coke, sexual experience, or simply wearing the wrong outfit. Joey Buttafuoco’s illegal actions, even in the estimation of law enforcement, were completely understandable, as if any man could be a criminal unable to control his urges if a teenage girl’s jeans are tight enough. Meanwhile, in Amy Fisher’s bail hearing, prosecutors argued that she was “totally uncontrollable” and, unlike Buttafouco’s inability to control himself, Fisher’s inability was monstrous. Calling her just a “high school girl,” according to prosecutor Fred Klein, was “as accurate as calling John Gotti a businessman in New York.” However, calling Joey Buttafuoco a statutory rapist, Amy Fisher a victim, or the assault on Mary Jo Buttafuoco anything more than the product of a bad girl’s inexplicable lust, would have, to the media and the public that voraciously consumed that media, been just a bridge too far.

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Minor (but not so minor) quibble: the character name is not Delores but Dolores, literally Spanish for pains.