THE STORY – Brooke Shields, an ’80s icon and household name, was a child model before she came to prominence in Louis Malle’s controversial film “Pretty Baby” at the age of 12. With a series of provocative Calvin Klein jeans ads and leading roles in 1980s teensploitation hits “The Blue Lagoon” and “Endless Love,” Shields’ early career was defined by a sexuality that she could neither claim nor comprehend.
THE CAST – Brooke Shields
THE TEAM – Lana Wilson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 138 Minutes
Prior to watching “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” most of my familiarity with the model-turned-actress came from her stint as Miley Cyrus’ mother on the Disney Channel show “Hannah Montana” – a show I watched when I was far too young to have ever heard of “Pretty Baby” or any of the misogynistic treatment Shields faced from the media throughout her childhood, adolescence, and beyond. Over the years, some of that seeped through as I became more acquainted with pop culture. But even then, I remained unaware of the magnitude of the media’s assault on Shields’ personal and professional identity and how emblematic it came to be of their treatment of women – particularly young women – overall. That said, I’m sure many individuals will watch this documentary feeling as if they’ve learned nothing new, either because they lived through these events themselves or have already heard these stories elsewhere. But, no matter. The story of Brooke Shields bears repeating – and in such a tight, thoroughly researched manner as this – because even in 2023, we seem to have learned nothing from it. Because even in 2023, this is still happening.
Brooke Shields never knew a life where she wasn’t in the public eye, landing her first modeling job when she was only 11 months old. Likewise, she hardly ever knew a life outside of her “sex symbol” status, a status that was ingrained in the public’s psyche from her controversial role as a child prostitute in the 1978 film “Pretty Baby.” The film was meant to depict the harsh reality of child prostitution in the early 1900s instead of endorsing said behavior, but did filming a 12-year-old Shields in the nude and shooting a scene where she kisses a 29-year-old Keith Carradine muddy that message? The debate rages on to this day, but one thing is for sure: from that point forward, Shields’ sexuality was her defining attribute to audiences around the world, so much so that people forget there was a real person (a child, mind you) underneath this prevailing perception. Additionally, all the gigs that followed for Shields sought to exalt this attribute at the expense of all else, from her controversial Calvin Klein ads to her roles in the 1980s “Blue Lagoon” and 1981’s “Endless Love.” In the face of accusations that her mom Teri was exploiting her, Shields always maintained that she had control over her career choices and did what she did to secure financial security for herself and her mother. But can a teenager ever be truly aware of the social cost of this sexualization? She certainly couldn’t have had the foresight to see how it would plague her forever, as few did at that time.
In director Lana Wilson’s hands (of “Miss Americana” fame), “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” toggles back and forth between the argument of whether or not Shields’ early opportunities were examples of exploitation or “female empowerment.” This causes us to interrogate our own interpretations of the choices she and her mother made, ultimately landing on the conclusion that the media was more at fault than anyone, particularly for how they refused to allow her to escape her early image as she tried to stretch her wings as a young woman and pursue new passions. Especially by attending college at Princeton University and considering comedic projects to break free of her former star persona. But God forbid a woman to be beautiful, smart, and funny, right? The American media sure couldn’t stomach it, constantly criticizing Shields for any attempt she made at making herself be seen as the multidimensional individual she truly was, always boxing her back into “bimbo” stereotypes or centering all conversations about her career around her sexuality (at one point even openly harassing her on television – many times over – about her virginity, after her first book “On Your Own” referred to it). It was unfathomable that a woman this beautiful – and this sexualized – could be a virgin or have any say over her sexual agency, and from then on, she had to face the plight of being a prude in the public eye as well. There was no winning.
The film takes us all the way up to the present day, ending rather triumphantly with Shields’ ascension as a key voice in the fight for the normalization of postpartum depression. By the final frame, it’s as if we’ve lived this life alongside Shields, so the eventual reclamation of her agency and identity hits much harder because Wilson has done such a phenomenal job ushering us to this outcome (and even if it feels long in the moment, aside from a few lulls in pacing here or there – excusable for a streaming special – it’s worth it). Still, some may say, “Why Shields?” “Why now?” What makes her story worth telling? Well, that would be because, although she’s far from the first example of the sexualization of young women in the media. She’s one of the most prominent and one that laid the groundwork for how the public perceives the stars of today – especially since not much has changed. This century alone, the likes of Britney Spears, Megan Fox, Millie Bobby Brown, Billie Eilish, and more have faced the same kind of sexualization and subsequent dehumanization – reducing one to nothing but their sexuality and doing so when they’re still far too young to perceive this (and speak) for themselves – even as millions raise the red flag and pull up historical precedents like Shields to show the media how they’re repeating the same malicious mistakes. And until they reverse course for good, stories like Shields will always be timeless – and tragically timely.