top of page


- Jasmijn Groot -

In the 1980s, Brooke Shields was one of America's biggest icons. A model, child star and actress, for countless years on end, she was literally everywhere, from billboards to television screens and from cinemas to magazine covers. The documentary Brooke Shields: Pretty Baby shows in detail what Shields herself has hinted at already in the past: that it wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In 140 minutes, spread over two episodes, Shields tries to tell the story behind her career on the one hand, the common thread of which is, that, as a child, she was a victim of an alcoholic mother, a perverse entertainment industry and general misogyny. On the other hand, together with a number of experts, she attempts to place her story within the timeline of American feminism and anti-feminism. She succeeds very well at her first goal. The second one gives little room for nuance and leaves the viewer with many questions, which arguably was not the intention of any of the people involved.

For as long as she can remember, Brooke Shields was working. Managed by her mother Teri, a young Brooke scoured photoshoot after photoshoot, built up an impressive portfolio, and paid the rent of the house she lived in with her mother. The success she had built up with her widely admired looks only seemed to expand further with the jump to the silver screen. However, during her teenage years, a number of roles came her way, that already back then created controversy immediately, leaving a strange aftertaste in the mouths of both the actress, as well as media scholars and feminists.

Brooke Shields is probably best known for her work in the films Pretty Baby (1978) and Blue Lagoon (1980), in which she played highly sexualised characters. During the same period, she was also the face of a Calvin Klein campaign, in which she, along with a number of other young teenage models, had to come across as overtly seductive. Shields, her family and friends, and a number of experts, place the height of Brookes' media presence amongst other developments taking place in the United States at the time. Feminists had taken a stand against the sexualisation of women in the 1960s and 1970s, which was then increasingly opposed by the US media. As one expert speaker aptly puts it, their response was: "You're not going to be traditionally feminine? We'll replace you with little girls." As a result, the early 1980s saw a new conservative wind blow through America, equating the sexualisation of young girls, visible in street view, with a highly accessible brand of soft porn.

Brooke Shields' story goes to show that serious flaws were an issue within American society, the entertainment world, and Brooke's own environment at the time. Above all, Brooke did not understand the sexuality she had to portray as a child actress, due to her relationship with her mother Teri. She was an unpredictable alcoholic, who had the impression of possessing some sort of power over her daughter. If Brooke became even slightly independent, it threatened the control Teri exercised over her. At the same time, on film sets, little to no consideration was given by the male directors to the child star's young age, which has left Shields with unpleasant feelings. In addition, Brooke has been the vistim of exploitation, rape, and a leak of photos in which she posed nude - and, hello, was only 9 years old! The Justice Department legally sidelined her, for the same reason Pamela Anderson would have nothing to say about the distribution of a video stolen from her home years later: Brooke Shields was an actress and model, who had starred in several explicit films, and who, for that reason alone, couldn’t possibly have any problem with the photos being distributed further.

A number of milestones in her life only made it clearer to Brooke that she could no longer represent anything other than a sexualised creature to the film industry. She noticed that she was less in demand, when she went to university and her career began to falter, because she was also intelligent. And when she talked about her experience of postnatal depression as an adult, she was dragged through the mud by Tom Cruise, who felt he knew better what she was talking about - for which he eventually apologised.

Everyone in the documentary seems to take a very American stance on the subject of sexualising young (teenage) girls: it can only be harmful, so it shouldn't be possible. But this does leave me with some questions. Since the global #MeToo scandal, more and more filmmakers have been taking employee safety extremely seriously. A very good example is the Netflix hit series Bridgerton, the producers of which hired an intimacy specialist, in order to perform sex scenes as safely as possible. With such safety measures in place, should we still not be allowed to depict the budding sexuality of young women? Not even with the intention of making the audience feel uncomfortable, or to make them think critically, as was precisely the intention with a film like Pretty Baby? And what about representation? There is still a huge taboo on female sexuality, especially with young women. Isn't that partly due to the backlash against Brookes films? And wouldn't a better representation of strong female teenage characters exploring their sexuality with full awareness actually benefit young girls? Besides, what about the objectification of men? Should we just stop doing that altogether too?

These are all very valid questions, and I dare say with certainty that the makers of this documentary did not want to leave them with its viewers.

Brooke Shields: Pretty Baby can now be streamed now on Disney+.


Image: Disney+ (2023) Brooke Shields: Pretty Baby.


bottom of page