‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ – Review

A brave and honest unraveling of female trauma through a subject who experienced it to the fullest effect.

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is not the average ‘former megastar walks her audience through her life thus far.’ It is, in fact, much deeper than that. Everyone knows that Brooke Shields was the child star of the 1970s and face of the 1980s and 1990s. She was the ‘It Girl’ if there ever was one. Every girl wanted to be her, and every boy wanted her. But her stardom also came with controversy and a ‘sex symbol’ status before she was old enough to drive a car. Propelled into fame at age eleven for playing a child prostitute in 1987’s Pretty Baby, Shields’ physical beauty and (at the time nonexistent) sexuality were her defining characteristics. She was beautiful, and she sold a lot of tickets. This beauty landed her roles in, also, controversial films such as The Blue Lagoon (in which Shields was 14), and Endless Love (Shields was 16). Not to mention, her famous Calvin Klein commercials when she was 15. Controversy or not, young Shields was at the center of the world.

Through a 2023 lens, it is apparent to everyone and Shields, now 57, that she was oversexualized and taken advantage of in her youth. While Shields claims that her mother/manager, Teri, had her best intentions at heart, was in a safe working environment, and was in control of her image, one must still ask: how many young girls are fully in control of how they are being seen?

This is the question that Shields and director Lana Wilson contemplate in the two-part documentary, currently streaming on Hulu. The answer is grayer than one would assume. Through talking heads, including Shields, it is clear that the media played a huge role in Shields’s image and child sex symbol status. For example, they would criticize Shields’s mother for allowing her daughter to appear in these films while simultaneously praising the male directors for their artwork. It’s completely jarring to see the media, consisting mostly of grown men, behave in the same way the men were depicted in Pretty Baby – obsessing over the physicality of a child and thereby, forcing her into an image of sexual desire before she even knew what that meant.

“Isn’t she a pretty girl?” TV host Mike Douglas asks his audience about the young Shields. She is obviously uncomfortable, partly due to her shyness and lack of comprehension of how deep the statement goes. But something is innately telling her it’s off-putting as she comes to realize that something that she thought was made with good intentions is generating the wrong message. An idea about her is quickly snowballing, and she has absolutely no say in the matter. This idea, unfortunately, follows Shields for the majority of her career, forcing her into the binary of ‘the hot one.’

Throughout the film, Wilson allows Shields to process her past traumatic experiences but also allows her female audience to do the same. It’s as if Shields’s re-contextualization of her past permits the audience to self-reflect on prior moments where they may not have been in as much control as they thought, showcasing that what happened to Shields (unfortunately) isn’t out of the ordinary.

The documentary is at its strongest when it is less about Shields’s career and more about how her experience represents how the world treats women as a whole. This is explicitly explained through a montage of hyper-sexualized photos of girls accompanied by Jean Kilbourne’s voiceover as she states, “One of the responses to the dominant culture to feminism was the sexualization of little girls. It’s almost as if we’re told, ‘You’re not going to be traditionally feminine? We’ll replace you with little girls.’” Wilson makes her point clear: Shields is not a unique subject matter in terms of her experiences; she is unique in the quantity and public forum for which her experiences occurred on. Wilson is not just providing Shields with a safe environment to process the events of her life; she is showing that Shields is a vacuum into the female experience.

Towards the end of the film, Shields has a conversation with her two teenage daughters about the ethics of being eleven and nude on film. Her daughters immediately reject the idea and say that today, adult actors play teenagers that engage in intimate moments. This makes sense to Shields, as legal adults can consent to explicit scenes, whereas eleven-year-old her could not. But she counters it and asks about her children posting pictures of them in bikinis on Instagram and TikTok. Her daughters state that those are okay since they are the ones posting the pictures and have agency and empowerment over said actions. But Shields knows that they cannot fully control who sees those photos and the narratives they can take on. It is here that she and Wilson showcase that yes, times have changed, but they also haven’t changed as much as we would like to think. Society and the entertainment industry didn’t stop capitalizing on young girls’ budding sexuality. The male gaze is still extremely strong and continues to drag young girls, unwillingly, into the world of adult sexuality at a rapid pace.

Which is why Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields should be a required viewing to understand how explicitly dangerous girlhood, female adolescence, and womanhood are because of the dominating force of the (adult) male gaze that is so hard to escape. Yes, it is long and could have told its entire story within one sitting, but the message is still palpable. One immediately starts to think of other starlets who were hypersexualized at far too young of an age, ending girlhood too soon or skipping female adolescence altogether. Names like Millie Bobby Brown, Miley Cyrus, Mary-Kate and Ashely Olsen, Britney Spears, and Scarlett Johansson quickly come to mind. But one also thinks about the young girls getting dress coded in school for wearing tank tops, the millions of preteens and teenagers on social media growing up at an alarming rate for likes (and therefore, desirability), and the billions of girls in the world just trying to exist yet who know to not walk alone at night. While we might not have experienced the immense hyper-sexualization that Shields did, we all have a similar story. It’s ironic, looking back, how we all wanted to be Brooke Shields. Little did we know that we were all Brooke Shields. We were all the pretty baby. Therefore, films like these will always be necessary. 

Grade: A-

Oscars Prospects:
Likely: None
Should be Considered: None

Where to Watch: Hulu

Lauren LaMagna
she/her @laurenlamango
Lives in New York and was raised on science-fiction. Nicole Kidman once said her hair was pretty.
Favorite Director: James Cameron
Sign: Aquarius

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