In Pretty Baby, Brooke Shields Contemplates The Difference Between Exploitation & A Mother’s Love

Because she survived, Shields was able to raise girls who know they are worthy of a different world than the one that raised their mother.

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Before I sat down to watch Pretty Baby, the new Hulu documentary about Brooke Shields, I accidentally downloaded the original feature film Pretty Baby, which stars a very young Shields and which I had somehow never heard of. I am an elder millennial and just a bit too young to have known much about Shields or her films. I had seen clips of The Blue Lagoon, knew Shields was married to Andre Agassi, and knew she starred in Suddenly Susan, but other than that, I had no real relationship to her or her story. My ignorance is a testament to her near-erasure by the time the mid-’90s rolled in, something she also speaks to in her two part docuseries.

There is a reason the documentary about Shields’ life is named for Pretty Baby, the 1978 film in which she plays a sexually exploited child forced into prostitution by her own mother (played by Susan Sarandon). It is not entirely without parallel to Shields’ own life.

I made it through about four seconds of the opening credits before I realized that this is not the documentary, actually, quickly turned it off, and spent much longer than I should have trying to get reimbursed for the $3.99 I spent on the film. Not because I spent $3.99 on a film but because I spent $3.99 on a film where an 11-year-old Shields — the same age as my youngest daughters — gets naked on screen and kisses an adult man.

Shields came of age as a cultural butterfly, pinned against a wall for the world to scrutinize, obsess over, sexualize, and then virginize.

I had accidentally participated in something I did not want to participate in, which made me think about all of the other times I have done that very thing. It felt poetic, the more I thought about it, the bait and switch of media consumption — of buying into the wrong narrative thinking it was the right one. Of making it a mission to detangle from the wires of patriarchy only to select auto-pay on its electric bills.

Times may not have changed that much, but what has changed, thanks in part to movements like #MeToo, is many women’s willingness to call out injustice and go public with their stories. But Pretty Baby (the documentary) doesn’t necessarily call anyone out, which is what makes it feel so authentic. It is also frustrating. There are times when Shields seems to justify the behavior of those who scrutinized, exploited, and sexualized her before she was old enough to recognize what that meant. In writing about it here, I feel torn between enthusiastically supporting Shields’ courage and triumph in surviving her life and sharing her story and feeling triggered by her clear need to walk the same tightrope she has walked her entire life in order to survive.

Pretty Baby begins with archival footage of a man interviewing Shields as a young child. After leeringly asking her how she feels about “all this fuss being made over her” on live TV, in front of a studio audience, he goes on to say: “You really are an exquisite looking young lady... I know you’ve been told that, but isn’t she,” (turning to the audience), “a pretty, pretty girl?”

Brooke and Teri Shields in New York City in 1978.Getty Images

At this point, we pan out to see Brooke’s mother, Teri Shields, sitting beside her, grinning proudly as the man gestures toward the audience to applaud Brooke’s beauty. That he feels he can say this without consequence in a televised interview is one thing. Imagine the kind of things men were saying to her behind closed doors. But the way Brooke receives the compliment — unflinchingly, because no one (not her mother, the industry, or our social standards) has given her permission to feel anything but flattered by the attention — is really what the documentary is about.

Moments later, in another interview, Teri calls her daughter a work of art. “And like any beautiful painting,” she adds, “I think the world should enjoy Brooke and view her.” Here we have a girl served up on a platter, grinning in the direction of the camera as she is devoured, her own mother — the person tasked with shepherding her through childhood — sharpening everyone’s knives.

“You want to protect the people you love even if they’re deeply flawed and damaged and damaging.”

And yet, I don’t doubt Teri’s love for Brooke and vice versa. There is nuance here that Brooke speaks to directly throughout the documentary. Her love for her mother is palpable, which is what makes her story so painful. And while she can easily call out her mother’s alcohol use disorder as abusive, she struggles to criticize her mother’s hold on her selfhood. Brooke’s longtime friend, the actor Laura Linney, says to this point, “There’s a pact. You want to protect the people you love even if they’re deeply flawed and damaged and damaging.”

Shields came of age as a cultural butterfly, pinned against a wall for the world to scrutinize, obsess over, sexualize, and then virginize. It’s no wonder that the same society that normalized her exploitation would accept it, too. This was what I kept coming back to — that Brooke Shields, once called the most famous woman in the world (before she was even legally a woman), is representative of every tween/teenage girl groomed to believe that the power she amassed from her commodification and objectification was real power. Personhood versus presentation. Girl versus gaze. Sexual woman versus sexualized girl.

Because she survived, Shields was able to raise girls who know they are worthy of a different world than the one that raised their mother.

Ironically, Shields goes from harlot child (Pretty Baby) to famous adult virgin in the span of a few years, both sides of the same obsession with a projected sexuality from which she was completely detached. (In her candid 2015 memoir, There Was a Little Girl, Shields wrote about abstaining from sex until she was 22.) Shields explains that during a sex scene in 1981’s Endless Love, she dissociated, becoming a vapor of herself. She was 15 years old at the time and had no experience with sex or orgasm, so the director twisted her toe so she would moan in pain — a sound, he believed, resembled pleasure.

Brooke Shields and her mother, Teri, in 1984.Getty

And yet, Shields speaks of her experiences with the same disassociation she had during the filming of her movies. It’s almost as if she hasn’t fully processed what happened to her — that she is only now, at age 57, finally hearing herself as she bravely speaks to us on camera.

I think most girls have a misconception that our beauty equals power and that the way we are perceived by the outside world is an honest translation of our worth. That we must appeal to that perception, validate it with a willingness to participate in a system that bends and breaks us without its consent. To be young and beautiful and a girl in the world is to believe that there is more power to be gained in our objectification than there is in our unwillingness to tolerate it. As we age away from youth, we realize that beauty and power have a far more paradoxical relationship and that even when we felt autonomous as teenage girls, we weren’t really. We were, in fact, guided by cultural and familial influence.

As teenagers, many of us never got the chance to own our beauty, or even our sexuality, because others had perceived it — defined it, exploited it — before we ever had the chance to perceive ourselves. There’s a moment toward the middle of the documentary when Shields, now in college, speaks to the camera about her experience as a student at Princeton. “I was called into the dean of the college’s office, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘Do you feel that you can have your own hypotheses?’ I looked at him, and I said, ‘I feel that I can take other people’s hypotheses and expound upon them, but as far as originating, I’ve never felt confident enough in the opinions that I have.’”

College became the place where Shields could step out of her role as obedient ingenue and into her own power, but how could she recognize her power when it has been so manipulated? So dependent on other people’s perceptions? “The hardest part for me was really knowing who I was,” she says. And in telling her story, her unraveling of this narrative is palpable. Like watching someone’s epiphanies in real time.

In another batch of archival footage, which appears toward the end of Pretty Baby, Shields, age 10 or 11, is asked what she wants to be when she grows up. She smiles and says, “I would like to be a mother.”

Knowing what she was going through as a daughter and as a child, it makes it all the more poignant that her experience doesn’t deter her from having children of her own. It is also the first time Shields appears to be her own person. Until then, there had been an extremely warranted deer-in-headlights vibe.

When it finally happens at age 41, motherhood does something to Shields’ eyes — and you can see it in photos of her pregnant, posing halfway nude, this time on her terms. Something has shifted. Shields is no longer the daughter of her mother; she is the mother of her child. After the birth of her first daughter, Shields struggled with postpartum depression and became a vocal advocate for PPD care, empowering a generation of new mothers through her advocacy. It is in this advocacy that she roots herself and from there, blooms into the woman we see today: a survivor chemically, socially, sexually, and culturally, her lens a kaleidoscope of female struggle. Which is perhaps why I had to re-watch the documentary several times in order to reevaluate my initial reaction.

I wanted more from this series. A certain kind of self-awareness, rebellion, or both. I wanted to see a woman sick and tired of making excuses for everyone else’s bad behavior. I wanted a woman unafraid to call the whole system out. I wanted vengeance.

Which isn’t very fair of me.

I wouldn’t call out my rapist by name while on camera, either. (Shields was raped by a Hollywood producer in the ’90s but declines to name him publicly.) I am still protecting people I shouldn’t. Perhaps I always will. When you are modeled a certain kind of girlhood, of womanhood, of motherhood, where do you find the tools to step outside of that?

And therein lies the authenticity, the relatability and frustration of Brooke Shields’ Pretty Baby. Shields’ story is hers, of course, but it also represents the impossibility of succeeding in a world that benefits from a woman’s compliance and punishes us for speaking up. Even after everything she’s been through, an aptly named Shields is still protecting everyone she’s ever loved. Which is exactly what she was trained to do.

Brooke Shields with her husband, Chris Henchy, and their younger daughter, Grier, at the premiere of Hulu’s Pretty Baby this spring.Getty Images

Hope comes in the last few minutes of Part 2 — a shift between generations as exhibited by a candid family dinner conversation. Shields’ husband, Chris Henchy, a producer and director, notably, but also respectfully, says nothing, while her outspoken teenage daughters echo everything the viewer has felt for the last two hours: That none of this was ever OK. That Shields “wasn’t mature enough to make her own decisions” when it came to posing nude for an audience as a young child. That Shields’ mother, Teri, made decisions for her daughter that would qualify today as abuse.

They also call out the entire industry for oversexualizing young girls.

Their reluctance to go along with the narrative that Sheilds has held against herself in order to survive feels like a redemption. They are breaking a cycle, becoming the kind of daughters Shields was never allowed to be. And in their biting commentary, there is light for her, for them, for all of us.

I wanted more from this series. I wanted a woman unafraid to call the whole system out. I wanted vengeance.

It made me think of all the mothers who are raising the daughters we couldn’t be into the young women we wish we were. Recognizing the traumatic deaths of our own childhoods with posthumous tenderness. Healing our own trauma by looking forward, equipped with the only rebellion that subverts our instincts to self-preserve: a no holds-barred fight-to-the-death willingness to raise free-thinking, culturally defiant daughters.

Daughters who are clearly confident in the opinions that they have.

Because she survived, Shields was able to raise girls who know they are worthy of a different world than the one that raised their mother.

And in that, there is extraordinary hope for us all.

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