Brooke Shields’ ‘Pretty Baby’ exposes the sting of childhood sexualization

By Sophia Pargas

In a newly released Hulu docuseries, childhood star Brooke Shields opens up about her experience growing up as Hollywood’s adolescent sex icon. Though her individual encounters are nothing short of sickening, the most horrifying aspect of the docuseries is the overwhelming feeling that lingers as the screen goes black: in some way or another, every young woman was once a little girl who was sexualized such as Shields was. 

The two-part docuseries explores Shields’ innocent start in the entertainment industry as “America’s most beautiful child.” As soon as she was born, her mother believed her daughter was destined for fame. Almost immediately, she began searching for opportunities—and was pleased to find that the world shared her same awe of Shields’ beauty.  

In the beginning of her career, Shields was the face of blameless television advertisements for companies such as Colgate and Gerber. These campaigns are as they should be: simple, innocent, and childlike. 

As she became more recognizable, however, her beauty was sought after for all the wrong reasons. During a time when second-wave feminism was on the rise, the documentary suggests that Shields became the “loophole” through which men continued to enforce misogynist views into everyday life. Though there was growing frustration over the sexualization of women on television, men found their new target in the most unexpected of people: the naive little girl known for her beautiful face and bright blue eyes.  

The start of Shields’ appalling career in “child porn films” began with the 1978 film “Pretty Baby,” from which the docuseries gets its name. The film follows 12 year-old Violet, played by 11 year-old Shields, as she lives in a brothel and acts as an apprentice prostitute. The plot ensues when her virginity is auctioned off and sold to the highest bidder, played by 28 year-old Keith Carradine. 

Though the film’s director, Louis Malle, described it as an artistic denouncement of the culture of sexualization at the time, it did anything but. Instead, “Pretty Baby” popularized the exploitation of little girls and declared Shields the poster child. In the film, she was forced to have a “first kiss” scene with a grown man, which she opens up about in the docuseries. To Malle’s protest, scenes of Shield fully nude as well as of her with her legs open and pubic hair exposed were forced to be cut from the film. 

While “Pretty Baby” garnered an uproar of controversy and distaste in the media, this did not put a stop to the continued mistreatment of Shields in the film industry. “Blue Lagoon” and “Endless Love” quickly followed, each depicting the young girl’s staged sexual awakening in extreme and reprehensible detail. Shields recalls one “Endless Love” sex scene in which the director twisted her toe to inflict pain that would mimic ecstasy—at only 14 years old, this was a feeling completely unfamiliar to her. 

As her life progressed, Shields felt the sting of sexualization in seemingly every aspect of her coming of age. In a stark contrast to the assumptions the public made about her, she describes having a childlike innocence throughout her teenage years. She developed an aversion to sex and even an oblivion to being sexualized, as exemplified during her infamous Calvin Klein ad campaign. 

At only 16 years old, Shields was photographed in extremely compromising positions that are—from an outside perspective—overtly sexual. The slogan of the campaign is: “You want to know what comes in between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” Even still, Shields recalls viewing such instances as merely acting, and trusting that her elders would veto any roles that put her in harm’s way. 

With an alcoholic and often absent mother, Shields describes grappling with her love for her role model and her wonderment that so much of her childhood was spent in such a damaging spotlight. It was not until she describes going off to college that we as the audience begin to see Shields relent in her protection of the circumstances of her youth. 

Branching out of the industry and into Princeton University, Shields describes experiencing loneliness as many of her peers were either intimidated by her fame or disgusted by her work. In only her second year, her agents pushed her to release a book that gave away a personal and intimate detail: she was still a virgin. 

Present-day Shields admits this caused a spiral in her life as she now became known as the face of remarkable and unsurprising innocence. The actress intimately shares that when she eventually did lose her virginity, she broke out into sobs and ran down the hallway of her dorm in just a sheet, feeling as if she had let the world down. 

“Pretty Baby” touches upon many more topics such as marriage, divorce, pregnancy, postpartum disorder, and eventually motherhood. The docuseries goes on to explain that throughout every stage of her life, Shields felt as if the little girl of her past stuck with her in some way or another—whether that be in feelings of empowerment, worthlessness, confusion, guilt, or helplessness. 

In simply creating this documentary and being vulnerable enough to share her truth, Brooke Shields challenges the world which chose her as its target of sexualization, exploitation, and misogyny. 

As a young woman, the documentary seemed to speak to every instance in which I—and every other woman like me—has experienced the often subtle uncomfortability that accompanies coming of age. Though Shields was once idolized as an unknowing object of sexism and perversion, she has reclaimed her identity as a protector of women—both for the little girl she used to be and the ones who are still forced to follow in her footsteps.