Brooke Shields bravely faces the sexual exploitation of her own child

Brooke Shields bravely faces the sexual exploitation of her own child

To say that Brooke Shields was objectified in her early years would be the understatement of the century. It’s hard to understand how any of this happened, or how anyone thought it was okay, through a contemporary lens — nude modeling at ten, branded “world’s youngest sex symbol” at 12, appearing nude in a major Hollywood movie with 15. That she’s been able to achieve some semblance of normality, let alone graduate from Princeton and become a powerful voice for mothers everywhere is extraordinary.

“You know, my professional life is such a life force in me because it’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” Shields says in a new documentary. “Sometimes I’m amazed I survived any of it.”

In Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, a two-part documentary that premieres at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will air on Hulu later this year, the former child star looks clear-eyed at her commodification and coercion, and is finally allowed to control her own narrative .

Shields began modeling when he was a baby and appeared in an Ivory soap commercial. As she grew older, although still a child, cultural forces began to sexualize her in disturbing ways — a reaction, cultural critics in the film suggest, to second-wave feminism. When she turned 11, Shields was cast as a child prostitute in Pretty Baby, directed by the late French filmmaker Louis Malle. In one scene in the film, her character is literally brought out on a tray and auctioned off to the highest bidder. In another, she kisses actor Keith Carradine, a grown man.

“We had a first kiss scene. I had never kissed anyone before,” Shields recalls in the film. “I thought, oh my god, I should know how to do this, but I don’t know how to do this. Every time Keith [Carradine] tried to make the kiss I would grimace. And Louis was mad at me.”

Brooke Shields bravely faces the sexual exploitation of her own

Brooke Shields and her mother and manager Teri Shields in 1981. Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

This was a common theme: men controlling a Shields far too young. At 15 she appeared naked in the film Blue Lagoon, a kind of perverted fantasy film about two teenagers who fall in love on a desert island. Shields, who hasn’t had sex with a man at the time, describes it as a “reality show” where they “wanted to sell my actual sexual awakening.” That year she also directed Endless Love, directed by the late Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who was so frustrated during the film’s sex scene that Shields wasn’t giving him what he wanted that he began twisting her toe.

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“Zeffirelli kept grabbing my toe and twisting it so I looked like… I guess ecstasy? But it was more scary than anything because he hurt me,” she recalls.

Shields was raised by her mother, Teri (her parents divorced when she was young), a bohemian “force of nature” from Newark, New Jersey who has struggled with a serious drinking problem her entire life. Shield’s childhood friend Laura Linney describes in the film how the two hid in Shield’s bedroom as children while Teri was drunk and out of control.

“I didn’t enjoy that success in the ’80s. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I made it.’ All those things that were somehow associated with being these ‘sexy’ personalities just didn’t feel like who I really was,” says Shields. “I didn’t blame my mother, but I wish she’d said a little more, ‘Oh, let’s see what that’s going to mean. And would that come back to bite us?’”

Director Lana Wilson (Miss Americana) chronicles Shields’ entire journey over the course of the film’s 136 minutes, from her highly publicized relationship with Michael Jackson (“It was very childish…we were just friends”) to sitcom success with Suddenly Susan and to serve as a public advocate for mothers suffering from postpartum depression, much to the chagrin of a certain senior Scientologist.

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One of the most chilling parts of the document concerns an episode starring photographer Gary Gross – an apt name if there ever was one. By the time Shields was ten, Gross, who was considered a family friend, had taken nude photos of her in a bathtub, which were published in a book by Rizzoli. By the time she turned 16 and had become a worldwide superstar, Gross tried to sell the photos. So Shields and her mother sued him in a court in New York.

Shields, who was also only 16 at the time, spent two days on the witness stand and was moved to tears. At one point, Gross’ attorney even asked her, “You used to enjoy posing naked didn’t you?” (She was 10 years old.) To make matters worse, the court sided with Gross and claimed he possessed these nude pictures of a child and had the right to deal with them as he saw fit.

“The breach of trust and friendship hurt me more than I’ve ever felt uncomfortable about the nature of the photo,” says Shields. “That’s how I was treated by the men involved in the whole thing. It was so cheap, low class – there was zero integrity in it and to me that was so upsetting and hurtful. I mean, all my life, over and over and over again, it’s been said, ‘She’s got a pretty face.’ “She’s a sex symbol.” And that always seared me because the nerdy kind of dumb person who was creative and intelligent was at the core of who I was.”

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Brooke Shields attends MoMA’s Twelfth Annual Film Benefit presented by CHANEL honoring Laura Dern on November 12, 2019 in New York City. Craig Barritt/Getty Images for MoMA

By the time she graduated high school, Shields had regained some control over her life. She went to Princeton (where she graduated), wrote books, and became a spokesperson for teenage girls.

“For a long time it never occurred to me to have an opinion of my own. I was like, just listen to everyone and take what they say,” Shields says. “I’ve spent my life owing people things and doing what they wanted. Finally, I asked myself: who will I be if I no longer allow this to happen?”

After graduation, however, she found that film reels had dried up. She says she was “vulnerable” and was sexually assaulted around this time by an unnamed film producer under the guise of meeting for a role. It’s a story she’s never shared publicly before.

“I was just frozen,” she shares. “My single ‘no’ should have been enough. And I just thought, ‘Stay alive and get out.’ And I just blanked it out. And God knows I knew how to detach myself from my body. I had practiced that.”

She continues, “I wanted to erase the whole thing from my mind and body and just stay on the path I was on. And the system never came to my rescue, you know? So I just had to get stronger on my own.”

And she did. Shields discovered she had a knack for comedy, first with a cameo on Friends as Joey’s stalker girlfriend and then with her own hit NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan, which ran for four seasons. She fell in love with tennis player Andre Agassi, who proved jealous and controlling, and then found true happiness with comedy writer Chris Henchy, whom she married in 2001.

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After the birth of her child, Shields became the public face of postpartum depression, writing a book and going on talk shows to discuss it, giving a voice to mothers around the world who had been experiencing similar problems. Shields even helped pass the Mothers Act — an important piece of legislation that provided additional resources to help mothers with postpartum depression. Overall, her story is a remarkable story of resilience.

“I think I wanted to say, ‘You all think I can’t do this, but watch me,'” says Shields. “And I think the same thing happened in college too. You know, ‘She won’t mean it.’ ‘She won’t be that smart.’ But I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not only going to surprise them, I’m going to surprise myself.’”