‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ Adds Dimensions to the Exploited Starlet Archetype

Sarah Wagoner
4 min readApr 3, 2023

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields utilizes the cultural image of Brooke Shields to question the usage of the Lolita figure in popular culture. By that description, one could infer that the film would only cover the widely known exploitation of her underage body. However, the film brings us closer to her in order to deconstruct the cultural image of Brooke Shields. While the documentary focuses on the span of her life, its exploration of Pretty Baby (1978) provides much-needed nuance for the genre of problematic artistic retrospective. The film’s empathetic approach is a necessary step for retrospective documentaries, as it provides a balance in understanding artistic value in uncomfortable art while analyzing the harms placed upon young actors.

Pretty Baby (1978) is a prime example of the complication of exploitation films. While the film’s usage of Brooke Shields’ underage body can described in no other way than “deplorable”, the film itself does not carry an easy anti- or pro- child sex work message, although the script does. As Karina Longworth points out in the Hulu documentary, Polly Platt’s script was clearly meant to explore the depths of child sexual abuse while satirizing the sexual exploitation of the 70s film industry. However, Louis Malle, the director, took an observational approach which broaches the script’s intentions, leaving the film to be a “rorschach test” (Wilson 19:24–19:41). While I find Karina Longworth can often find herself oversimplifying exploitative, and even erotic, films as they relate to feminist issues, her critique of Pretty Baby (1978) not only acts as a nuanced view of the male gaze in relation to female-written script, but provides necessary context for the film’s impact upon Shields’ life. The film contains routes for critique that could’ve acted as roads for survival, but in execution, it was ground zero for the abuse she would encounter. She was a known model before the film, but the usage of her prepubescent nude body led to the outward sexualization of her image. Soon after the film’s release she would be treated in the same essence of her child sex worker character; as nothing more than a taboo sexual commodity.

Other documentaries on the mistreated starlet (such as The New York Times’ Britney Spears documentary) paint a broad brush regarding the discourse surrounding the starlet. They may state that once in the eyes of the public, every group would bombard them with a fetishistic gaze. While this framing provides some accuracy, it ignores the morally concerned groups that always arise alongside the fetishistic hoards. Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields does not fall down this well. In contrast, director Lana Wilson includes the backlash of Pretty Baby (1978) to highlight the hypocrisy in discourses. Rather than blaming Louis Malle for utilizing child nudity and child sexuality, critics attacked Teri Shields, Brooke’s mother. Another cup of nuance is poured into the documentary as the backlash increases. Yes, the talking heads argue, Teri was irresponsible for allowing her daughter to be in a sexually exploitative film. Later on, Brooke even questions why her mother took no issue with sexual exploitation but was upset with less consequential breaches of her trust. However, the mother-daughter dynamic is one so often glorified and misconstrued in American culture that all actions are under a microscope, leading to a stronger response than if any other dynamic were at play. At times, this section appears to be an excuse for Teri’s behavior as they don’t emphasize the responsibility Teri had, but ultimately the film’s thorough examination of the mother-daughter manager-client leads to a stronger rhetorical analysis of the discourse surrounding Pretty Baby (1978).

The film does not only center Pretty Baby, examining the multiple emotional lows and professional highs of her career and personal life. We are taken through her Calvin Klein ads, Blue Lagoon, her journey with sexuality, and her postpartum depression. But with each section, there is a flowing narrative, as empathy towards Brooke is the central focus. The aforementioned narrative largely comes together in the linear exploration of the topics, but we still see an overwhelming care for Brooke. No segment goes by without her perspective centering the issue. Nor do any of the speakers act antagonistic towards her perspective. Every speaker is in conversation, bringing the documentary to a healthy discourse that deconstructs the toxic discourses of the past.

The film ends with a balanced view of celebrity lives today, still concerned over the rushed sexualization of young girls (though I would argue they should take a gender-inclusive approach to this topic in order to acknowledge the sexual abuse of transgender children and boys), but optimistic towards the third wave’s approach to the issue. On one hand, I can’t help but be pessimistic about social media’s impact on child sexual exploitation, especially as a survivor of online CSA. On another, I appreciate that they showed the battle from feminist generations are never over, but evolve. We simply need to reconfigure strategies. If there’s any way to reconfigure, it is to utilize nuance and survivor perspectives rather than yelling over them. Wilson’s centering of Brooke’s narrative and nuanced approach to exploitation films is a step in the right direction.

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Sarah Wagoner

Literature Major, GWST Minor, Graduate Student, She/Her, focus on politics in media, Professional email: sarahwagoner6@gmail