Brooke Shields’ new two-part documentary Pretty Baby, now streaming on Hulu, is a celebrity story that has the benefit of not really being specifically about Brooke Shields. It’s her life story, yes, but the story feels more vast and more momentous than even her iconic career.
Basically, it’s a story of childhood stardom and predatory sexualization, in which her physical appearance became a commodity and the lifelong process of regaining some sense of agency and dignity after her years as an unconsenting teen sex symbol. As the documentary states over and over again, the “Brooke Shields story” is an extreme case of a common experience in a patriarchal society. Even as someone who routinely brushes off celebrity documentaries, this one feels like it hits the nail on the head.
Director Lana Wilson traces Sheilds’ career through a superabundance of available archive footage, from her first “modeling” at eleven months old to the movie Pretty Baby (1972) at age eleven, the hypersexual Calvin Klein ad campaign in her later teens. When she was on the cover of Time as the face of an era, she wasn’t yet a legal adult. And beside her the whole way was her mother, a fiercely independent and nontraditional woman.
Her mother’s struggles with alcoholism are addressed in their own time, but it’s clearly communicated, through stories told by Brooke’s close childhood friend Laura Linney (!), that Teri was an independent woman struggling with her own demons and dependencies. Brooke’s star rose, but it wasn’t really her star: it was the commodity of her beauty.
It was all a front, a pantomime, according to Shields. She wasn’t having any kind of sexual awakening while she was filming Blue Lagoon or Endless Love. These weren’t the real-time, reality-show-like process of documenting a young starlet’s coming of age. She was, as the documentary makes as a direct metaphor, a living doll mechanically creating product after product, following instructions, making money, and if not completely divorced then disconnected from the process of selling that teen-sex-symbol franchise that was the image of her face and body. Beauty was something she couldn’t control, she says. She couldn’t look in the mirror. She wanted to focus on the things that she could — things she could have been or done, without the commodity value of the face she was born with.
Her teenaged body became a battleground of sociopolitical discourse, and she says that she frequently, literally dissociated from what was being done to her. In one horrific example, a fifteen-year-old Brooke was filming a sex scene for Endless Love, and the aggressive director was frustrated that Brooke didn’t know how to make an orgasm face. Because she was fifteen. So the director grabbed and twisted her toes out of frame so her face would contort satisfactorily.
The public narrative was so powerful that when photos were being distributed of a nude nine-year-old Brooke, during the height of her fame, and Shields and her mother sued to keep them from being sold, the court proceedings focused on questioning Shields (then seventeen) for two full days about why she was selling herself as a sex symbol if she didn’t want people to see her naked. Yep. That whole sentence. She lost the case.
Piled together like this, the predatory industry that sexualized and trained Shields not to question that sexualization seems objectively disgusting.
The second part of the documentary does a lot of work defining those harms from a now-adult perspective, from her graduation from Princeton to her own journey through postpartum depression (made public through her own volition for once) to her experience of motherhood.
It’s always more comfortable to tell these stories in a way that feels dated, a period piece about the excesses and insanity of the eighties. The aesthetic, the flavor of glamour and glitz, it all screams big-hair period piece. That is, very safely in the past. The outrageously inappropriate things that interviewers said to her as a teenager seem patently ridiculous now.
But the documentary doesn’t fall into that fallacy. It concludes with an emphasis on how thoroughly times haven’t changed, with clips of modern celebrities, sexualized child stars, and TikTok trends. Shields’ daughters discuss the difference between an underage Brooke being filmed in Pretty Baby and a minor uploading a photo of themself in a bikini on social media. There are brief flashes of modern icons like Janelle Monae, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Laverne Cox—in an unspoken answer to the spoken question “How do you fight a toxic culture?”
The documentary’s points might feel obvious and trite in a world that’s enduring the backlash toward the #MeToo movement and the general experience of, you know, being a woman in the society we live in. But the show’s articulate and sincere messaging accomplishes what it set out to do: dissecting the extreme, personalized case of one brutally objectified woman.