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Image / Living / Culture

Brooke Shields’ new documentary is a horrifying look at the ‘practically criminal’ ways in which she was sexualised as a child


By Sarah Finnan
30th Mar 2023

Brooke Shields / Instagram

Brooke Shields’ new documentary is a horrifying look at the ‘practically criminal’ ways in which she was sexualised as a child

Scandalising America with her 1980 Calvin Klein jeans ad, Brooke Shields blames the media for over-sexualising her from a very young age and her new two-part documentary, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, is an uncomfortable watch, to say the least.

Brooke Shields began her career as a model when she was just 11 months old. At age 12, she featured in Louis Malle’s controversial film Pretty Baby and was subsequently dubbed a “sex symbol”.

Before she had even gone through puberty, Shields had become adept at navigating the uncomfortable, and oftentimes, predatory, comments from adults about her body.  One British tabloid was already calling a nine-year-old Brooke “the child who drives men crazy”.

An 80s icon and household name, Shields’ early years were defined by a sexuality that she could neither claim nor comprehend – it’s only now at 57 years of age, that she can finally reflect on the toxic environment she grew up in and the unthinkable ways in which she was sexualised as a young girl. 

“The entirety of my life, it was, ‘She’s a pretty face,’ over and over and over and over and over again,” she recalls in the trailer for her new documentary, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields. “And that always, just, seared me… I’m amazed that I survived any of it.”

Directed by Lana Wilson and produced by Ali Wentworth alongside her husband George Stephanopoulos, the two-part special features unseen archive footage and interviews with close friends Drew Barrymore and Laura Linney as it explores what it was really like to be a young woman in the 80s – touching on everything from Shields’ first marriage to tennis star Andre Agassi to her friendship with Michael Jackson and her fallout with Tom Cruise.

Already having penned two memoirs, and now delving into her past in this new documentary, Shields has become much more vocal about what she went through in recent years. In 2021, she called out Barbara Walters over a “practically criminal” interview she did with the retired broadcaster when she was just 15 years old. Invited on to speak with the TV personality about her 1980 Calvin Klein jeans campaign, Brooke faced major backlash for the ads which many considered to be overtly sexual. 

Showing the model wearing various styles of designer jeans, the whole campaign was criticised though it was the clip of her saying, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing”, that people really seemed to have a problem with. So much so, that the commercial was subsequently banned by both ABC and CBS in New York.

A mere teenager at the time, Shields said that she was completely unaware of the double entendre meaning and just said the line because that was what she had been hired to do. “When I was 15, I didn’t understand Calvin Klein and the way that he was, sort of coming into the zeitgeist. It was more about Richard Avedon coming to my mom, coming to me, and saying ‘We’re doing a series of very unique commercials’. It was going to be wordplay or historical references or literary references. There was a real intellectual spin as to how they were going to produce this,” she previously told Vogue of the campaign. 

No one was allowed on set for the shoot itself – something Shields puts down to the fact that this was Avedon’s “foray into the commercial world” and he was nervous. “Stakes were pretty high and there was a lot of pressure,” she noted. Everything was specific and intentional – including the choreography – and the actress had to do multiple takes of each shot. “I was just so proud that they were trusting me with something that involved acting as well as just the visual.”

The reception to the actual campaign was far from what Brooke expected it to be. “It just struck me as so ridiculous, the whole thing. They take the one commercial, which is a rhetorical question. I was naive; I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think it had to do with underwear; I didn’t think it was sexual in nature. I would say it about my sister: ‘Nobody can come between me and my sister’. What was shocking to me was to be berated by ‘Oh, you knew this was happening. This is what you thought. You were thinking these thoughts.’”

But how could she have? “I was a kid,” Brooke continued. “Where I was, I was naive. I was a very protected, sequestered young woman in a bubble that my mom was just paroling the outside of.” 

“If they had intended on the double entendre, they didn’t explain it to me. If they’d explained it to me, why? Would they have wanted me to say it differently? It didn’t phase me; it didn’t come into my sort of psyche as it being anything overtly sexual, sexualised in any way. I was a virgin… then that became the thing that people hooked into because I was honest about having not lost my virginity.”

The media framed her as coquettish in one breath, then were condescending and talked down to her in the next. She’s flirtatious and seductive one day, the next she’s the most celebrated virgin in the world. None of it made sense to Brooke. “Who do you want me to be today?” she often questioned.

As the public outrage intensified, she was set up on a media tour across the country – which famously included a sit-down interview with Barbara Walters. All interviews during that period of her life started the same way… with an aspirational “Oh, we’re going to respect you because you’re a young woman” line that was thrown out as a nicety before reporters did exactly the opposite of what they said they would. It’s only looking back that she realises just how backwards the whole thing was though. 

While many have pointed the finger at Shields’ mother Terri, who was an alcoholic, for allowing her daughter to be put in such situations, Brooke has historically deflected any blame from her. “We both used that system to have a better life,” she admits. Explaining her decision to propel her daughter to superstardom, Teri once said that “Brooke is like a work of art. And like any beautiful painting, the world should view Brooke and enjoy her”. 

It was actually the whole Free Britney Movement that really awakened Brooke to the seriousness of her own experience and prompted her to work through her own memories. “I’ve recently had to go back and look at all of my footage and appearances and Tonight Shows and Barbara Walters,” she told Dax Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast. “It’s practically criminal. It’s not journalism,” she said of her “interview” with Walters. 

As was, and still unfortunately is, the case with many female stars, the media over-sexualised Brooke and then blamed her for it. She was asked highly inappropriate questions about her body and sexual history – ones that shouldn’t have been acceptable in any situation but especially given that she was underage at the time. She was asked the same questions. She was poked and prodded about the Calvin campaign, time and time again. They feigned interest in hearing what she had to say, but the world had already made up its mind about Brooke Shields. 

“They never wanted my answer,” Brooke pointed out. “That’s my truth, I don’t know how else you want me to say this.”

In a post-Me Too landscape, it’s hard to believe that any of the experiences she went through, were allowed to happen – much less to a minor – but there are old video clips and photos and ad campaigns to prove that, sadly, this was Brooke’s reality for many, many years.

“Now, it’s like, I’m allowed to be a human being,” Shields concludes in the Pretty Baby trailer. 

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will be available to watch on Hulu from April 3. 

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