Brooke Shields Documentary Encapsulates How Society Keeps Wronging Our Girls and Women
Brooke Shields has been in the public eye since she was a baby. Her mother started finding modeling gigs for her as a toddler before moving on to commercials and movies. Since her film roles in the early 1980s, she has been a household name. Everyone knows her for her beauty (and stunning eyebrows) and her talent as an actress and comedian. But there is so much more to her.
When I began watching Hulu’s new documentary about her, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, I thought I would just be learning more about her personal life and the ups and downs of being a Hollywood icon. I was wrong. The two-episode documentary features Shields herself narrating much of her life along with tons of archival footage. It’s incredible how much of her life was displayed for the world, even before the internet and social media. What surprises me about the series is how much Shields’ story encapsulates exactly how our society wrongs women and girls on a regular basis.
Everyone loves a pretty baby
Like many young girls, older men sexualized Brooke Shields long before she had the capacity to understand what was going on. Her modeling pictures slowly showed her in less child-like outfits and with much more adult makeup starting at about age 9. Most of her interviews as a young teen featured middle-aged men talking about how beautiful and sultry she was. Although their words made her visibly uncomfortable, the barrage of “compliments” never stopped. As a teenager, Shields had to take the stand in a legal case over some nude photos she took as a 10-year-old. In court, the lawyer asked why she liked taking such sexy photos all the time and blamed her (not the adult male photographer) for the pictures existing in the first place.
Shields’ first starring movie role was in 1978’s Pretty Baby. Inspired by a true story, the film features Shields playing a child of a prostitute growing up in a brothel during the last days of legalized prostitution. At the ripe old age of twelve, the madam of the brothel decides it’s time to auction off her virginity. During the film, the eleven-year-old Shields is nude twice and has to have her first kiss with a then-29-year-old man. The adults involved with the movie explained to her that it wasn’t real, and she understood how it was all being done in “good taste,” but emotionally, she was far too young to grasp the gravity of most of the positions they put her into.
After Pretty Baby, Shields starred in two of the most well-known coming-of-age teen love story films: The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love. Directors for both movies stated how they knew they wanted her for the roles because of her sexual presence and one claimed to “be in love with” her before even meeting her. Both movies put a fifteen/sixteen-year-old Shields in nude (or nearly so) sexual encounters that were beyond her understanding. Shields recalls dissociating from her body because she just needed to be a body, a face, a tool for the director’s vision.
Women can’t catch a break, either
Even stepping away from all her perceived sexy roles, men still felt they had agency over her. Taking a 4-year hiatus from acting, Shields attended Princeton University to get her bachelor’s degree. The documentary showed a clip from The Tonight Show where Johnny Carson makes a joke about how she’s excelling at school. He says her professor gave Shields “an ‘A’ in anatomy—hers.” There were many other comedians who felt the need to comment on her looks, virginity, and why she was even attending college because she probably wasn’t smart enough to be there.
Somehow, Shields didn’t let any of it deter her from living her best life. She reclaimed stardom by embracing her dorky comedic side (her role on Friends lives rent-free in my head). After escaping a controlling marriage, Shields remarried and had a baby. When her first daughter was born, Shields experienced debilitating postpartum depression. The disorder wasn’t as well-known or discussed during that time, so Shields wrote a book about her experience, symptoms, and how she received treatment.
Of course, misogyny and a loud-mouthed man who thinks he knows everything soon followed. Actor Tom Cruise went on The Today Show and other public outlets to shame her and tell everyone that she had no idea how women’s bodies worked. He claimed to have “read the research” himself. In his “expert” opinion, he concluded Shields should have taken vitamins and exercised to feel better. According to him, her need for therapy and medication were false and misleading other women. Like a boss, Shields responded to his ignorance with an op-ed in the New York Times outlining how wrong he was. When doctors backed her and Congress passed legislation to further our understanding of postpartum depression, Cruise apologized.
Shields has lived a life in the public eye that most of us cannot relate to. However, men sexualizing her from a young age and thinking they have a say over her body is something that many women can. One expert on the show even said Shields’ story isn’t her own—it is a story that belongs to most women. Although there has been some progress since Shields was young, the trials she faced are still all too familiar. It is a stark reminder of how much work we still need to do to ensure girls and women have an equal place in our society.
(featured image: Hulu)
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