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Review: ‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ offers a piercing look at a rotten system through the life of an icon

The Hulu documentary touches on so many aspects of a fascinating life story.

There’s a throughline in Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields that makes this celebrity documentary a must-watch. Through Shields’ own experiences and the accompanying commentary offered by close friends and scholars, the film paints a dismaying picture of the way the world shapes young women that far transcends the life of just one pop culture icon.

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Pretty Baby – titled after the controversial 1978 film, as well as referencing the public image forced onto the actress for simply daring to grow up traditionally beautiful – takes us through the main events of Shields’ life in a swift, yet grounded fashion. From birth to the present day, each main event is presented by the titular star as other important figures from her life like security expert Gavin de Becker, and childhood friend Laura Linney complement the information from an outsider’s perspective. But that’s just the part that’s strictly related to biography, because where Pretty Baby really shines is in the theoretical framing brought on by authors, journalists, lecturers, and sociologists.

Names like Meenakshi Durham, Scaachi Koul, and Jean Kilbourne – author of The Lolita Effect, Senior Culture Writer at Buzzfeed, and media literacy lecturer, respectively – turn the whirlwind life of a child star into a case study for women’s position within the western patriarchal society, further twisted by the visual power of the last century’s consumerist turn. Shields’ trajectory might seem far removed from the average Jane, due to how popular and drop dead gorgeous she was throughout, but on a closer look, it’s but a microcosm of the female experience.

Shields was reduced to her physicality and appearance from the onset, largely by her own mother, who was convinced she would be a star with a face like hers. A career in advertising followed, but as soon as she grew from toddler to preteen, the type of jobs she was offered became increasingly questionable and sexual in nature. Many questioned her mother’s choices to accept those, but while that was indeed part of the problem, there was a whole system enabling these directors and photographers choosing to capture minors in nothing but their birthday suits.

The documentary, set entirely in chronological order, skips over the time when Shields posed nude for a Playboy sister magazine at this point, so they could bring it up later – at a time when Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon had made her the most famous teenager on earth – the images resurface. Shields describes the court case as “hurtful,” not because of the content of the photos, but because of the breach of trust and friendship, and the public slut shaming she was subject to by a bunch of adult men. She was 17, and she lost the case.

Many around Shields denounce the disturbing concept behind Pretty Baby, and the fact that she is seen nude and engaging in sexual acts in both that film and Blue Lagoon before she was even 15 (a body double was used for the latter title, which doesn’t change the fact that it wanted you to believe that it was actually Shields). However, the now 57 year-old actress doesn’t have bad memories from either of those sets. It’s Endless Love that she remembers with aversion. The director Franco Zeffirelli, not content with Shields’ orgasm face during a sex scene, would twist her toe off-frame to make her grimace. Shields had never had sex before, she didn’t know what she was supposed to look like during it, and Zeffirelli was genuinely hurting her. “I just disassociated,” she confesses.

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Fast forward a few years after she finished her degree at Princeton and is looking to rebuild her career – not an easy feat despite once being the most talked-about actress in America – and she would again be forced into summoning that “skill” she had mastered across her career. For the first time, Shields recounts the time she was raped by a big Hollywood producer, who she doesn’t name, in a hotel room after a supposed job interview. It’s one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film but handled gracefully by director Lana Wilson.

Shields is candid about her relationship with sex prior to that traumatic encounter. Despite being categorized as a sex symbol way too early in her life, the model and actress was at one point the most famous virgin in America. After she had made the fact public, interviewers wouldn’t ask her about anything else, fascinated by the way the girl who had shocked the world with that suggestive Calvin Klein ad campaign had never actually had sex. The poster girl for adolescent sexuality became the face of abstinence and purity because the world simply refused to see her outside of this duality. Shields’ recounting of her first time with her college boyfriend evokes a much more complex and real experience than anything the industry tried to force onto her. And it soon becomes clear as day that she was always so much more (talented, brighter, stronger) than it ever let her be.

Any woman, or attentive man, will associate much of what has been described with experiences they have either lived through or witnessed – and that without even being part of the entertainment industry. For your worth to be reduced to your sexuality, for your personality to be put in a box you struggle to break from, for people to push you too far and abuse you in the name of their own self-serving fantasies – in varying degrees, this is the female experience.

At the tail end of Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, we’re made privy to a familial scene at the Shields household where the famous actress and her two daughters discuss the content of the movies the matriarch had starred in as a kid. Her own children tell her Pretty Baby would never have been made today and that they can’t even watch it, while Shields questions how different that is to posting bikini pictures to Instagram. We’re then hit with the reality that the judgment we passed as viewers on the dubious practices of the 70s and 80s must now be redirected to the arguably worse version of the same child exploitation, much more covert but surely also more widespread, thanks to the internet and social media.

The documentary ends by raising awareness of the fact that Shields’ life wasn’t a freak occurrence, but rather a symptom of a world built to manipulate, stifle and control women. No matter how far we think we have come, new, camouflaged ways to reduce women to their appearance will always rear their heads, and most times we won’t even notice, just like Shields had no idea Pretty Baby was crossing any lines while she was filming it.

The Hulu documentary touches on so many aspects of a fascinating life story, but none are more important than the parts to which we can universally relate.

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Francisca Tinoco
Francisca is a pop culture enthusiast and film expert. Her Bachelor's Degree in Communication Sciences from Nova University in Portugal and Master's Degree in Film Studies from Oxford Brookes University in the UK have allowed her to combine her love for writing with her love for the movies. She has been a freelance writer and content creator for five years, working in both the English and Portuguese languages for various platforms, including WGTC.