The more you learn about Brooke Shields, the more remarkable she seems
Just when I’ve started getting over my lifelong aversion to Tom Cruise, thanks to his star turn as an old dog with new tricks in Top Gun: Maverick, he has to ruin it all by turning up in Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields – Hulu’s new two-part documentary about the all-American model and actress. Shields landed her first job when she was 11 months old, shot to global fame at the age of 11, and was declared “the 80s look” by Time Magazine aged just 16.
One of the most affecting parts of the documentary comes in part two, when Shields looks back at the birth of her first child, Rowan. After a labour lasting more than 24 hours, which transformed into an emergency caesarean during which Shields lost “buckets of blood”, she went home and fell into a deep depression. At her lowest point, Shields later wrote that she “thought of swallowing a bottle of pills or jumping out the window of [her] apartment”. And then, while the now 57-year-old Shields is discussing her experience of postpartum, up pops Cruise, in a 2005 Today Show interview, accusing Shields of spreading “irresponsible misinformation” and promoting dangerous drug use. “Drug use” as in the antidepressants Shields was prescribed, which she credited with saving her life. “She doesn’t understand the history of psychiatry,” Cruise declared.
Many viewers will surely instinctively recoil at Cruise’s comments as I did, but aside from being a classic moment of retro Cruise ickiness, the moment is an illuminating one – both in terms of Pretty Baby’s project, and of Brooke Shield’s life story as a whole. For Cruise may have couched his criticism in his “Scientologist duty” to reject psychiatry, but it is also clearly an intrusive attack on what a woman in the public eye chooses to do with her body, and how she owns her mind. Appearing where he does in the documentary – after a seemingly endless stream of middle-aged men on talk shows talking down to a young Shields, while leering over her looks and virginity – Cruise emerges as yet another man who strongly implies Brooke Shields is either a dumb girl, or a dangerous woman – someone who needs to be corrected, put right; not someone to be heeded or taken seriously. On top of that, he makes her personal decision into a public controversy.
But the episode is also illuminating in another way. Because what does Shields do in response to Cruise’s comments? She writes an op-ed in The New York Times. “I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Mr Cruise has never suffered from postpartum depression,” Shields writes wryly, before advancing a clear, sincere and intelligent argument for medication to treat postpartum, and for the condition to be more widely studied and understood. “If any good can come of Mr Cruise’s ridiculous rant, let’s hope that it gives much-needed attention to a serious disease,” Shields declares. She closes the piece by writing “It’s not the history of psychiatry, but it is my history, personal and real.”
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is also Shields’s “history, personal and real,” and, like her NYT op-ed, it seems like an attempt to reclaim her voice and agency in a public realm that has repeatedly stripped her of them. Indeed, from the start the documentary makes its perspective clear: here is a woman who has lived her whole life in the public eye – controversies seeming to swirl around her whatever she does and wherever she goes – who has been variously sexualised, infantilised and demonised, but rarely listened to. As the title, trailer and opening minutes indicate, this is pitched as the story of a woman who has always been “more than a pretty face”, now telling her side of the story.
Yet, to me at least, what is more interesting about the two-parter, and the woman at the heart of it, is her refusal to fit neatly into any box – whether labelled “pretty baby”, “femme fatale”, “virgin”, “villain” or “victim”. She even seems to strain against the contemporary post #MeToo framing of this “personal and real” documentary. For, if the Seventies wanted sexy children and Reagan’s Eighties wanted a poster child for virginity, our era wants our women icons to be Strong Female Characters – to have overcome their public trials; to have been shamed and scorned but to have made it through the other side, for us to cry “icon” and “Mother” and tell ourselves that things are better for today’s girls. Yet, is this not just as totalising and titillating a narrative as the ones that came before? Does this not also reduce the woman in question to a convenient cultural trope? Is this really agency, with all its essential nuance and contradiction?
It is certainly true that the more you learn about Brooke Shields life, the more remarkable it seems that she is not only warm, funny and bright, but that she has survived at all. Managed from the time she was in diapers by her mother, who was controlling and, increasingly, struggling with alcoholism, Shields’s early life was by turns bohemian (she tells of her and her mother going to Federico Fellini films together when she was just seven) and alarming (Laura Linney, once Shields’s school classmate, tells of Shields frequently hiding from her mother, drunk in the afternoon and potentially violent, until the coast was clear). In a move that puts Kris “Momager” Jenner to shame, Teri Shields consented to her daughter being shot nude for the troublingly titled Playboy publication “Sugar and Spice” when she was just 10 years old. The following year, Shields starred in Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby where she played a child prostitute – a role that prompted outcry in America over child sexualisation, but also allowed chat show hosts to ogle and pry into the preteen’s intimate life.
Then there was the controversial The Blue Lagoon, shot when Shields was 15 and sold on the director’s line that viewers would not only watch these teenage characters on an island discovering sexuality, but they would also witness Brooke Shields transform from a girl to woman before their eyes. There are the controversial Calvin Klein ads where the camera lingers on her teenage thighs, as she stretches her legs behind her head while reciting monologues about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and gene mutation (“a play on what a jean is,” Shields explains). Shields remembers the ads for being a fun challenge; “I jumped at the chance because it was acting,” she says. But the rest of the world remembers the ads for one infamous double entendre: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins,” Shields asks, as the camera moves over her open legs. “Nothing.” She was 16. Yet only a couple of years later, she became a symbol of chastity, after revealing in a ghostwritten memoir/teenage self-help book that she was still a virgin, despite what the lecherous media narrative had previously implied.
From the beginning, then, Shields was forced to negotiate misogynistic terrain, with sexualisation and damnation lurking on either side. Watching Pretty Baby, it seems undeniable that Shields’s life story is essentially the Madonna/whore complex writ large. Or, as one ’80s magazine article put it, “sex symbol or sweet 16?” Yet, repeatedly, Shields displays an uncanny ability to dismiss any attempt to make an easy narrative of victim and villain, in favour of positions that prioritise humour and nuance.
“In a way, he did me a favour,” Shields said of the Cruise debacle in a recent interview with The New Yorker, “because people came out and were outraged. And he looked silly. People were wanting to understand postpartum depression more, and to fight for me and fight for education and screening.” “It was, like, ‘Really? You just barked up the wrong tree,’” she says of Cruise. Recalling how director Franco Zeffirelli twisted her toe during a sex scene, in an attempt to get her to present a look of “ecstasy”, Shields shows a similar attitude. “I thought, ‘Really? How about directing?’” Over and again, she seems like the only adult in the room, surrounded by immature man-babies. “It was petulant behaviour,” she says of one of ex-husband Andre Agassi’s temper tantrums, in which he destroyed all his tennis trophies in jealous anger at Shields licking Matt LeBlanc’s hands while filming an episode of Friends. It was acting, she sighs, in a way that sounds like “oh grow up”.
However, Shields is most interesting when discussing her own work. “You couldn’t make it today, obviously,” she says of Malle’s Pretty Baby in The New Yorker interview. In this she seems to echo her two teenage daughters, who are shown towards the end of the documentary decrying their mother’s cinematic back catalogue as non-consensual child pornography. Pretty Baby looks disturbing and problematic from the brief clips she’s seen on TikTok, 16-year-old Grier says. “I will never, ever watch Blue Lagoon,” 19-year-old Rowan declares. On one level these are completely fair responses – who, after all, wants to see their mother, young and naked, being deflowered on an island? Yet, at the same time, Shields defends Malle’s film, and her feelings towards it.
“I think it’s the most beautiful movie I’ve ever made,” Shields has said. “It’s the only real quality film I’ve ever been in.” Indeed, while a college student at Princeton, Shields wrote her thesis on the film. “I’m fascinated with that journey of innocence to experience, and who owns it,” she says. “Do they become a victim to it? Or do they not?”
Brooke Shields is, after all, only the latest “pretty baby” of the 20th century to get the intimate, revealing and recontextualising documentary treatment. Only a few weeks ago, Pamela, a Love Story landed on Netflix, and before that a whole slew of Britney documentaries surfaced on every streaming platform. Shields’s story shares many of the same events as those of these two famous women. Early oversexualisation and sexual assault. Controlling parent-managers. Passionate but tempestuous and controlling relationships. And, of course, being singled out as the defining “look” of their respective decades. But what they also share is an appreciation of nuance that often seems to work against the very framework of the documentaries they star in.
Spears rejected the documentary wave entirely, suggesting these contemporary film-makers with their triumphant “Victim Freed” narratives felt much the same to her as the intrusive attentions of the 2000s media. Pamela and Brooke obviously have more control over their “personal and real” stories, but they too rail against media narratives that have twisted their actions, words and beliefs to suit whatever agenda the press wanted to push in that cultural moment. In a similar way to how Shields defends her early work with Malle as art, not porn, Anderson defends her work with Playboy. Indeed, after Hugh Hefner’s death she declared that he “taught [her] everything important about freedom and respect”. These perspectives might not be comfortable or convenient to contemporary ears, seeking a narrative of prior victimisation culminating in empowerment in the present moment. But, however complicated, they are true.
Look at Spears, Anderson and Shields – and indeed Drew Barrymore, who pops up as a bubbly and empathetic talking head in Pretty Baby – and there is certainly a pleasure and relief in knowing these women have survived the misogynist media circus. But there is also a danger that right at the moment of “granting” or “returning” their voice, contemporary cultural tropes move in to smother them. Perhaps, rather than loudly proclaiming how no one ever granted these women agency or listened to them in the past, we should start actually listening now.