Content warning: This article discusses child sexual abuse.
Being sexualized at a young age happens far too often to too many people. Vulnerable and unaware of what “sexual” even means, children often don’t realize that they’ve been violated until years after. Child actors are even more at risk of exploitation. Take Brooke Shields and Drew Barrymore who recently opened up about their experiences as former child actors. It’s heartbreaking how many of us can probably relate.
As part of the promotion for the documentary “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” actress and model Shields went on “The Drew Barrymore Show” earlier this week. In the documentary, Shields takes us through her journey to gaining self-agency after being publicly sexualized since posing nude for Playboy at 10 and playing a child prostitute in the 1978 film “Pretty Baby” where she had her first kiss with her 29-year-old co-actor at 11.
On her talk show, Barrymore brought up how she felt like she couldn’t bring up her own experiences as a child as part of the #MeToo movement. “I didn’t feel like I could speak to it because I experienced so many things that were so inappropriate at such a young age that I was so confused about what was I accountable for, what did I put myself into, where was I, was I a part of things. We were children,” she said.
Asked if she felt the same, Shields answered, “I didn’t know where I fell on the spectrum of it. I don’t know [how] to interpret my experiences because I was made to feel culpable. And [at] the same time, you victim shame yourself. But we were so young and it was so ‘appropriate.’ I couldn’t feel sorry [for myself.] I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know. So when it was called out to me as such, I was like, ‘No. Uh-uh. Not going there. It did not happen.’”
Barrymore also asked Shields if Randal Kleiser, the director of the controversial nudity-filled film “Blue Lagoon” shot when Shields was 14, reached out to her after her documentary came out. Shields said that Kleiser did try to call her and left her a voicemail about wanting to have a chat.
“I don’t know what about what. I don’t feel like bringing any of it back up again. It’s not about that. It was about these males needing me to be in a certain category to serve their story and it never was about me. It was never protective of me. It was fun and loving at times. But I was just there. I was a pawn,” she added.
Critics that have seen the documentary write that while Shields was at times ambiguous in describing her past and perhaps disinterested in directly calling people out, director Lana Wilson (Miss Americana) filled gaps with insight from archival footage and talking heads. “One of the responses to feminism was the sexualization of little girls. You’re not going to be traditionally feminine? We’ll replace you with little girls,” said activist Jean Kilbourne about the rise of child exploitation in the ’70s and early ’80s.
In the film, Shields also spoke for the first time about how a Hollywood executive sexually assaulted her in her 20s. “I found that Brooke’s major journey was gaining agency over her own life, and the story of her sexual assault was the ultimate violation of her autonomy—physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Wilson said in an interview. “Her experience of it was connected to these experiences of dissociation and compartmentalization that she’d had earlier in her life, so I did see it as an important part of the story of this film, and it was hard for me to imagine the documentary, once it was finished, without it.”
“I wasn’t told it was important to have agency because my mom could have it for me or directors I was working with,” explains Shields in the documentary. The film is a great look into the long-term effects of child sexualization and a criticism against the demand for submissiveness in women.
If we’re not encouraging our children to have agency, they’re more susceptible to being made to believe that being victimized is due to their own moral failing or bad character. To teach a kid to stand up for themself and to demand for their right to protection is part of the equation to dismantle the culture of exploitation.