A cropped version of the original 1976 picture of Brooke Shields, taken for Playboy by Gary GrossSuccumbing to pressure from the police, the Tate Modern in London has removed a Richard Prince photo that features Brooke Shields, age 10, wearing lots of makeup, prepubescent and nude.
If the idea that such a photo exists is a little dizzying to you, its origins might make you downright queasy. Prince's work is actually a photograph of another photograph-one that Brooke's mother Teri authorized for a Playboy publication called Sugar 'n' Spice in return for $450 in 1976.
Now, as a mom, there is a lot that is cringe-worthy about this bit of information for me (a ten-year old? Playboy? $450?), especially in light of the recent hubbub Stateside about parental judgment vis-à-vis what could be child pornography. Why on earth would a mother put her daughter through that? What kind of parent does that to a minor?
Looking further into Brooke Shields early acting career didn't really comfort me.
Between her nude scenes as a girl in a brothel in Pretty Baby at age 12, telling the world "nothing [got] between" her and her Calvin's at age 14, and having to testify before Congress at age 15 that it was, in fact, a body double that did all that steamy lovemaking in the Blue Lagoon, I started to wonder how Teri Shields had escaped the attention of Child Protective Services.
So you can imagine my surprise when I ran across this article from a 1978 issue of People Magazine. In it, almost 13-year-old Brooke Shields answers some pretty tough questions about her role in Pretty Baby in a disarming and age-appropriate way: "It's only a role. I'm not going to grow up and be a prostitute. If I were in a Walt Disney movie people would never ask me if the part would affect my life. That's so dumb."
Later in the piece, there's this:
Still really a child ("I don't even have my period yet"), Brooke attends Mass every week with her mother. Boys? "Sometimes they're really stupid, but other times they're okay." Until recently, Teri would allow Brooke only to double-date, though she can now go out alone. "But I don't want to go steady. My mom doesn't like it. I'm just not ready yet." Brooke shrugs off sex-"I knew all about that when I was 2. Mom told me." When Playboy asked her what "good in bed" meant to her, Brooke nonchalantly replied, "When I'm sick and I stay home from school propped up with lots of pillows watching TV and my mom brings me soup-that's good in bed."
Clearly, taking a People Magazine interview, or really any magazine interview as the end-all-be-all of a young girl's mental state is unwise at best. And again, this brings up many more indignant mom questions (2? Really? Playboy asked what?) But there's something truly surprising about reading Brooke Shields, the kid, talking about Brooke Shields, the sexual icon. She has a unique combination of innocence and perspective that I never would have believed possible for a girl in her situation. That she grew up to be a well-spoken, gracious woman and thoughtful mother, avoiding the kind of breakdowns reserved for young female sex symbols (think Britney Spears, or Lindsay Lohan) speaks volumes.
Does it take away the sick feeling I have about the original photo of taken of a nude, ten-year old Brooke Shields? No, it absolutely does not. It doesn't matter how well she has turned out, I shudder that the picture was ever taken and I feel bad for the older, grown-up Brooke Shields who tried to suppress it. But it does change what I think about the girl in that picture. She does not become the victim I imagine she will.
I can't think of another young actress who was more consistently sexualized from a young age, or seems less damaged by it. I also have to believe a pretty large portion of who Brooke Shields grew up to be, and who she is today has a lot to do with how her mother (who by all accounts was basically single-parenting) raised her. Which in turn makes me wonder: Is it possible that a mother who used such poor judgment in exploiting her young daughter was also a good parent to her during that same time period? Is it possible that the same woman who made a really bad decision to have her daughter photographed that way also helped her retain good boundaries and a strong sense of self?
It's not the answer I was looking for, but it's one I'm having trouble denying.