The Best Way to Look Back at Pretty Baby Is through Brooke Shields’ College Thesis

Movies Features Brooke Shields
The Best Way to Look Back at Pretty Baby Is through Brooke Shields’ College Thesis

Brooke Shields stops her Princeton senior thesis on Louis Malle to let us know that, for all the beauty in the dramatic haze that pervades Pretty Baby, “in actuality, the substance has a rich and inescapable incense smell that spreads throughout all areas and permeates all materials.” It’s a rare sense memory in an otherwise astute academic analysis, and it reminds us that Shields is far more an expert than she lets on. Her thesis, with the appropriately jargoned title The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience: The Pre-Adolescent / Adolescent Journey in the films of Louis Malle, Pretty Baby and Lacombe Lucien, is a fascinating addendum not only to Pretty Baby but also “The Sex Wars” of the late-1970s.

Colloquially considered to mark the end of second-wave feminism and the fomenting of the third, “The Sex Wars” were clashes fueled by economic deregulation, deindustrialization, a thinning social safety net, and increased gender and racial visibility and activism. Feminists divided themselves on the issue of pornography, many believing it to be a tool of pure patriarchy and exploitation, while others argued that sexually liberated pornography was possible. These debates over the production and public exhibition of pornography—which was significantly more accessible in the 1970s—were deeply wedded to the freedom of speech provided in the American constitution, which justified works against creative obscenity laws to judge their moral usefulness and legality. Into this fray, in 1978, the year between Anita Bryant forming the Save Our Children Campaign and Jerry Falwell fashioning The Moral Majority, came Louis Malle’s story about a child sex worker in turn-of-the-20th-century America, Pretty Baby.

Set in 1917 Storyville, the historic New Orleans red light district, the film follows Violet (Shields), a bright and precocious 12-year-old entering adulthood while growing up in a brothel with her mother, Hattie (Susan Sarandon). When a shy cameraman named Bellocq (Keith Carradine) starts coming around to photograph the girls, she forms a curious attachment, and eventually, something blossoms between the two. Bellocq marries Violet, and she lives a semi-contented life as his child-wife until her mother’s fateful return beckons her into a new age.

In her 1987 thesis, Shields describes Violet as living through “the termination of a certain period” in American history. In the early 1900s, laws around so-called sexual “vices” were more lax, and children moved from childhood to adulthood with no stage in the middle. New moral and labor regulations meant Violet was part of the last generation who wouldn’t have an “adolescence.” That would be for her children to enjoy. Her grandchildren would be the first “teenagers.” But she, more than most girls at the time, entered adulthood in a precarious and ambiguous arena of morality.

Brooke’s paper is fascinated by this murky cinematic journey into what we now call adolescence, which she sees as a theme across Malle’s oeuvre. It’s a well-thought-out, sometimes even poetic argument for reading Malle as a cinematic auteur who “creates a panoramic view of a situation that enables the spectator to reach his own conclusions,” not as a provocateur but as an artist exploring rites of passage throughout his work and career. 

With its citations ranging from Flaubert, Jung, Piaget and Proust, The Initiation reads, first and foremost, like a requirement for a bachelor of arts degree in French literature from the 1980s. And we should read it as such. Doing so allows you to see the remarkable objectivity with which Shields approaches cinema and her own work. Her argument is structured very matter-of-factly with claims and evidence. She brings a strong technical understanding of film from her extensive career in front of the camera to accurately describe what is functioning visually, which is quite remarkable. Even more bold is when Brooke enters the page. Though she only does it a few times in the commendable 127 pages, it’s still somewhat unusual. Conventional humanities papers rarely encourage the use of the first person—certainly not in Ivy League literary criticism. Yet Shields can’t help but add a little documentary feel, just like the director who inspired her thesis.

The first time Brooke appears in her thesis is in a section discussing Malle’s methods, inspired by his years of documentary filmmaking. Like many European New Wave filmmakers, Malle preferred a less staged, more organic approach to filming, which made his films more “textured,” according to Shields. One of the ways Malle encouraged this organic “spontaneity” is through the use of non-professional actors and a linear shooting style. In her experience, Malle’s methods are helpful and produce good results. She writes, 

“I was a non-professional and had no formal acting training. I only knew what my instincts told me…I had no armor to break through and, as a result, Louis Malle let me proceed naturally, printing only what he felt was necessary.” 

Filming the narrative in chronological order allowed her to retain a logical progression in her mind. She remembers “beginning with the first scene of the movie on the first day of filming and ending with the last sequence during the last week of filming.” This unimpeded march through time allowed Brooke and Violet to age simultaneously. She adds:

“Malle said there was a certain evolution in my appearance and attitude that was common to both my character and Violet’s. This evolution was documented and used as a salient part of the film. It made Violet’s character more believable and helped maintain the film’s pace.”

For just a moment, Brooke has dropped the mask. The character of Violet she’ll be addressing throughout her thesis is more than a character in a Louis Malle film. Violet is also a character she created. Violet was and remains a piece of work for Shields, which she can step back to appreciate and analyze.

And we should, too. Brooke Shields’ performance as Violet is astoundingly complex and grounded for a young actress. She is as free from impediments as she claims, conveying a frustrated childishness and mischievous naivete. Yet, importantly, you can also see the young girl who has been working for as long as she can remember. Shields would later say—upon the new release of Pretty Baby from Kino Lorber—that Malle and co-writer/producer Polly Platt cast her because Brooke has seen things already; she’s taken in the decaying world of ‘70s New York that Platt and Malle were trying to translate back to turn-of-the-century New Orleans. It gives Violet a labored know-how that makes Pretty Baby feel more like a documentary, and thus a bit more terrifying.

Turning to address the moral ambiguity of the text and the ethics of depicting child sex work, Shields writes, “Violet and the audience are forced to confront certain contradictions that exist deep within the human heart,” that is, the allure and repulsion of innocence. After her virginity is sold and presented like decorated flesh, we watch Violet turn on her role just like she’s trained herself to do by watching her mom and the extended family of the bordello. “I can feel the steam inside me right through my dress,” she says with a bit of a hiss. It’s a strange and off-putting moment that Brooke enters again to clarify:

“Like Violet, I felt unsure of the line and was forced to exert extra effort to make it strong and believable. Although Malle may believe this severity to be an intrinsic quality in the actress and in Violet, I feel, rather, that one must attribute it to the work of an individual whose overt actions exist as defense mechanisms for hidden discomforts.”

In this aside, Brooke doesn’t so much drop the mask as she puts up another one. Using an added layer of thick purple prose, she confesses that sometimes acting is frustrating, especially when trying to recreate a feeling you’ve never felt before; it’s not all glamorous moments of divine inspiration like you usually read about in critical theses like hers. Shields wants us to know that Violet was work. It’s the public that conflated the role and the performer.

America frequently saw photographs of Brooke Shields. But Violet’s final photo for Bellocq, her photographer-husband-father, has her uncomfortably reclining fully nude on a chaise, which rightly provoked some responses. When it comes time to address the scene that seemed to give people license to harass and chastise Brooke across international talk shows, as made explicitly clear in Pretty Baby: The Brooke Shields Story, she begins like a scholar. First, she establishes an artistic motive, saying that the child’s body represents a time before the “physical decay that accompanies age only parallels the mental and spiritual decay that permeates the world of experience.” 

But it isn’t a Romantic scene celebrating youth. It’s a cold, gray, dreary portrait with Violet growing increasingly irritated “at being, once again, the subject of the voyeur’s gaze,” in Shields’ words. And then she adds, “perhaps Violet speaks for many youths and addresses the director and the audience saying she is finished being relentlessly scrutinized.” There isn’t a lot of speculation in Shields’ thesis, so this “perhaps” clues us into Brooke’s personal feelings about the scene. She’s telling us the rage is not acting. 

After years of being photographed and dragged to modeling go-sees by her mother, Teri Shields, and the long hours on film sets, she knew what it was like to be exploited—and she was exhausted by it. She used that experience in collaboration with Malle to produce a work of art about a real moment in American history and the exploitation of children in the media. For all it celebrates about the relative morality of the Maison, the film remains firmly on Violet’s side in all its gross and uncomfortable truth. 

Louis Malle “places his characters in social soil,” Shields writes. As a sort of anthropologist abroad in America, the Malle of Shields’ thesis is heavily interested in stories about the ambiguities of human life through a film form defined by “open structures containing propositions and interrogations.” Malle’s films produce more questions than answers, and on the subject of child sexual exploitation, people like to feel sure. Though it’s tempting to read Bellocq as the final victim of Pretty Baby, when Hattie returns to take his wife-child away, Shields never lets us forget that he is always “also a victimizer.” 

As Violet stands on the train platforms, dressed in constricting clothes and her hair back in a tight bow, the camera freezes with her looking down the barrel. The new, modern world of the nouveau riche and merchant class she has been adopted into “could be envisioned as a second initiation into corruption.” Keeping with the French intellectual tradition that extends from Rousseau to Malle, for Shields, “civilization” is part of a progression and comes at a cost. “Presently [Violet] appears to have lost the freedom, the perversity, and the magic of her childhood,” she says, “and this ending signifies a second loss of innocence—the innocence of completely uninhibited sexuality.” Violet first lost her naivete around sexual matters because of her life and world. Now, she is entering a world that has violently judged her and will try to restrict her gender and sexuality.

Since this thesis is for a French Literature degree, however, Brooke doesn’t spend time unpacking the release and aftermath of Pretty Baby. Instead, she moves on, analyzing Lacombe Lucien, a film Malle made in Europe about a young man losing his innocence in the journey into fascism. Shields concludes that these films, especially Pretty Baby, become a “microcosm of the real world in which people prostitute themselves” and “are not free from moral ambiguity.” In a final interview for her thesis, ten years after they worked together, Malle says to Shields that “the good spectator must be disturbed and forced to ask himself questions.” Unfortunately, he misunderstood America’s relationship to intellectualism and critical engagement. Many of the spectators who saw Pretty Baby decided to interrogate 12-year-old Brooke and her mother instead. 

Watching the never-ending parade of harassing, leering and judgmental talk show questions from the time, you get a sense of how profoundly demoralizing it must have been. Like Violet, Brooke Shields was also living during the end of an arc in American society during the Sex Wars. As is so often the case in Violet’s time and ours, the public was more concerned with the loss of innocence rather than the lives of the innocent. Watching these segments edited together for Shields’ documentary, you see Americans’ enormous distrust in a young girl’s ability to reason for herself.

Though Shields doesn’t directly state it, The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience is also an answer to those questions and a personal healing from the abusive inquisition. Its academic agenda is to posit Louis Malle as an auteur specializing in the rites de sortie, the exit rituals that take one from childhood to adulthood. But underneath, as we’ve seen in the way Brooke occasionally drops the academic façade, there’s also a strong effort to show herself as a conscious collaborator, as a working actress doing her job to tell an artistic story about systems of abuse that affect many young girls in ways she was already intimately familiar with. Her thesis is a rebuttal to those who projected their prejudices onto her, but more importantly, it’s an example of how to heal and move from “innocence to experience.” Brooke Shields’ thesis models how tremendously healing it can be to critically analyze our past by understanding its external contexts and sources, along with our relationship to them. By taking this analytical step back, we can ask profound and provocative questions about ourselves, which helps us to grow.

In the acknowledgment of her thesis, before she steps back behind the curtain to perform the last necessary feat to graduation, she recognizes that the thesis is part of her own rite de sortie. “[This thesis] further confirms my own interest in the field of film and excites me towards a devotion to a world I am on the threshold of entering,” Brooke writes. With its completion and the end of school days, she is initiated into the adult world of college graduates. There’s a poetic justice that her chosen subject for her final paper is her first rite of passage into filmmaking in a film about a young girl’s passage to adulthood set (and made!) when America was going through its own liminal socio-economic periods of adolescence. It’s poignantly clear that in researching this piece, Shields revisited her work and directly addressed her past with courage. This thesis becomes a reverse shot to the one at the end of Pretty Baby, a compassionate glance back to meet the determined eyes of the young girl she used to be.

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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