Written by Kelsey Bryner and Sarah Bousquet
Kelsey Bryner is Development Director at CHILD USA and Sarah Bousquet is a CHILD USA Research & Development Intern.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields highlights a phenomenon that has long plagued American culture: the oversexualization of children. Brooke Shields was overtly sexualized from an extremely young age by the films Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon as well as her infamous Calvin Klein jeans campaign. Throughout the docuseries we see Brooke wrestle with her experiences of sexualization throughout her youth by the film and media industry.
One of the most disturbing parts of the documentary is watching Brooke as she recounts a lawsuit centered around nude photos taken of her when she was only 10 years old. Teri Shields, Brooke’s mother, signed the contract that allowed a photographer to take nude photographs of Brooke, maintain ownership of the rights to those photos, and to continue to market the photos under the condition that he not sell them to pornographic publications. At the age of 17, Brooke sued photographer, Garry Gross, to block any further sales of the photos, citing that they were an invasion of her privacy and embarrassment. In 1983, the court of appeals ruled in favor of Garry Gross. They said that the contract that her mother signed gave Garry Gross the right to own naked photos of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields. All of this now feels extremely familiar as many try to combat a similar issue of images of them on the internet.
Mainstream Media and the Portrayal and Sexualization of Children
Children in mainstream media are often inappropriately portrayed explicitly or implicitly in a sexual manner. Sexualization can be understood as valuing a person exclusively for their sexual appeal or behavior, equating physical attractiveness to sexual attractiveness, sexually objectifying a person, or inappropriately imposing sexuality on a person.[i] Sexualization should not be conflated with sex or sexuality; it is a form of sexism, using a person for gratification without considering the person’s needs, interests, or desires.[ii] Women and girls are often more likely to be portrayed in a sexualized manner in television and film. A study by USC Annenberg found that teens and young women in movies were more likely than older women and men to be shown in sexualized attire, partial nudity, or full nudity.[iii]
The sexualization of children is not limited to television or film. Children are also sexualized in music videos, video games, beauty pageants, magazines, and advertisements. In advertising imagery, young girls are often portrayed to look older and adult women are often dressed to look like little girls.[iv] Examples of this include the Calvin Klein jeans ad featuring Brooke Shields at the age of 15, or the Sketchers ad featuring Christina Aguilera dressed up as a schoolgirl at age 24. Media outlets have posted countdowns to the 18th birthdays of female celebrities. Stars like Brooke Shields, Kate Moss, Natalie Portman, Millie Bobby Brown, Megan Fox, Mischa Barton, Mara Wilson, Emma Watson, and Alyson Stoner have all spoken out about their experiences of being sexualized by the media. Mara Wilson wrote about her experience, stating “It was cute when 10-year-olds sent me letters saying they were in love with me. It was not when 50-year-old men did.”[v]
Objectification and sexualization of children in media may lead to the normalization of child sexual abuse materials and increase the prevalence of child sexual abuse.[vi] Sexualized images of women and children in the media is associated with less empathetic responses and increased victim-blaming for survivors disclosing experiences of sexual abuse. Sexualizing children in media also perpetuates societal biases, as studies have found that girls pictured in sexualized clothes were perceived as less intelligent, less competent, less moral, and less self-respecting.[vii] These children often do not have agency to control how they are portrayed in media, but assumptions about their mental capacity persist.
Girls develop their identities during their youth and learn from what they see older girls and young women doing. [viii] Researchers estimate that American children spend about 4-8 hours a day consuming some form of entertainment media.[ix] Therefore, the sexualization of children by the media is not only dangerous for the children being portrayed, but also the children who are exposed to these images and experiences. The constant messaging of sexual objectification in media can also lead to self-objectification, which is understood as the internalization of the belief that they should be treated as objects and value is determined by physical appearance.[x] Research found that girls as young as 12 years old experience self-objectification, placing greater emphasis on their body’s appearance than on its competence.[xi] Sexualization and objectification of children is associated with negative effects, including lowered self-esteem, dissociation, feelings of shame or self-hatred, disordered eating, anxiety, depression, decreased physical health, disrupted cognitive capacity, and an increased risk of sexual abuse or exploitation.[xii]
It is essential that we protect children from being sexualized within the film and media industry. Unfortunately, the documentary highlighting Brook Shields’ experiences is not uncommon. Child stars have spoken out over and over again about their experiences being sexualized at a young age, yet nothing has changed. When will it be enough for change to happen for children and girls in media?
[i] Zurbriggen, E. L., Collins, R. L., Lamb, S., Roberts, T., Tolman, D. L., Ward, L. M., & Blake, J. (2007). Report of
the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf
[ii] Ward, L. M. (2016). Media and sexualization: State of empirical research, 1995-2015. The Journal of Sex
Research, 53(4-5), 560-577. https://doi-org.proxy.library.upenn.edu/10.1080/00224499.2016.1142496
[iii] Smith, S.L., Choueiti, M., & Pieper, K. (2014). Gender inequality in popular films: Examining on screen portrayals
and behind-the-scenes employment patterns in motion pictures released between 2007-2013. Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, USC Annenberg. https://annenberg.usc.edu/sites/default/files/MDSCI_Gender_Inequality_in_600_films.pdf
[iv] Zurbriggen et al., 2007, p.10.
[v] Wilson, M. (2021). The lies Hollywood tells about little girls. New York Times.
[vi] Zurbriggen et al., 2007, p.2.
[vii] Ward, 2016.
[viii] Zurbriggen et al., 2007, p.3.
[ix] Ward, 2016.
[x] Zurbriggen et al., 2007 p.15-17.
[xi] Zurbriggen et al., 2007, p.17.
[xii] Zurbriggen et al., 2007, p.21-23.