By 1978 second-wave feminism saw many landmark decisions and events including the first National Women’s Conference in a century, court cases involving marital rape, and the continued disinterest in an Equal Rights Amendment. 1978 was also the year sexualizing young girls came to the forefront. Yes, the objectification of young girls wasn’t anything new before this, but by the time director Louis Malle released Pretty Baby the groupie movement say girls between the ages of 15-18 acknowledging, and being congratulated for, sleeping with rock stars twice their age; this was also the year Roman Polanski fled the country after being indicted by raping a 13-year-old girl.
Praised upon release and still boasting an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s impossible to not see Malle contributing to the continued objectification and sexualizing of prepubescent girls, but that fails to acknowledge screenwriter Polly Platt’s progressive examination of female sex workers and, ultimately, attacking male idealization of youth and the praise they receive for it.
12-year-old Violet (Brooke Shields) lives in a brothel with her mother, Hattie (Susan Sarandon). When a photographer named Bellocq (Keith Carradine) comes calling, hoping to photograph the women, Violet finds him fascinating leading to conflicts between the two as well as with Violet’s mother.
Pretty Baby plays on the interrelationships between fantasy and reality, so it’s almost perfect that it was released when the two ideas were at their most excessive. This interplay starts from the opening title scrawl introducing our location as Storyville, New Orleans in 1917, presenting this as a fictional tale set in reality. Violet’s day starts with the arrival of her new baby brother, a fact she wishes to celebrate with the other women in the brothel, but, to them, it’s business as usual. A baby is just another needless byproduct of their profession, a burden more than a blessing.
Like the rock and roll scene of the period in which the film is released, there’s an air of glamour to the world Violet is growing up, placing her akin to the child of celebrities. She witnesses things a child shouldn’t see, but to her they’re nothing more than her mother’s profession. There’s competing sense of closeness and community amongst the sex and sexuality. Violet may walk in on her mother with a suitor for the evening, interrupting her mother with real-world duties, but the atmosphere is a constant party that even the staunch Bellocq is drawn to.
Platt’s script remains in control of the audience’s gaze, reminding us that the women sell fantasy as a means of keeping the wolf from their door. The world downstairs may be glitz and glamour with the promise of sex, but upstairs the children sleep with rats. Hattie herself dreams of being a “respectable person” and alongside many of the other residents sees male “patronage” as a means of upward mobility. Unfortunately, Hattie’s far too selfish to realize she’s raising her daughter into the same life she, herself, was raised in, perpetuating the cycle of sex and objectification. Even Bellocq, the presumed savior if this script was focused on telling the story through his view, wants to capture the falsity and illusion the women are selling, posing Hattie in beautiful and provocative poses but failing to see her true character underneath.
Susan Sarandon – Malle’s muse at the time – has never looked more beautiful and her Hattie is a mix of selfish, wild abandon, and immature child-woman. She’s meant to be the older, if less wiser, view of what Violet will become. She ironically calls Violet selfish, but Violet’s selfishness comes from her adolescence whereas Hattie lacks any excuse. The fact that the film concludes with Hattie’s redemption may seem formulaic, but gives the character a chance to break the cycle.
Pretty Baby is really about Violet’s becoming and much of the film’s controversy stemmed from then 13-year-old Brooke Shields’ nudity and scenes of sexuality (the latter sequences all take place off-camera). Unlike other films like Lolita, Shields Violet is inquisitive, precocious and child-like without being annoying. The film’s limited attempts at humor stem from her realistic arguments with her mother – “I am your mother!” “No you’re not. You say so all the time” – or her inability to realize what isn’t appropriate to say – “Was she Caucasian or other?” “She was a whore, Father.” Violet’s air of haughtiness when her virginity is auctioned off is proven to be a facade – the look of apprehension on her face is just one of the many fantastic reaction shots Malle captures to show the disaffected and apathetic feelings various characters have. She doesn’t actively wish to become what her mother is, but it’s implied that she understands her lot in life and is eager for things to happen without truly understanding their deeper consequences.
Shields’ curiosity coupled with Platt’s presentation of the film through Violet’s eyes brings up interesting questions regarding the audience’s response to everything. Violet is obviously something for the male visitors of the brothel to lust after, although Malle’s camera doesn’t see Violet as an object of titillation; her nudity scenes (outside of one moment of uninhibited nudity) are tastefully rendered with Shields’ hair in front of her and/or laying on her stomach. When Violet is set to “bust her cherry,” she is presented on a literal silver platter, like a virgin sacrifice. The camera shows us the eager faces of the lecherous men and we’re meant to take in Violet’s fear, the sad, resigned faces of the other children living in the brothel and, most importantly, the face of the Professor (Antonio Fargas), the house’s black piano player. All of these characters understand the liminal threshold Violet has been placed upon and, much like Violet’s newborn little brother is has been “Brung into this cruel world…against [her] will.”
Pretty Baby’s frank nature presents an extreme example of objectification and sexualizing that continues to this day. Shields, Sarandon, and Carradine play out this intriguing love triangle; the film is utterly gorgeous, and intrigues more today than it ever did.