It’s a documentary subgenre that’s becoming increasingly familiar: a look back on the career of a controversial woman in the spotlight. Maybe she’s an actress, singer, or model. Maybe she deserved some of the heat that came her way, or maybe she was an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of dueling paparazzi flashes. Maybe she’s telling the story on her own terms, or maybe someone is telling it for her. Whatever the case may be, it’s become clear that we’re living in a post-Framing Britney Spears world, one where we’re just as eager to reexamine our transgressions as we are likely to repeat them.
Two of the latest entries in this genre center around Brooke Shields and Pamela Anderson, both women who, like Spears, were sexualized from a young age, both with and without their consent. Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, from Miss Americana director Lana Wilson, is a two-part documentary that premiered at Sundance and will be available on Hulu this spring. Pamela, a Love Story, from director Ryan White (The Keepers, The Case Against 8), premiered on Netflix on Tuesday.
There are plenty more parallels to be found between the two women: the way they were treated by the press and exploited within their industries, their shared trauma from sexual assault, how each of them suffered miscarriages and battled controlling relationships. But watching the women’s stories in conjunction, what’s even more striking than their similarities is how their paths diverged in spite of them.
It’s a challenge to innovate within a subgenre that by now has become so commonplace, and Pretty Baby doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Instead it uses the traditional celebrity bio-doc arc in its favor to highlight the disturbing nature of Shields’ road to stardom. Under Wilson’s direction, Shields’ major career milestones go from cause for celebration to cause for alarm shockingly quickly.
Helped along by her mother, Teri Shields, with whom she had a close but difficult relationship, Shields’ first on-camera gig as an infant in an Ivory soap ad became the start of a successful modeling career. By the time she was 12, Shields was starring in her first major movie, Pretty Baby. But the subject, and content, of the film—a historical drama in which Shields plays a child prostitute and appears nude—sparked a child pornography debate. Subsequent roles are equally difficult to stomach. After her Calvin Klein ad at 14 (“You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”), she appeared in the desert-island coming-of-age movie The Blue Lagoon at 15 and then the teen romance Endless Love at 16, each of which featured multiple nude scenes. “I think I learned how to compartmentalize at such an early age,” Brooke says of her early roles. “It was a survival technique.”
The existence of those movies, let alone those scenes, is almost inconceivable now, when most on-screen teenagers are played by actors well over 21, but what makes her story even more upsetting is the public response. Archival headlines paint Shields, a literal child, as “the world’s youngest sex symbol,” and a series of talk show clips show her, clearly uncomfortable, answering and awkwardly giggling at male talk show hosts who shamelessly comment on her “maturity” and beauty. In one interview, Endless Love director Franco Zeffirelli, whose Romeo and Juliet recently became the subject of a separate lawsuit over teenage nudity, describes being “madly in love” with Shields before ever meeting her. Upon hearing it, Shields’ smile fades completely. It isn’t that her roles weren’t questioned at the time, but that she and her mother were made to answer for them, while little was asked of the men who cast and photographed her.
For Anderson, fame came a little later. About a decade after Shields starred in Pretty Baby, Anderson was discovered in the crowd of a Canadian football game in Vancouver in 1989, and was catapulted into the limelight after starring on Playboy magazine’s October cover later that year. And while by the mid-1990s she had already been Playmate of the Month and starred in Baywatch, it was the sex tape—a home video between her and husband, Tommy Lee, that was stolen in 1995 and eventually sold and distributed without their permission—that not only turned her into one of the most famous women of the time but made her the butt of a joke that’s lasted almost three decades.
Like the Shields documentary, Pamela relies on archival clips from talk shows and red carpets to remind us of the piggish one-liners that were made at Anderson’s expense, and the invasive, tactless questions posed to her by men who felt entitled to ask them. In these interviews, Anderson is subjected to repeated leering inquiries that are either explicitly or implicitly about her sex life or her breasts. It’s hard to watch, but it feels especially cruel given the history she lays out for us.
Growing up, Anderson struggled to process a history of sexual assaults, revealing that she was molested by a babysitter from ages 6 to 10, and was raped on two separate occasions, once by a 25-year-old man when she was 12, and later as a 14-year-old by her boyfriend and six of his friends. By the time she was an adult, posing in Playboy became a way for her to reclaim her sexuality. “That was the first time I felt like I’d broken free of something,” she says. “That’s where a wild woman was born. I felt like it was kind of my gateway to another world. Now I was going to take my power back.”
Instead, Anderson’s modeling and acting career become like a pair of leaden wings, granting her personal freedom but weighing her down with a reputation she hasn’t been able to escape. In the Shields documentary, it’s made clear that society often affords women two choices in life: As in Freud’s famous formulation, they can be the Madonna, or they can be the whore. And once a woman is labeled as a whore, she’s frequently dehumanized by the men who come to see her as a sex object, and treated with callousness by women, who see her as a traitor to the cause. If Anderson ever stood a chance of escaping the categorization, the leak of her sex tape firmly closed the door.
This event is what fundamentally sets Anderson’s life on a different trajectory than Shields’. Because as Shields transitions into adulthood, enrolling at Princeton University affords her time and space away from her mother and her career, allowing her to come into her own. Years later, following a miscarriage and the birth of her first child, she also became an emissary for mothers with postpartum depression, even penning a potent op-ed refuting criticism from Tom Cruise, who condemned her use of antidepressants. (“While Mr. Cruise says that … I do not ‘understand the history of psychiatry,’ ” Shields writes, “I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Mr. Cruise has never suffered from postpartum depression.”)
Shields had to fight for her voice, but eventually, she was given the space to use it, to correct the record and create a fuller, more nuanced public image. Her rebuttal to Cruise (which received wild cheers and applause from the audience at the movie’s Sundance premiere) is the kind of moment Anderson never really gets.
That’s because, for Anderson, her choices as an adult were weaponized against her. Choosing to pose nude in Playboy and being in a show like Baywatch made society feel like she was complicit in her own exploitation. There’s one point in Pamela, where Anderson and Lee are enjoying a night out after the birth of their first child, who’s at home with Anderson’s mother. The paparazzi swarm around them, calling her a drug fiend, asking where her baby is, trying to provoke her into becoming the person they already believe her to be.
Later, when Anderson and Lee decide to sue Penthouse in order to stop the distribution of the sex tape, Anderson, then seven months pregnant with her second child, is forced to endure a humiliating deposition. Naked photos were used in the room as proof that she had no right to privacy, and repeated questions about her sex life implied that Anderson was in some way culpable. “They didn’t have a lot of sympathy for me,” Anderson recalls. “Oh, she’s in Playboy, she likes being naked in public. First of all, that’s my choice to be in the magazine. Playboy was empowering for me. But in this case, it felt like a rape. Not to bring up something heavy from my childhood, but when I was attacked by this guy, I thought everyone would know. When the tape was stolen, I felt like that. … I kept thinking, ‘Why do these grown men hate me so much?’ ”
A similar scene plays out in the Shields documentary, when a 16-year-old Shields stands trial in an attempt to stop the sale of nude photos taken of her by former family friend Garry Gross when she was just 10 years old. Again, Teri Shields becomes the ultimate villain in the press, while her daughter is reduced to tears on the stand after two days in court. Horrific snippets of the court transcripts show Gross’ lawyer asking the teenager “You like to be sexy, don’t you?”—even claiming in an affidavit that Shields had “sought and acquired the image and persona of a Lolita and a femme fatale … she is portrayed as a young vamp and a harlot, a seasoned sexual veteran.” In the present day, Shields asks, “Why put me through that?”
These two court cases, taking place nearly 16 years apart, put the impossibility of being a woman into focus. Whether you’re a literal child or an adult, you can be commodified, stripped of your agency, and painted as part of the problem while the men around you are absolved of any wrongdoing—Shields lost the case, and Anderson gave up the fight.
In a way, the things Anderson had in common with Shields didn’t really matter, because they were twisted to blame her for what happened (she modeled for Playboy rather than Calvin Klein, she got married after four days of knowing Tommy Lee, and she had her first child in the midst of the sex-tape scandal), whereas for Shields the milestones of becoming a wife and a mother were part of her becoming a Madonna whom society could respect.
By the end of each documentary, the simple fact of Shields’ and Anderson’s continued existence feels like a miracle. Shields is a mother and celebrated actress, a woman who’s successfully fought to be seen as complex. But for Anderson, things are much more bittersweet. Her documentary comes on the heels of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy series, released last year without Anderson’s approval.
Both women have lived a life in the public eye, dealing with decades of harassment and changing attitudes. They grappled with careers that forced them to lose their senses of self, becoming, at one time or another, almost directionless because there was some other version of them being photographed and talked about on TV or in the tabloids.
Shields’ story is difficult but ultimately hopeful, while Anderson’s is a wake-up call: No matter how much we pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve changed, some women are living, breathing reminders of how far we still have to go. As Anderson says in the documentary, “I always hoped that I would do something that would be more interesting to people than my body.” Here’s hoping that day comes soon.