Film / Pretty Baby

Pretty Baby is a 1978 drama film. It was the American debut of French director Louis Malle and it was also the Star-Making Role of a child actress named Brooke Shields. The movie is best known for its controversial content and subject matter.

New Orleans, 1917. In the Red Light District of Storyville, twelve-year-old Violet (Brooke Shields) is the Daughter of a Whore. Said whore is her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) and they live in a luxurious brothel run by Madam Nell (Frances Faye). One day, photographer E. J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) shows up at the brothel. Violet is fascinated by this man who pays to spend time with the prostitutes, but only to take pictures of them.

Madam Nell decides it's time to have Violet's virginity auctioned off. (Because twelve is old enough, right?) Meanwhile, Hattie escapes her life of prostitution by marrying a client and moving to St. Louis. There's just one little catch: she might have happened to claim that Violet was her sister rather than her daughter. She'll be coming back for Violet after she breaks the news to her new husband, but for now Violet will remain in the whorehouse. Bellocq is outraged by this arrangement, but Violet is now one of the whores so far as Madam Nell is concerned.

As you can gather from the synopsis, the film was highly controversial when it was released. Brooke Shields was twelve years old playing a child prostitute, and appeared nude on camera. Much like the novel Lolita it gained a significant reputation as an endorsement of child pornography - but is in fact an accurate representation of the times.


  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: Given that there's only a nineteen year age difference between Brooke Shields and the 31-year-old Susan Sarandon (though it's likely Hattie is meant to be a few years younger) this is probably implying that Hattie was a young mother herself.
  • Children Are Innocent: Zig-zagged with Violet. She's Wise Beyond Her Years when it comes to sex - as she's been raised around it - but this frequently clashes with her childlike idealism and innocence.
  • Children Of Whores: Violet, as well as her playmates in the brothel. She also has a baby brother, who is so important that his name is never mentioned. Hattie mentions that she started off as this trope:
    Hattie: My mama was a whore. She had me in a house just like this. Now I'm a whore.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Hoo, boy.
    • Violet's virginity gets sold and she starts working as a whore in the brothel at only the age of twelve. She also marries Bellocq briefly. No one finds this unusual or uncommon.
    • Hattie marries a customer, pretending Violet is her younger sister rather than her daughter, but plans to break the news after she's settled in. By the time she returns to claim Violet, the husband apparently has no problems with this arrangement.
    • Violet's nasty behaviour that she gets punished for? Flirting with a black man.
    • Despite being presented as a sympathetic character, Bellocq still slaps Violet for misbehaving, which would be seen as appropriate discipline of the era.
  • The Edwardian Era: Set in 1917. Technically, that's during World War I, but the war is only mentioned in passing whereas Edwardian dresses and ragtime music abound.
  • End of an Age: The end of New Orleans's Storyville district.
  • Fille Fatale: Violet has grown up in the brothel and around the whores, so she acts like this. After she experiences sex, she becomes a lot more flitatious.
  • Flower in Her Hair: Nell wears a red rose in her hair.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Ernest J Bellocq, who later became known for his haunting photographs of the prostitutes of New Orleans.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Hattie is a more complicated example of this trope. She is portrayed sympathetically, and wants out of her life as a prostitute. Although she abandons her children to do so she comes back to reclaim Violet and take her away to a better life.
  • Hookers and Blow: Alluded to. Hattie chews out another whore for her cocaine addiction.
  • Hypocrite: The brothel is picketed by a bunch of sailors. However, the supply only exists because of the demand. They should be protesting their fellow sailors instead.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Hattie wants to be respectable and runs away to get married. She appears to have succeeded by the end.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Bellocq eventually lets Violet return to Hattie, realising that it's better for her to have a more normal upbringing.
  • Love Triangle: Violet is slightly jealous of the attraction Bellocq has to her mother.
  • Miss Kitty: Nell, who is the madame of the brothel.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: When Violet's virginity is auctioned off, Madam Nell makes sure to extol her purity. Having been raised in a whorehouse, Violet is actually pretty knowledgeable about sex in spite of having not done it yet. She's told to exaggerate her innocence because "this guy is buying a virgin".
  • Old Man Marrying a Child: Downplayed, in that Bellocq is in his twenties, but he marries Violet. It's also a rare heartwarming example.
  • Parental Abandonment: Hattie abandons Violet to get married, though Violet is the one who tells her to do so - as she doesn't want to leave the brothel.
  • Platonic Prostitution: Bellocq visits prostitutes in order to photograph them.
  • Pretty in Mink: Hattie reappears with her new husband and respectable lifestyle wearing a fancy fur scarf.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Subverted regarding statutory rape. Violet is seen by some as too young to be a whore even at the time (and would undoubtedly inspire a Pædo Hunt in the modern day), though she herself sees nothing wrong with it, and thus experiences no negative consequences from having sex with much older men as a child.
  • Red Light District: Storyville where the film takes place, is the red light district of New Orleans.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The end of legal prostitution in Storyville coincides with the end of Violet's unnatural childhood. She ends the film ironically with the chance to be a normal girl.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Violet's deflowering marks her transition from "daughter of a whore" to "whore".
  • Slice of Life: No real plot. It's mainly a look into the life of a twelve-year-old girl who grew up in a brothel.
  • Stepford Smiler: After losing her virginity, Violet tries to laugh with the other girls. But for a moment she slips up and it's clear she's in horrible pain.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Violet is very sexually bold, as you might expect of a child raised in a whorehouse, and is also shown drinking alcohol a couple times, though Louisiana did not have a minimum drinking age at the time.
  • Uncanny Valley Makeup: Violet is made up excessively for the scene where her virginity is sold.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Violet is punished for flirting with a black man.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Hattie slaps Violet when she refuses to leave the brothel, and she thinks it means she won't get to lead the respectable life she wants.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Bellocq slaps Violet when she messes with his camera.