Ethics Dunce: Brooke Shields


This post pains me. I am a long-time admirer of Brooke Shields. She navigated the perilous waters of child stardom as well as anyone, survived an overbearing (and often unethical) stage mother, and managed to turn her childhood and teen super-modeling career into long and variegated show business success that included several Broadway shows and a successful TV sitcom, all while appearing to maintain at least the appearance of sanity and good sense. However, during a recent interview with Dax Shepard on his “Armchair Expert” podcast, Shields decided to attack legendary broadcast journalist Barbara Walters for an interview she did of the then-15-year-old in 1981.

The podcast was following the trail of an October interview the current version of Shields, the one that is 56, did for Vogue. In that one, Shields expressed anger at the famous Calvin Klein ad that immediately preceded her intense cross-examination by Walters, the naughty TV spot that had the leggy teen clad in skin-tight jeans saying provocatively, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

In Vogue Shields said of the ad, “I was very naive. I didn’t think it had to do with underwear. I didn’t think it was sexual in nature. I’d say that about my sister, nobody could come between me and my sister… they didn’t explain [the double-entendre] to me.” As for the interview discussing the ad with Walters, Shields described her questions probing Shields’ sexuality as “practically criminal.”

A consistent theme in Ethics Alarms is the unethical nature of “late hits,” allegations and attacks against prominent individuals that occur years and even decades after the events in question occurred (think Christine Blasy-Ford), if in fact they did. Whatever the reason for the delays, these allegations are usually so distant that they can’t be definitively proven, and are often triggered by either the appearance of vulnerability by the accused, or an opportunity for benefits to the accuser.

In this case, there is no question about what occurred in the interview; its on tape. However, Barbara Walters is 92 years old. It is understandable that 15-year-old Brooke Shields didn’t have the confidence to call out Walters in 1981, but what about in 1991 (when the photo above was taken) or 2001, when Walters was active and could defend herself?

I get it: Shields has two teen-aged daughters now, so her perspective is different. It doesn’t excuse criticizing a very old woman who is far from top form and hasn’t appeared in public for six years.

This late hit was even worse than that, however. The individual responsible for allowing both the Calvin Klein ad and the Walters interview was Brooke’s mother, manager and guru, Teri, who died in 2012. She set up the deal with the jeans company. She was present at the Walters interview and had the job of protecting her child. Of course, this was the woman who allowed Shields to appear semi-naked and play a child prostitute on screen in “Pretty Baby” at the age of 12. Now that was “almost criminal.”

Brooke Shields had a complex relationship with her mom, who raised her alone after a divorce, and it is understandable that she doesn’t feel comfortable criticizing the parent who made her a celebrity. That doesn’t excuse transferring her complaints to Barbara Walters, who can’t defend herself.

19 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Brooke Shields

    • As ex-child actor/child actor activist Paul Petersen explained to me, almost all child performers come from dysfunctional families, because coping with the dysfunction makes them performers to survive.

    • Dysfunctional family situations very often give a child the gravitas and sobriety needed to be older beyond his or her years that can sometimes translate into an acting career. The child has already learned how to fake emotions at home; He or she may have had to take on adult responsibilities to make up for an absent parent.

      This article is about 20 years old, but it’s a good example of how a kid in that type of environment can hit it big in Hollywood and the impact it has on family relationships when it happens.

      • Whew. What a tale. Reminds me of my short story, “The Flyboy’s Daughter.” Girls can grow up to be awfully plucky. If they have to.

    • Because people with sane stable home lives where they are accepted as they are with no need to pretend are less likely to become professional liars? I would guess that almost every actor out there had at least one issue that made their actual life something they felt the need to escape from.

  1. I’m struggling with this.

    I don’t even think this is properly called a late hit. It happened. It was very public. There was a very public debate over this. Did anyone think that Shields enjoyed the experience? Is there some kind of limitation on how long you can tell bad stories about people?

    I don’t like political hits… I’m thinking of Brett Kavanaugh in particular, recency bias, maybe. In cases where the timing of the hit is obviously motivated to achieve a political end. Where people sit on their accusations (if they haven’t made them up entirely) for years until the right moment to hurt their accused the most.

    But even then, there’s a difference between the Kavanaugh accusation and the Roy Moore accusation. It still blows my mind that people are choosing to die on the hill that Blaisey Ford was “credible”. As a refresher, she said that “somewhere”, “at a house party”, “sometime in the 70’s”, Brett Kavanaugh called her into a room, threw her on a bed, dry humped her, and fell of her while laughing, all in front of witnesses. None of the people she said were witnesses ever recalled even being at a house party together, nevermind the rest of it. The FBI tried to investigate that… It’s a serious charge on a SCOTUS nominee, clarity either way would be ideal. But how the hell do you investigate that past witness interviews? Go knocking door to door in the general metro area for a floor plan that might fit the description and go scrubbing for 30 year old hair samples?

    Roy Moore, on the other hand, was accused by nine women of sexual impropriety while dating Moore, at ages as young as 16. Moore didn’t reject the claims and said that he only dated girls over 16 (which is the age of consent in Alabama) (Ew). Then pictures came out of him doing exactly that. Late hit? Sure. Did it happen? At least some of it.

    Then there’s the spectrum on late hits on non-political people. Comedians got hit pretty hard. Aziz Ansari (who likes it rough, but says he got consent), Louis CK (who asked women if he could masturbate in front of them, and then did)… Bill Cosby.

    Oh yes, let’s go there. While not hocking Jello pudding, Bill was drugging and raping women. Were all 40 of his accusers being honest? Almost certainly not. Were all 40 lying? Also almost certainly not. And did everyone who could have made an accusation come forward? I have my doubts. Now I’m of the opinion that the accusers were unethical, because if at any time, the women had come forward earlier, they probably would have prevented some number of future attacks…. But it *is* better to be late than never, and the accusations were not unethical.

    Which is why I’m struggling, and I think you need to explain a differentiation or a limiting principle between Waters and Cosby. Because I don’t see a great way to call the Shields comment a “late hit”, where the originating act obviously happened, happened very publicly, and without an obvious gain to be made, without calling the Cosby accusations a “late hit”, but worse, because we don’t know the veracity of all the claims, a lot of them weren’t public, there’s an obvious harm to Cosby and an arguable benefit to an accuser.

    • Jeez, HT, I think it’s obvious. 1. The accusations against Cosby WERE regarding criminal activity. 2. There was a large imbalance of power that made the timely rendering of the accusations difficult, and the delays more justifiable. 3. Walters wasn’t even the real culprit here, as I explained. Shield’s mother served her up on a platter to get publicity for her daughters’ career. Walters’ style and the likely tone of the interview was known and predictable, especially since the Calvin Klein ad is what led to the interview. Did Brooke think Barbara Walters was going to use that interview to ask about her favorite ice cream? The interview was in the context of sex. Teri knew it, and Brooke should have. 4. If Shields was going to attack Walters, she was obligated to do so when Walters was able to respond. In 1991, Shields and Walters had more or less equal power, unlike Cosby and his accusers.

      How’s that?

      • Are we still pretending that this wasn’t a comment on something that everyone has either known about or could know about, for 30 years? And on that note… I’m also not going to pretend that Shields hasn’t been very candid about what she thinks about her mother. I don’t even see this as an attack, I see it as a throwaway comment on a situation that has been in the public sphere almost as long as I’ve been alive.

        On 3 though… In this discrete situation? Of course she is. Walters ran her own show. She picked her guests. She prepared her questions. She spoke the words. Did the devil that was Shields’ mother sit on her shoulder and poked her with Prada until Walters did the things? By what possible standard could anyone but Walters be ultimately responsible for her questions in that interview?

        • What? I would yank my daughter out of the studio if I felt she was being abused, and would be obligated to do so. And Shields has been very restrained about criticizing her mother, who was 100% responsible for butting her in Walters’ sights. 100%

          By what possible standard could Teri NOT be held responsible for arranging a nationally broadcast interview that she was unfit to handle with an infamous ambush interviewer, on the topic of sex?

          • I must agree with Humble Talent.

            Why is there a time frame for when you can hold someone accountable for bad behavior?

            Much of your post is a whataboutism concerning her mother.

            Why does her age matter? Should only young people be held accountable? Why can’t she “respond”? Why does that even matter more than the victim?

            • Q. “Why is there a time frame for when you can hold someone accountable for bad behavior?”
              A. As I think was implicit in the post, the sooner the fairer. That’s why there are statutes of limitation for most crimes. And waiting until the accused is in the most vulnerable position, or when the accusation will do maximum damage (Anita Hill), or when the accused is in a weakened state (like Walters) is dastardly on its face.

              “Much of your post is a whataboutism concerning her mother.”—You apareantly don’t know what that words means. I didn’t say or suggest that what Walters did was OK because Teri also mistreated Shields (that’s “whataboutism”.) I pointed out that Teri was and is 100% responsible for Walters did, as she approved it, laid the groundwork for it, and didn’t protect Shields from it.

              “Why does her age matter?” Seriously? That’s what the entire Shields complaint is about—age, and that she was essentially bullied on TV by a more powerful figure. Now Shields is the more powerful, since Walters is in her 90s. She’s doing to Walters what she is accusing Walters of doing to her. In 1991, when that photo was taken, they were of approximately equal power. That would have made it a fair time for a public complaint.

        • I’m going to have to agree with HT here. Granted, I recently re-watched part of the Dolly Parton-Barbara Walters interview. Walters whole style is demeaning. Basically accusing Parton of being a classless hillbilly. Fortunately Parton was adult who was able to respond, well with class.

          Walters doesn’t get any sympathy from me.

          • But of course the post never excused Walters, so this is beside the point. The issue is Shields waiting 40 years to complain in public, when Walters isn’t fit to respond or defend herself.

            • I still think that there’s a difference between someone bringing up something that isn’t public knowledge (Like a decades old sexual impropriety that was never previously reported), and offering an opinion on something that happened publicly enough that it’s reasonable to expect a good chunk of America to be passingly familiar with it.

              Even in this case, Shields was answering an interview question… The interviewer didn’t have to dig very hard for the material. Let’s pretend we’d never heard of Dax Shepard’s podcast (a legitimate reality for most people previous to this); What do you think her opinion on the interview was? Did we think Shields liked the Walters interview? Did we think it was a pleasant experience? Appropriate? What new information came out with this, exactly? What’s the bombshell that she sat on for decades?

              No, we were reminded of something that we already knew. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

  2. Why doesn’t Brooke Shields just grow up? To profess now that she was used as a teenager (not least by her own mother and sometime manager), is not news, is not constructive. If she has a decent relationship with her own daughters, then sit them down, tell her story, and make sure a lesson is learned there. I have no idea why a 56-year-old ex-star would pick 2021 to vent and complain about what happened 40 years ago.

    Has she lost her mind? Are we to be reminded of just how hot she was then, even though she now feels misused? If she really, really cares, she should give at least part of her millions (made through the ‘abuse’ she now realizes she suffered) to children’s charities. That is, if she is really serious and not capitalizing (no pun intended) on her recent revival through the Vogue interview.

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