Brooke Shields: Victim of child porn?

Authorities in London yank a nude photo of the actress at age 10 from an art exhibit

Published October 1, 2009 10:01PM (EDT)

Is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl sitting naked in a bubble bath child porn? Though it's gotten some snap-happy parents in trouble, most reasonable people would say that it isn't. But what if the girl's eyes are lined with black kohl and her lips are painted a seductive deep red, and what if instead of sitting in the tub she is standing, twisting and arching her glistening wet adolescent torso to reflect the soft light that streams in the window -- then is it child porn?

Police in London think it just might be and have removed a photo at the "Pop Life: Art in a Material World" exhibit at the Tate Modern as a result. The image at issue is an infamous one shot by Garry Gross of a naked 10-year-old Brooke Shields in the scenario described above. Well, actually, it's a photograph taken by Richard Prince of that original photograph. It so alarmed Kidscape, a U.K. organization that campaigns against child abuse, that the group brought it to the attention of authorities. Now an investigation is under way to ensure that the gallery doesn't "inadvertently break the law or cause any offense to their visitors."

Stateside, the original image, which was commissioned by Shields' stage mom, has a storied history. In 1983, a U.S. judge deemed that Gross' photo was not child pornography. It has been published in the Playboy Press publication titled "Sugar 'n' Spice" and even exhibited in New York at the Guggenheim Museum. That isn't to say that the photo hasn't encountered opposition in the U.S.; it has, most notably from Shields herself. In 1981, she attempted to buy the negatives from the entire photo shoot, but a judge rejected her plea, explaining that she was the "hapless victim of a contract" made by two "grasping" adults. Two years later, she unsuccessfully fought to ban distribution of the photos. A judge cited 17-year-old Shields' suggestive Calvin Klein ad -- shot when she was 15 -- as well as several of her sexualized movie roles before concluding that "claim of harm is thus undermined to a substantial extent." In other words: Her reputation was already irreparably damaged, so the photos could do no further harm. Apparently past harm was of no issue.

It remains to be seen how U.K. authorities will rule. In the meantime, we are all free to make our own personal and legally invalid judgments. Me, I see the photo as evidence of a child being exploited -- with the help of the person she likely trusted most in the world, no less. It is disturbingly reminiscent of another case in which a Hollywood mom left her underage daughter alone with a powerful man: Before allegedly raping her, Roman Polanski is accused of taking photos of his 13-year-old victim naked in a jacuzzi.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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