Baby, an Italian-language Netflix show that landed on November 30, begins with a monologue. "If you're 16 and live in Rome's most beautiful neighborhood, you're lucky. Ours is the best possible world. We're immersed in a wonderful see-through fish tank, but we long for the sea. That's why, in order to survive, we need a secret life," Chiara (Benedetta Porcaroli), the teenager at the show's center, says languidly.
Chiara is a girl with secrets. That much is obvious from the first scene on, when Chiara wakes up next to her best friend's brother, with whom she's having a secret affair. Her secrets only become more significant — and potentially catastrophic — over the course of the show, after she and her friend, Ludovica (Alice Pagani), become involved in a teenage prostitution ring.
The events of Baby are inspired by a true story. In 2013, Italian media was transfixed by the "baby squillo" (translating to "baby prostitute") scandal, in which approximately 50 men — including government officials — were found knowingly paying for sex with a 14-year-old (called Agnese in the press) and 15-year-old girl (called Angela) in the posh Paroli district of Rome. While prostitution is legal in Italy, it is illegal to pay for sex with a minor.
However, aside from the sharing a basic premise, Baby only loosely corresponds to the actual facts of the baby squillo scandal. Character similarities are one such overlap. Ludo and Alice are modeled off Agnese and Angela, respectively. According to The Daily Beast, Angela, like Chiara, is from a well-to-do family in the Paroli district. Agnese, like Ludo, is the daughter of single mother who struggled with financial difficulties.
However, Chiara is pulled into this realm in a different manner than Angela. In their official testimony, Angela and Agnese described getting involved with prostitution after searching for “easy money” on Google in July 2013. They followed an ad, which eventually connected them to their future pimps: Mirko Ieni and army official Nunzio Pizzacalla. Angela and Agnese operated out of a two-bedroom apartment on Via Paroli in Rome. Conversely, Ludo persuades Chiara to join her enterprise out of a shared longing for excitement.
Given these significant differences, Porcaroli stuck to the script, not to the scandal, when preparing for the role of Chiara. "I was aware of the [scandal's] facts, but these were just a starting point for the series. The characters were only loosely inspired by the real ones. For me, the script was the focus of my job," Porcaroli said in an email to Refinery29. "The screenplay helped me a lot in finding the right tracks to dive into all the conflicts of this girl’s life."
While reading the script, Porcaroli found that she could uniquely relate to Chiara — and Chiara's glamorous world. "Chiara is born and lives in the same area of Rome where I grew up. I had the chance to tell a world and a social context that are close to me, thanks to a character who is completely different from me," Porcaroli said.
Baby attempts to spin the girls' escort service into an act of empowerment. Ludo never actually sleeps with a client, but is able to pay for school with the earnings garnered from dinner with a boring dentist. Chiara willingly – actually, happily — sleeps with a seemingly pleasant young man, and experiences a high from doing so.
As a result, Porcaroli frames Chiara's journey as a coming-of-age story, the tale of one girl's breaking free from stifling convention. "Chiara feels something inside forcing her to behave and live accordingly to what is expected from her. The transition to adulthood becomes, for her, the first time she has the opportunity to be herself and to live, perhaps even by making mistakes, according to her natural impulses. Only through this process she will discover her real nature," Porcaroli said, mentioning that the "search of personal identity" is one of the show's central themes.
Porcaroli's reading of Baby as coming-of-age story is is echoed throughout the statements of others involved with the show. In an interview with Elle Italia, Brando Pacitto, who plays Chiara's friend, expresses that prostitution gave the girls a sense of freedom. At a preview of Baby, Re Salvador, one of the show's screenwriters, said Baby is a "show about love, not prostitution." For director Andrea De Sica, the real focus of Baby is exactly what Chiara mentions in her beginning monologue: This neighborhood is not as perfect as it seems. "[Baby] moves from this very rich world that is frustrated about getting real relationships, love, and then getting onto this path of transgression, where two of these six main characters give into prostitution,” De Sica told IndieWire.
Despite the showrunners' deliberate distancing of Baby from the the 2013 scandal, Baby drew controversy from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation for "[glorifying] the sex trafficking of minors," as NCOSE Vice President Lisa Thompson said in a letter to Netflix. However, Baby is not the first fictionalization of the scandal. The 2015 novel Professione Lolita by Daniele Autieri follows a group of teenagers in Paroli who get involved with prostitution and the Roman underworld. A docu-film of the same name aired in Italy in 2017.
Given the controversy, will Chiara and Ludo's story continue? Porcaroli declined to say what she imagined next in her character's future, so we'll have to count on Netflix for another season to find out.