Exploiting the exploited: the problem with Pam & Tommy

Television

The much-hyped show about the theft of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape offers a screwball meditation on consent – without the consent of one of its subjects

Pam & Tommy, the Hulu series on the story behind the most infamous sex tape of the 1990s, is disconcertingly fun. The eight-part series created by Robert Siegel, half of which has aired, is front-loaded with 90s iconography and zany gags designed to provoke online discussion. There’s the brain-scrambling transformations of actors Lily James and Sebastian Stan into mid-90s rock it-couple Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, and a mulleted Seth Rogen as Rand Gauthier, the stiffed carpenter who pulls off an impressive heist of the couple’s safe, played for suspense. There’s nostalgic needle drops from Nine Inch Nails to Fatboy Slim, a conversation between a high Tommy and his animatronic penis, and plenty of sex, drugs, videotapes and characters asking, with winking naivety, what the world wide web is.

It’s a confusing, often entertaining watch, one that wants to have its fun and interrogate it, too, at best a heady blend of screwball comedy, madcap romance, expensive nostalgia and serious retrospective of a public scandal in which a woman’s privacy was invaded, her intimate moments exploited and judged without her consent. But there’s one detail that, for me, turns this whole palate sour: the real Pamela Anderson did not want this story retold. While Stan has confirmed that he spoke with Lee, who has praised his portrayal, Anderson did not respond to producers’ overtures. She has not spoken publicly about the series, but sources have expressed her discontent and disappointment in multiple outlets.

Anderson’s reticence looms over everything. In one standout scene from the fourth episode, time ceases to pass as Pam overhears Baywatch crew watching the tape and realizes that it’s her voice, that it’s her tape, that strangers are watching her private video. James’s performance of paralyzing dread is excellent, her slow-burn horror palpable, chilling. But, for me, it’s inseparable from the off-screen context. Are we not repeating that horror now? Pam & Tommy recreates parts of the tape, has actors mimic Anderson and Lee’s sex noises, includes montages of them having cartoonishly vigorous sex, uses prosthetics to imitate their famous anatomies. It’s deliberately uncomfortable to watch, and while there’s a lot going on here, much of it interesting and admirable, not all discomfort is productive. No amount of impersonation, or sympathetic portrayals in which Pam clearly recognizes the biases against her, can get me past the fact that a show about consent exists without the consent of one of its central subjects.

It’s not without trying; the show’s sympathies clearly lie with Anderson, especially in later episodes yet to air that depict how the slut-shaming fallout from the tape’s (illegal!) release was particularly hellacious for her. The showrunners and cast have been straightforward about their desire to do right by her – “We particularly wanted to let Pamela Anderson know that this portrayal was very much a positive thing and that we cared a great deal about her and wanted her to know that the show loves her,” showrunner DV DeVincentis told Entertainment Weekly of attempts to work with her. “We didn’t get a response, but considering what she’s been through and the time that we were reaching out, that was understandable.”

I get that. TV is a collaborative project that shouldn’t necessarily hinge on the feelings of one person. Nor is a subject’s narrative control and participation necessarily the best recipe for clarity, honesty, even empathy – see: most pop-star documentaries, which essentially function as long-form PR, such as Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana. But Anderson’s lack of interest in revisiting a foundational public trauma, one that reportedly remains “very painful” for her, undermines the whole project. It invades every scene, particularly in the mid-season stretch in which Pam and Tommy begin to realize the extent of the tape’s dispersal. It turns otherwise potent, provocative material – on the boundaries of privacy, the unforgiving binds of sex appeal, the double standards of public exposure – a shade queasy.

Hulu could tell this story with or without Anderson’s permission or cooperation because it obtained the rights to the 2014 Rolling Stone article by Amanda Chicago Lewis about the story behind the theft of the tape by Gauthier – a relatively long example of the viral article to streaming content pipeline that, by 2022, is at full gush. Contemporaneous to Pam & Tommy, which adapts a mid-2010s gonzo retelling of a 90s nostalgia trap, is Inventing Anna, the Shonda Rhimes series on the viral article by Jessica Pressler about faux heiress Anna Delvey, which premiered last week on Netflix; Super Pumped, the Showtime series on Uber, based on reporting by Mike Isaac; and The Dropout, a series starring Amanda Seyfried as Silicon Valley fraudster Elizabeth Holmes. On the film side, there’s 2019’s Hustlers, also based on a Jessica Pressler article about savvy strippers in recession-era New York, and last year’s Zola, based on a viral 2014 tweet-thread-cum-story by A’Ziah “Zola” King.

Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Photograph: Steve.Granitz/Inactive/WireImage

But Pam & Tommy, as a depiction of how Anderson’s trauma was dismissed or compounded by those around her, including Lee, at the time of the tape’s theft and release, has more in common with feminist retrospectives on how the “post-feminist” media and mores of the 90s and 2000s treated public-facing women: documentaries re-examining the harsh media lacerations of Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and Lorena Bobbitt, the Showtime hit Yellowjackets, and most strikingly Impeachment: American Crime Story. Monica Lewinsky served as a producer on the FX series, advising the portrayal of her character, played by Beanie Feldstein.

It’s fair to ask if this show should exist in the first place, if there are limits for a media retrospective, even revision, packaged as entertainment. To be fair, Pam & Tommy is partly undercut by its release format – the first three episodes, which orbit around Gauthier as a pathetic, sympathetically put-upon figure and retell Anderson and Lee’s pairing as a romp, belie a more considerate and skewering back half of the season yet to air. A brutal deposition scene in the sixth episode, directed by A Teacher’s Hannah Fidell, in which old, white, male lawyers prod her memories for sport (“Was that exciting for you and your husband?” one asks of the tape) is particularly squirm-inducing, evocative and devastating.

But this insight is ultimately shortchanged by its provenance, the knowledge that the person at hand again didn’t invite this public scrutiny. “I feel so violated,” says Pam in the fourth episode, hands over her face, tape now in the hands of the nascent internet. Pam & Tommy, for all its hijinks, remains clear-eyed on just how traumatic and unfair that violation was. But without Anderson, the cycle of attention – this series, this piece, our watching it – also seems to extend it.

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