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The fatal flaw of ‘Pam & Tommy’

| Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Emma Kirner | The Observer
Image sources: Hulu

“Pam & Tommy” should be an award-winning show. 

Hulu’s limited series retells the well-known story of actress Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), married celebrity sweethearts of the 90s whose stolen sex tape essentially went viral with the help of the early internet. 

In particular, the series is a feminist reclaiming of Anderson’s story. A young woman turned model overnight, the audience watches through flashbacks as she gained fame in Hollywood and how she and Lee fell deeply in love. After the couple’s private honeymoon home video is stolen from their house in 1995, Anderson is attacked with tabloid speculation and ridicule in a way Lee, and the other male characters of the series, cannot understand. 

Not only is Anderson objectified in the stealing, selling and viewing of the tape, but also elsewhere in her life before the tape was leaked. From film studio offices, to the set of “Baywatch,” to late-night television; Anderson is disrespected by the American public again and again. Even though the tape was stolen property, multiple judges ruled its legal standing as public media and therefore the couple cannot contain its spread. James, as Anderson says at one point, “I don’t have any rights because I have spent my public life in a bathing suit.” James delivers a heartbreaking performance as she journeys through horror, anger and sickening public humiliation, but persists to show she is more than just how the public and its male gaze views her. 

The series should be an excellent reflection on the misogynistic viewing of women’s bodies that continues to this day and 90s culture in general. It explores the emergence of the internet and celebrity privacy violation for mass consumption through revenge porn, tabloid pictures, street harassment and cheap comedian jokes. It unpacks how Lee is praised and Pamela is shamed for the tape because of gender roles in bedroom politics. It portrays the grief of miscarriage, the ecstasy of love, the degrading experience of being the only woman in a room full of men and the pressures having highly visible careers. The series makeup and costume designers did a phenomenal job, so much so that Pamela Anderson’s iconic messy hair updo has become a TikTok sensation. Its soundtrack bops and Stan and James outperform themselves. 

However, for a show with the concept of consent at its very core, it’s missing one fundamental thing: the consent of Pamela Anderson herself. 

Reportedly, Anderson never approved of “Pam & Tommy’s” creation and felt “violated” by its production. Neither Lee nor Anderson were involved with Hulu’s production, which was rather based largely on a 2014 Rolling Stones article breaking the alleged story of how the tape was stolen from the couple’s private safe. Multiple outlets have reported that both Anderson and various sources close to her said the series unnecessarily digs up a traumatic time in the actress’s life. 

Showrunner D.V. DeVincentis said in an EW article, “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. We didn’t get a response.”  

As one Atlantic podcast pointed out, the genre of 90s/2000s revisionist stories has become popular recently with movies and shows such as “The Crown,” “I, Tonya” and “Framing Britney Spears.” However, “Pam & Tommy” separates itself from others in the genre of celebrity tabloid retelling because of the issue of consent. Without Anderson’s greenlight, “Pam & Tommy” essentially exploits Anderson once again. It uses her deeply traumatic story for media consumption, a concept literally condemned in the show itself. While fantastic in theory, the result is a limited series that is impossible to stomach. 

Anderson recently announced the creation of a Netflix documentary about her life far beyond the scope of the sex tape fallout. Her son, Brandon Thomas Lee, is a producer and she wrote on social media that the work will depict her life as “Not a victim, but a survivor / And alive to tell the real story.” I look forward to hearing Anderson’s side of the story told by herself.

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About Isabella Volmert

Isabella Volmert is a senior majoring in English and minoring in theology and journalism, ethics and democracy at the University of Notre Dame. She served The Observer as assistant managing editor during its 2021-2022 editorial term. Follow her @ivolmertnews for niche Twitter content.

Contact Isabella