Justice for Pamela

The brutal sixth episode of Pam & Tommy should have audiences rethinking how culture treated the ’90s sex symbol.

Lily James as Pamela Anderson
Erica Parise / Hulu; Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

Throughout the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, Pamela Anderson spends a lot of time as the only woman among crowds of men. A tableful of male lawyers press her into a lawsuit that devastates her public image. More lawyers subject her to a brutally misogynistic deposition. Television affiliates gather around her like a magazine cover come to life. And of course, her Baywatch producers surround her on the beach, cutting any meaningful acting from her script and posing her as a literal object for the camera. “I can move myself,” Lily James’s Anderson uncomfortably reminds a crewman when he attempts to physically reposition her.

The series, which just aired a devastating sixth episode and concludes on March 8, shows audiences a version of Pamela Anderson many haven’t had the chance to see before. She’s not just a blonde bombshell finding her path as a sex symbol. Pam & Tommy’s Anderson is a self-possessed, ambitious woman whose instincts and intelligence should prevail over the boardrooms of men—if only so much of her existence weren’t about pleasing people.

There’s a painful irony then, that a show about Anderson’s victimhood came about against her wishes and from a largely male production team. (Pam & Tommy was initially announced in 2018 with James Franco directing and starring as Tommy Lee. He left the project after accusations from female students of his acting school.)

The show tells the backstory to the infamous sex tape of newlyweds Anderson and Lee. Stolen and sold on the web, it arguably marked both the first viral celebrity sex tape and the first revenge porn of the digital era. Set in the Wild West days of the early internet, Pam & Tommy chronicles how the tape opened up questions of celebrity and privacy that we still grapple with today.

Without Anderson’s approval though, does Pam & Tommy just repeat the exploitation it depicts? Recent works such as Framing Britney Spears and American Crime Story: Impeachment also retell a chapter of ’90s tabloid scandal. The show’s eponymous tape entered the world at a moment that lacked a moral framework for the technology enabling its spread. Are we similarly at a moment where retelling personal histories—even those of celebrities—should be more sensitive to their subjects’ privacy?

Three staff writers for The Atlantic debate that question and break down Pam & Tommy on an episode of The Review, the magazine’s culture podcast. Listen to Sophie Gilbert, Shirley Li, and Spencer Kornhaber here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sophie Gilbert: We are here today to discuss Pam & Tommy, the Hulu miniseries. It tells the story of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s infamous sex tape and stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan as the celebrity couple and Seth Rogen as the disgruntled contractor who sells the stolen tape on the internet. Pam & Tommy is obviously based on a true story, loosely but fairly on a magazine story in Rolling Stone that came out in 2014 that focused on Rand Gauthier, the character that Seth Rogen plays. He is the disgruntled contractor whom Tommy Lee stiffed on a job and forced off his property with a shotgun to the face. Rand decided to get his revenge and steal the safe from the couple’s property that turned out to contain a tape.

It led to the first instance of a celebrity sex tape really going viral. When I was writing about the series, I thought about it as the first real instance of revenge porn in mainstream American culture. And so it’s an interesting topic to consider now in this moment of 1990s/2000s revisionism, where we’re thinking about the stars whom we did wrong at the time and weren’t sensitive to. But of course, Pam & Tommy comes with an asterisk, which is that it has not been made with Pamela Anderson’s approval. She ignored all efforts from the cast and crew to reach out to her during the process, and has said that she really sort of resents the existence of this series that digs into a moment in her life that she felt was very humiliating and punishing and sort of obviously a gross invasion of her privacy. So this show comes with a lot of factors to consider, but I wanted to ask before we get into that context: What did you make of it purely as a work of entertainment?

Shirley Li: Whenever I see a TV show that’s inherently buzzy because of its subject—that’s not necessarily recognizable [intellectual property] but a recognizable scandal playing the role of recognizable IP—I want it to make the case for it being a series. And the first couple of episodes seemed to point in a direction that this would not be a show that’s full of bloat. And it starts petering out for me by the end. But I’m curious what Spencer thinks.

Spencer Kornhaber: I have to say: I enjoyed it. I went into it with similar reservations about this crop of shows and movies over the past decade that have kind of straightforwardly tried to re-create scandals from history and teach us something about them but end up feeling like rehashes or too in the weeds, or even distorting reality in the attempt to entertain.

Gilbert: What are some examples that come to mind?

Kornhaber: I mean, the People v. O. J. Simpson series by Ryan Murphy comes to mind, as does the whole American Crime Story franchise by him. We just did a House of Gucci podcast, and I had my problems with it. The Crown is in this genre.

Li: Other Craig Gillespie work like I, Tonya—that was a film that didn’t come with the asterisk that Sophie mentioned at the top because Tonya Harding was fully on board with having her side of the story told in a film adaptation. But that, too, was another retelling of a tabloid scandal.

Kornhaber: Yeah, I was concerned that Pam & Tommy would just be the Wikipedia entry, but the show is fun and weirdly lovable in many parts. You do want to know what happens and you do care about these characters. Reading the original Rolling Stone story this was based on, it’s actually pretty true to what happened. Some things changed, but generally in the direction of making Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee a little more sympathetic. It felt like it was walking on this tightwire the whole time. I kept expecting it to fall off and it never quite did.

Gilbert: One of the things I really did appreciate about the show is that it’s useful as a guide to how the internet went wrong. It’s set in 1995 and 1996, the earliest days when you still had dial-up modems. And you get to see the first days of the internet as this Wild West where anything could happen and anything could be sold. All the rules that applied to ordinary life—legal injunctions and copyright laws and privacy laws—didn’t exist on this new frontier. It blew everything up. It blew up privacy. It blew up celebrity culture. It blew up porn. All in ways that I think we’re still struggling to deal with.

Kornhaber: It starts from a very simple thing, which is the sex tape. It seems like a just salacious story, but it really does follow these threads about privacy and celebrity culture, but also what it meant for the actual people involved.

Li: The show does really reconsider Pamela Anderson as a character. But it also starts with a zippy I, Tonya energy from Gillespie. And when it gets to Anderson’s background and the reconsideration of her, the two elements did not marry into a cohesive show for me.

It’s telling the feminist branch of the story instead of showing it, whereas the internet-culture story is fascinating because it’s really showing there. The scandal hurt Pamela’s reputation more than Tommy’s because of her gender, and the show asks her to be the person telling the audience these things. And I wish it didn’t treat her and Taylor Schilling’s character as mouthpieces to get these moments in. They feel like sprinkles, as if someone forgot to fully bake them in.

Gilbert: Yeah, I wrote in my review about how, because Pam comes to represent so many things—including all the terrible things that happen to women on the internet—you kind of lose a sense of who she is. Even me calling her “Pam”—that’s not her name. That’s the tabloid nickname for her. You lose a sense of who she is that I think maybe would have been more present if she had been on board.

That said, who gets to tell whose story is something we haven’t necessarily figured out. Monica Lewinsky was an executive producer on the recent season of American Crime Story: Impeachment, which focused largely on her, to the detriment of the show. I think it actually would have been a better, more compelling show if it had focused more on the Clintons and less on Monica. Maybe that’s a terrible anti-feminist thing to say, but that was how I felt watching it.

Li: I agree, Sophie. We haven’t figured out this question. We haven’t figured out the right way to make these shows in a way that yields a product that doesn’t, while you’re watching it, remind you of whatever happened behind the scenes. I couldn’t finish Impeachment, first because I didn’t enjoy watching the destruction of Monica Lewinsky, but there was also this nagging idea of, Is this the full story or am I watching something dishonest?

And I think, as Pam & Tommy went on, that question came back but from the other direction: Is there a point to watching this if I know Pamela Anderson didn’t have a say in any of this? I don’t know what the solution is. In the case of I, Tonya, the screenwriter said he fact-checked everything in that film with Tonya Harding. It’s called I, Tonya, not I, Nancy, so he didn’t go to Nancy and check everything from her end. Tonya signed off on her truth and Jeff Gillooly signed off on his, so his screenplay is everything that they believe and the audience can take away whatever they believe from it. And that’s a mixed bag that I guess clears everyone, but I don’t know if it does, either.

Gilbert: Memory is so fallible. Personal narrative is not always trustworthy. Everyone has their own agenda. And so I think there is a huge gap in Pam & Tommy without having Pamela Anderson’s approval that is hard to get past. But at the same time, it’s really hard to know what to do with these kinds of stories if the people that they are about don’t want them to be told. It’s like those early days of the internet: We haven’t figured out a moral framework for this entirely.

Kornhaber: Right, we can’t live in a world where we can’t make movies about famous people without their approval. We have to start from that.

Gilbert: But also: Is it the right thing to do, necessarily?

Kornhaber: Yeah, absolutely. And then you enter questions of: What are you doing with that story? Are you just replicating it? Are we basically just watching the sex tape again? She objected to it being put out there, and it’s basically another act of titillation.

With this show, though, I think the answer is no. It’s straining to make all of these points about what happened and put it in a greater context. It may not completely succeed at that, but it really changed my perception of Pamela Anderson. I don’t know a lot about her or about this story. Even the fact that they didn’t intentionally leak the sex tape is a very basic fact that now, pop culture can really believe. They’ve said it all these years, but this show can really define that as fact in people’s minds.

And whatever it’s doing with her character, it’s making her seem sweet and smart and ambitious, and it’s driving at how absolutely painful it was to have this happen to her. And it’s pretty astute about the reasons why it was painful. Maybe she was somewhat ashamed of this footage coming out, but she’s more aware of how it’s going to damage her career and how people see her when she walks down the street. It’s a really wrenching thing to see. And she may feel like it’s condescending or turning her into a symbol of something she doesn’t want to be a symbol of—and I hope she speaks her piece on that—but it was helpful to me. When I’m watching the show, I think they want to do right by her.

Gilbert: Yeah.

Li: I do appreciate the show’s intentions. It does do a good job of simply showing the job of being a celebrity like Pamela Anderson. You can see in Lily James’s performance the sheer exhaustion of having to sell yourself and your image. She’s constantly defending her worth.

Gilbert: Watching her on the Baywatch set with the male producers and directors all standing around, every time she walks up to ask them about her monologue, they just stare at her cleavage. And then I remember that this was a show that I watched as a child, that 15 million people watched in England. It was on Saturday nights and little kids would get together and watch the show that was basically hot people in swimsuits running. You really sense in the show how crazy Hollywood was in that era and how this sweet woman just wants to do her monologue. She just wants to act. Just wants to be appreciated for being more than a sex symbol, while she also doesn’t reject the idea of being a sex symbol whatsoever. In the third episode, she has that amazing speech with her publicist about Jane Fonda and all the multitudes that she contains. And you believe she’s capable of being more, but no one will give her the opportunity.

Kornhaber: It is getting at this question of, “What are we going to allow our bombshell female celebrities to do as they mature and want to do different things in their career?” It makes me think of our girl Kim Kardashian, who is probably the closest thing we have today to Pamela Anderson, and how she’s embarking on this legal career that people aren’t taking that seriously. I thought it was so amazing that Pamela’s publicist asks her, “Who’s your role model?” and Pamela says, “Jane Fonda,” and completely spells out how she’s one of the few examples we have of society allowing a woman to get past the prejudices keeping them from being seen as a full human in the public eye.

Li: But that moment also worked because you feel sad for Pamela Anderson because she does not get the career that Jane Fonda had. And in Episode 6, you see more of her backstory and get the sense that she looked up to someone like Jane Fonda. And this isn’t to discredit Fonda, but she came out of Hollywood royalty. She had a safety net. Someone like Pamela Anderson from Ladysmith, British Columbia, in the outskirts of Vancouver, just doesn’t have that safety net. Everything that she’s reaching for that Jane Fonda got, Anderson just doesn’t have the same resources for.

Kornhaber: The show ends up being a tragedy. Pamela doesn’t get the career that she wanted. There’s this horrible motif of Pamela being like, “It’s just going to blow over.” She’s almost praying for everything to be fine and no one to care about this tape. But scene after scene, that optimism is torn away. And yeah, Episode 6, surrounding this deposition taken for a lawsuit that Pam and Tommy filed against Penthouse, the porn magazine that wanted to republish images of the video, is just so brutal. It’s horrible.

Gilbert: The questions that lawyer asks are just brutal. And then they make her watch portions of the sex tape in front of them to identify people.

Kornhaber: You just want to punch that lawyer through the screen.

Gilbert: It’s vicious misogyny. Real woman-hating bullshit.

Kornhaber: The lawyer is essentially, like, spelling out the logic of misogyny as it fell upon her. It’s this deductive reasoning that says, “You are a worthless piece of trash and you have no rights.” You do learn a lot about how they were pioneering privacy rights and the legal system with this case. No judge would side with this couple whose possessions were stolen and whose most intimate things were plastered everywhere. Judges were buying this argument that it’s a First Amendment commentary. It’s a republished sex tape.

Gilbert: Let’s return to that first question: Have the motivations actually changed in revisiting these incidents, or is it just about a different kind of exploitation? I think this is a really fascinating and urgent question. I don’t know that there’s an easy answer. Obviously, we don’t need someone’s permission to tell a story about them on the internet, especially if the story itself has valuable things to say—which I think this one does—but there is the queasiness that this is a story about someone who is exploited and, while the people involved have said that they’re very much on her side and they want to show her side of things and validate her perspective for the first time almost, I mean, you cannot respect someone’s privacy while making a miniseries about them and about their exploitation without their permission. And for me, it’s a very tricky question to think about when you’re watching the show. I did enjoy it, like you both did. I have my quibbles with it too. On the whole, I found it fascinating. But when it comes to the exploitation question, I don’t know what to make of it.

Kornhaber: Well, yes, it is exploitative. It absolutely is. However, I think most storytelling that’s based in reality is exploitative in some way. Turning something that happened into entertainment is bending the truth. You’re taking liberties with people’s lives. You’re stealing souls with the camera. All that. Joan Didion said that anytime that she wrote, she was doing that. We all have to live with this uncomfortable reality that there is always a trade-off. But in this case, and ideally in the best cases, the trade-off involves honoring the person who’s being exploited and not making their life worse, and maybe even preventing worse exploitation from happening. And I would say this is raising consciousness about the morality of sex tapes, about the way that we treat women and the way we treat celebrities. There’s a lot in here that hopefully will lead to people checking themselves. And so, I’m not a Saint Peter. I can’t say whether or not this is a bad example of the genre. I feel bad for Pam if she doesn’t like it. I would feel bad for Pam anyways from watching the series.