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Chelsea Daniel | March 29, 2022

“So fucking outrageous,” said Courtney Love in a now-deleted Facebook post. Her “heart goes out to Pammy,” as this ordeal was “further causing her complex trauma.” 

The ordeal in question was Pam & Tommy, the Hulu TV show released last month, centres around the sex tape release of the infamous ’90s tabloid couple, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. During the promo before the show was released, photos were released of Lily James and Sebastian Stan in makeup and costume, mimicking a well-known photograph of the pair. This show appeared to be part of the mass cultural movement that has taken Hollywood and other media by storm: wanting to right the past wrongs committed against the media’s most hated women. You might know this via the term coined by journalist and podcast host Sarah Marshall: “the maligned women of the 90s.” 

These include women like Tonya Harding, Tammy Faye, Monica Lewinsky, and now, Pamela Anderson. All women whose stories need to be revisited so they can be retold in view of the public eye, giving them the justice they deserve. 

At least that appears to be the route the Pam & Tommy showrunners wanted to take. Not that Pamela Anderson agrees, nor her friend, Hole’s lead vocalist Courtney Love. 

Pam & Tommy’s showrunner D.V. DeVincentis told Entertainment Weekly, “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, but considering what she’s been through and the time that we were reaching out, that was understandable.” 

DeVincentis is a man, by the way. If you think that’s important. 

All of this was in my mind when I sat down to watch the show’s first episode. Personally, I do believe it is important to watch a piece of media before critiquing it. This could be a severe moral failing of mine. I pan fry my dumplings and sit on the couch, turning on Disney+. I cross my legs, log in and place my laptop on the table in front of me, willing myself to enter this show with some vague form of an open mind. Maybe Pamela is treated with love. Maybe she is given agency. 

I finish the pilot episode and sit there. I think about everything Pamela’s friends have stated to different media outlets, and the trauma this period of her life gave her. The constant images of her Baywatch run were shared by mainstream media as they reported in real-time the scandal that stripped her of her agency. A moment she had in private with a man we now know abused her—watched and bought by people to consume in private. And then I think of how the pilot was meant to return this agency to her. 

In the pilot, we are only introduced to Pamela, played by Lily James, a few times, mainly aurally. We hear her moan, we hear her call for Tommy as the electrician (Seth Rogan) walks in on her wearing only an oversized shirt, and we hear her shouts from the sex tape that is being watched by the man who stole it. We are, by the way, positioned to feel sympathy for this man. 

Feeling first underwhelmed by this feminist retelling, and then anger towards it, I take a deep breath. It’s just the pilot, let’s see what the next episode has. It is a series after all. I press play. The first time we see Pamela? She is being filmed swimming naked and then having sex. I slap down my laptop screen. 

I personally am not of the belief that we should censor sex and scandal in television. And I don’t mean to say that being modest and covered is the feminine or feminist way. However, when a woman has experienced overt sexual exploitation and paparazzi invasion on the scale that Pamela has, I think there can be space for her body to simply exist, rather than her cleavage and legs being emphasised with lingering trolley shots and bird’s-eye views. 

To the show’s credit, there are moments after these opening scenes where we get to see the absurdity of Pamela’s life. However, little side comments of “I can’t believe the shit you have to do for these men” about a Baywatch season preview would be a lot more meaningful if Sebastian Stan didn’t lick her face a few seconds after. 

And yes, Tommy and Pamela’s relationship was sexual, obsessive and absurd. But it was also traumatic, exploitative and abusive. These aren’t fake people, and these aren’t fake celebrity scandals to entertain the masses with. This was a real media vulture circle with a real victim—a victim if she’d had real agency, whose trauma wouldn’t have been repackaged for consumption. 

It is tempting to retell stories that have impacted society and our world in such a profound way that it seems almost as if they were fictional. ‘This is a story we need to retell’, you often hear, either because it hasn’t been heard yet or because we need to honour that hero. But when you try to repackage a complex human being’s complex story for a retelling, you tend to lose the humanity and reality behind the story. 

After all, television is entertainment. Even if there is a message behind it, this television show is trying to shock and amuse you. And therein lies the issue: the trauma is wrapped in entertainment. It exists to be laughed at, to be cried at, to move. And then to be rated by critics on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. TV show about your sexual exploitation: 4 stars. 

I tried to be complex and nuanced and forgiving to art by watching the show. And so far, I regret it. I regret trying to find art in a man’s take on female trauma. The pit in my stomach couldn’t be ignored as I was trying to be entertained by someone’s “ever-complexing trauma”. 

Stream ‘Pam & Tommy’ on Disney+

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Chelsea Daniel

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