Note: This article contains spoilers for upcoming episodes of “Pam & Tommy.”
“The greatest love story ever sold,” reads the red flag of a tagline for the new Hulu series “Pam & Tommy.”
This eight-episode show about the infamous 1995 Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape is, at its core, about a violation of privacy. It’s the story of a honeymoon videotape the famous couple never wanted anyone to see, stolen and distributed at great profit to various men. And the story of that piracy is now being sold as a TV series… at great profit to the team who made it. Without the consent of the woman at its center.
As for the “love story” part, ironically expressed or not: Tommy Lee is a convicted domestic abuser who struck Anderson when she was holding their infant son, three years after the events depicted in this series. He has a long history of alleged other violence. Billing his relationship with Anderson, which is clearly problematic from the start, as a whirlwind romance glamorizes Lee’s love-bombing, a behavior that often precedes abuse.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg of the problems surrounding “Pam & Tommy,” which has gotten high-profile publicity ever since photos were released of stars Sebastian Stan and Lily James looking remarkably like their ’90s counterparts. James, particularly, has received a lot of advance praise for her Anderson impersonation, which is, indeed, pretty convincing.
But does that matter, if the person you’re impersonating isn’t on board with what you’re doing? Co-showrunner D.V. DeVincentis told Entertainment Weekly that the show’s team “didn’t get a response” from Anderson when they reached out about the series in advance, but “considering what she’s been through and the time that we were reaching out, that was understandable.”
Pamela Anderson has not made any official statements on “Pam & Tommy,” but she declined to be involved. Courtney Love, reportedly a good friend of Anderson’s, posted a rant on Facebook, which has since been deleted, about her own feelings on the show. (As someone who’s had her own share of vilification in the media, it’s not surprising that Love might have strong opinions on this.)
It’s incomprehensible that a team of people making a show in 2021, in the age of #MeToo, would be this oblivious to the importance of getting consent – especially when their series is entirely about the importance of consent. The creators have bent over backwards patting themselves on the back about their sensitive portrayal of Anderson. “These people were victims of a crime, and they were completely against this [videotape] being released. They were horrified that it was in public, and they were traumatized by it,” said DeVincentis in an interview. “So much of this show is about the behind-the-scenes strength and heroism of Pamela Anderson in the way that she dealt with and got herself through it.” Which doesn’t really address the fact that it isn’t his story to tell.
In the show’s secondary plot following Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), the contractor who steals Lee’s safe and the video, Taylor Schilling plays Gauthier’s ex-wife. As Variety’s effusive article notes, she “points out that most of the tape isn’t even about sex, but instead is a chronicle of young, joyous love. ‘It’s like super wholesome; it’s romantic,’ Schilling’s character says.” But Variety doesn’t follow up by mentioning her character’s furious reaction when she finds out Gauthier stole the tape – and that its release was entirely nonconsensual.
Did no one in the making of this series see the irony here? The show even plays recreations of the tape over, and over, and over again throughout the eight episodes. If you never got to see the tape in the first place, it seems to be saying, now’s your chance! Not that you should be watching it. But look!
It’s not like there aren’t examples of how this could all have been handled better – even when consent is not explicitly the issue that it is in Anderson’s story, questions of agency remain, especially when telling the story of those who have been previously disempowered or abused. For example, Ryan Murphy’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” enlisted Monica Lewinsky as a producer, giving her the creative freedom to weigh in and make sure, to some extent anyway, her story was being told accurately.
And Craig Gillespie, who directed this show’s first three episodes, relied partly on interviews with Tonya Harding herself for his 2017 movie “I, Tonya” – so you’d think he’d know the moral and artistic values at play here. For her part, James told the Los Angeles Times in an email follow-up to a profile interview that she’d learned Anderson wouldn’t be involved “quite late in the process” – which left her feeling “incredibly disappointed” and with a sense of “responsibility to do absolutely everything I could to try to do her justice.”
There’s so much cognitive dissonance in the narrative in and around “Pam & Tommy,” it’s hard to know how to sort through it all. But one of the things I found the most problematic is its portrayal of Lee.
Stan hams it up as the volatile Motley Crue drummer. At worst, he’s depicted as a hothead who’s insensitive to Anderson’s insistence that the tape means different things for their respective reputations and receptions in the media. His abusive behavior isn’t mentioned, other than in a footnote at the end about his 1998 conviction.
And that note, according to Anderson’s account anyway, doesn’t address the extent of it. After she discussed the abuse on Piers Morgan’s show in 2018, Lee lashed out at her on Twitter, sarcastically referring to himself as “the abuser.” We can’t know what the whole story is, but at minimum, it’s obvious that Lee continued to be a traumatic presence in Anderson’s life long past the events depicted in the show.
At various points the series does successfully convey how abysmally Anderson was treated at the time – by everyone from Jay Leno to a roomful of lawyers in a deposition, who make her watch the tape with them. But “Pam & Tommy” is hardly the feminist triumph its proponents think it is. And it’s disappointing to see James, Schilling and the women who directed these episodes – particularly Lake Bell, who’s been vocal about increasing gender parity in the film industry – participate in the co-opting of Anderson’s story.
Still, I can’t claim a moral high ground: I watched, albeit in the interest of writing about it. But let’s be honest, I was curious. In the ’90s, I saw the tape for the same reason. And I didn’t feel good about either, in retrospect.
So I can’t say, in good conscience, don’t see it. But, perhaps, watch knowing that a team of men are driving a narrative about a woman whose privacy has been repeatedly violated, without the support of said woman. Maybe afterward you’ll even feel like volunteering time or money to help fight domestic violence.
“Pam & Tommy” looks likely to be a hit. It’s got endless appeal, both for people who were around at the time and for a younger generation just learning the sordid story. It’s all proof that we still have a long way to go in prioritizing women’s autonomy over our thirst for juicy content.
For resources and support, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.