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What ‘Pam & Tommy’ says about Hollywood’s shameless exploitation of women’s trauma

By Francesca Johnson

Feb 5, 2022

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We all enjoy a bit of celebrity drama. Being nosey is a shameless hobby that I partake in when it comes to the world of influencers, musicians, actors and other celebrities. Guilty as charged. I’m sure I’m not the only one who binged Selling Sunset’s fourth season on Netflix in one day. But when the line is crossed between a bit of good old on-screen tension and the intolerable digging into the past traumas of celebrities for ratings… something feels off.

It is that exact feeling viewers will experience when watching the first episode of Pam & Tommy on Hulu/Disney+. I should know, I endured it myself. Let me explain why.

The 411 on ‘Pam & Tommy’

Pam & Tommy became available to stream this week, with its first episode airing on Tuesday 2 February 2022. The romance biopic serves us 90s nostalgic mayhem, following the relationship of Baywatch beauty Pamela Anderson (played by Lily James) and Mötley Crüe’s fabled drummer Tommy Lee (played by Sebastian Stan). The mini series’ big drama lies in the infamous event of the couple’s 1998 sex tape, which was stolen and leaked to the entire world.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, the show captures all the chaos surrounding the controversial relationship. Adapted from Amanda Chicago’s explosive 2014 Rolling Stone article, Pam & Tommy also features an extended cast of stars from Nick Offerman and Seth Rogen to Taylor Schilling. The main plot surrounds the robbery and theft of Anderson and Lee’s VHS sex tape from the night of their honeymoon by Rand Gauthier (played by Rogen), a contractor who wanted to get revenge for being fired. Gauthier and friends actually became wealthy off the private moment and exploitative voyeurism. Pam & Tommy just rehashes all of that up again almost three decades later.

Most media outlets fawned over the never-ending prop mania on set from nipple rings and steel balls for Stan’s portrayal of Lee to James’ uncanny likeness to Anderson. The two actors playing the series’ leads bear striking resemblance to the celebrities the show is based on. Perfect casting, but I still had a feeling it wasn’t quite right.

For the gen Z babies like me, here’s the rundown on Anderson and Lee, who dominated the tabloids and celebrity world back then. The internet’s big sister @hellotefi (Estefania Pessoa) has a series documenting all the highs and lows of the lovers. “This tale begins where all the worst tales begin, the 90s,” narrates Tefi, which is when the couple met—so we’re already off to a great start.

@hellotefi

Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee part 1 #pamelaanderson #tommylee

♬ original sound - hellotefi

After some face licking and a strip-bikini contest date—yes, you read that right—the duo got hitched on a beach barefoot and the world went mad. If you’re still confused as to why, dear zillenial, think of “the most rock and roll, horrible shit you can imagine and multiply it by 1 trillion,” as Tefi adeptly puts it. That’s the mindset you need to have in order to understand Lee’s legendary fame and the “DNA of Playboy” that was Anderson. However, in our post #MeToo era, there’s something awfully insidious about Hollywood choosing to make a show that exploits a celebrity and her trauma, especially when told not to.

The offscreen drama

What’s made worse in this particular situation is not only does the show unashamedly dives into a traumatic incident but it sidestepped Anderson entirely, not informing her initially and continuing to ignore the hard no she gave against the project later on. Even though she explicitly said it was “very painful,” Gillespie and crew went ahead without her permission. In a now-deleted Facebook post, Courtney Love, a good friend of Anderson’s, said the tape “destroyed my friend Pamela’s life,” and decried the mini series. James, despite being heralded for morphing into Anderson, was reportedly shut out by her after asking her to be involved with the show.

In an interview with Dazed, Gillespie—who has already divulged a woman’s trauma once before with I, Tonya—defended Pam & Tommy. Despite Anderson’s explicit feelings on the matter, the director went ahead with the series with a co-sign by Lee, stating that the topics involved were handled in the best way possible by the writing team.

“Rob Siegel (and the other writers) have written such an empathetic storyline,” Gillespie shared. “I felt in my heart that we were portraying them in an honest, empathetic way that leaves the viewer feeling culpable, and was a strong commentary on how complicit we are in all of this, particularly through the lens of today. I feel there’s a really strong story that she’ll like,” he went on to explain.

While I highly doubt Anderson would jump for joy at her trauma played out on screen for millions to view for a second time, Gillespie remains confident in his series.

Much ado about nothing

In light of all the context behind the many instances of sexual assault Anderson faced in the past, as well as the media fallout from the sex tape release, it’s difficult to see Pam & Tommy’s light-hearted take on the situation. The “fun opener,” as The Guardian‘s review of episode one details, loses the very complicated and triggering narrative behind the epic drama. It’s something you can’t quite shake watching episode one—though the aesthetics are beautiful and the acting is exceptional, that feeling doesn’t go away.

The feeling of sheer and utter discomfort I’m describing was put into words after the first episode came out and Twitter got to talking about it, as Twitter does, under #PamAndTommy. Interestingly, the consensus seemed to ignore Anderson’s side for the most part. However, one tweet, posted by writer and culture critic Haaniyah Angus, encapsulated the sour taste left in my mouth and the pit in my stomach that I got from episode one (and the reason why I won’t be continuing the show).

This is yet again an example of Hollywood parading trauma, particularly the trauma women experience in the public eye, without consent for audiences’ pleasure in a worryingly emboldened way. Digging into a toxic relationship or traumatic past scandal under the guise of empowerment and awareness because the idea mill is running dry seems to be Hollywood’s go-to move nowadays. What strikes me as the oddest is the show’s initial focus on Gauthier, the man who stole the tape. “But that’s what I like about it. It’s subverting expectations… Moving forward, it really becomes Pamela’s story, and the way that sneaks up on you is a great journey for the audience,” Gillespie claimed. 

Should you watch it? I can’t make this decision for you, but I think it’s only fair to say that ‘Pamela’s story’ should be told by Anderson herself, or at least get her approval first…