Every gen Zer’s older sibling grew up with Pamela Anderson. From Baywatch to Borat, Anderson established herself as a true 90s sex symbol—selling regular people the ‘American dream’. Never one to shy away from her vulnerability, the Canadian-American actress helped pioneer a liberation movement, hinged on the idea that a woman could not only profit financially from her sexuality, but that she could also enjoy it without fear of being judged or labelled.
In many ways, Anderson’s attitudes towards sexuality make her a prime candidate for present-day feminism’s roster of radical women. However, the story isn’t so straightforward. Anderson’s made a number of insensitive and inaccurate comments over the years, both in regard to the #MeToo movement and sexual identity. And that’s not even mentioning the painful moment in 2019 when she participated in some hardcore native american cultural appropriation, and afterwards refused to apologise for it.
So, with the model’s new Netflix documentary Pamela, A Love Story, about to drop on 31 January 2023, we thought it’d be helpful to run through the complicated contradiction that is Pamela Anderson.
When we reference Anderson’s impact on the sexual landscape, we’re not referencing her participation in one of the most sought-after sex tapes of the 21st century. Not only was that salacious leak a serious breach of privacy and incredibly traumatic incident for Anderson, it doesn’t define her as an individual and is not relevant to this particular argument.
Also, it should be noted that Anderson had no association with the infamous drama series Pam & Tommy, which dominated the lives and wardrobes of gen Zers after it aired in February 2022. In fact, she was actively opposed to its creation.
When the Baywatch actress first broke onto the scene, she was marvelled at for her impressive physique. It truly isn’t an understatement to say that every inch of her body was examined, discussed and drooled over. It makes sense, she represented a carbon copy of what society explicitly told us was attractive—blonde, big boobs, tanned and toned. It’s not hard to get to grips with why so many men fawned over her.
Although, it should of course be noted that society’s obsession with Anderson’s aesthetic was inherently associated with the toxic body standards pushed upon young women throughout the 90s, 2000s and arguably still today.
But what really made Anderson such an iconic public figure was the way in which she harnessed that privilege and power, and used it for her own success—while simultaneously pushing the envelope in regard to female expression and sexuality. She’s spoken regularly and freely about sex, often recalling graphic stories and sharing her thoughts on how hardcore porn has desensitised young people and potentially harmed intimate relationships.
For a very long time, women were immediately deemed impure, irresponsible and unattractive if they explored their sexuality publicly, or even hinted at the possibility that they might actually enjoy sex.
These days, women have a lot more space to express themselves sexually, particularly when you consider the financial autonomy achieved by a number of femme-presenting popular OnlyFans creators. This wasn’t the case 20 years ago, however, so Anderson’s willingness to speak about these topics shouldn’t be understated.
All of these attributes helped mould the actress into the sex symbol she remains today. An unruly Marilyn Monroe, Anderson undoubtedly paved the way for a number of dynamic women.
With that being said, Anderson’s legacy as a feminist icon is about as layered as the viral TikTok jellyfish haircut. While so many of us recognise the model and actress for her unabashed approach to female sexuality, we’ve also become more and more aware of her incredibly outdated, highly offensive and overtly sexist rhetoric.
In 2018, The Independent reported that Anderson had stated that the #MeToo movement was “too much” and that present day feminism was “a bore.” The model also went on to claim that the woman who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault should have “known what they were getting into,” after which she added that “this third wave of feminism is a bore. I think it paralyses men.”
Of course, these comments aren’t only hurtful, but they perpetuate incredibly harmful stereotypes—particularly in relation to survivors of sexual assault.
To make matters worse, in an interview with Dazed, wherein the actress was invited to offer her advice on love and sex, Anderson insinuated that asexuality is inherently linked to video games. In relation to a question asked on the subject, she hypothesised: “Does he watch a lot of explicit pornographers or video games? Does he feel numb? Is he sure of his sexuality? Too much masturbation or fantasies about cyber film stars or video games like Fortnite seem to be an addiction. Wasting time.”
We of course know that asexuality is an incredibly valid identity, and not something that can be swerved by avoiding video games and the internet.
So, with all this in mind, it begs the question: can Anderson be applauded for her radical sexual expression when, simultaneously, she’s repeatedly pedalled harmful anti-feminist exclusionary rhetoric? I don’t think it’s a question that we can fully answer. The only main takeaway from this conversation is that Anderson will probably always be a highly multi-dimensional public figure, and which celebrity isn’t?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…