Premiering on 2 February, Hulu’s limited series Pam & Tommy is the latest television show to offer its revisionist take on an infamous moment of 1990s popular culture. With Amazon’s Lorena (2019), USA Network’s Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story (2020), FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story (2021), the four Britney Spears documentaries released in 2021, and now Pam & Tommy (2022), the trend of unearthing a female public figure who was victimized by the entrenched misogyny of the media and reclaiming her narrative seems to be in full swing.
Based on a 2014 Rolling Stone feature by Amanda Chicago Lewis, Pam & Tommy focuses on the unauthorized release of Pamela Anderson’s and Tommy Lee’s sex tape and its aftermath. The eight-episode series seeks to bring depth and humanity to its oft-ridiculed titular leads. But it nonetheless revels in their mythology.
The first two episodes, “Drilling and Pounding” and “I Love You, Tommy”, depict the main characters as clueless celebrities who party hard, take drugs, and have a lot of sex. Anderson (Lily James) and Lee (Sebastian Stan) spend so much time being naked and having sex in these two episodes that it makes you wonder what the point of it all is. The lingering camera shots of Anderson’s breasts and Lee’s penis reveal the show’s obsession with their bodies and sexuality (not unlike that of the tabloids in the ’90s).
Pam & Tommy also wastes time humanizing a character that didn’t need to be humanized: Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen). Gauthier, an electrician who worked at Lee’s Malibu mansion, stole and released the tape after Lee abruptly fired him without pay.
The show goes to great lengths to rationalize Gauthier’s actions, portraying him as the product of neglectful parents, a failed marriage, and unsuccessful business enterprises, offering him his own redemptive arc. In the final episode, “Seattle”, he visits his ex-wife Erica (Taylor Schilling) to make amends for his past behavior. As Erica smiles, he declares, “Oh, man, I feel terrible for women. They got to deal with us.” Such an empty statement only serves to underscore how easy it is for men to be forgiven without consequences.
Pam & Tommy is not without its strengths. It shines when it narrows its focus on how the tape’s release impacted Anderson’s career and personal life. James is remarkable as a self-conscious, frustrated, and exhausted Anderson. She has to endure one indignity after another, from seeing her co-workers watch the tape on the set of Baywatch to being the punchline of every joke on late-night television to being deposed by Penthouse magazine’s lawyers (in retaliation for having been sued by Lee and Anderson, who wanted to prevent the magazine from publishing stills from the tape).
In the excellent sixth episode, “Pamela in Wonderland”, we are made to bear witness to Anderson’s deposition, where her life is cruelly scrutinized with questions such as, “How old were you the first time you publicly exposed your genitals?” and “Have you ever been paid for sex? You don’t consider posing naked for a camera a sex act?” The questions are clearly meant to demoralize her and shame her into submission.
In the penultimate episode, “Destroyer of Worlds”, Anderson and Lee find out that the judge has ruled in favor of Penthouse. Anderson understands all too well why they lost, bitterly noting, “Because I have spent my public life in a bathing suit, because I had the nerve to pose for Playboy… sluts don’t get to decide what happens to pictures of their bodies. I don’t get to decide what happens to my actual body.”
While Pam & Tommy offers insightful commentary on celebrity culture, sex, and gender relations, it nonetheless is exploitative, considering that Anderson refused to be involved in the project.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, lead director Craig Gillespie (who previously revised history with 2017’s I, Tonya) stated that the producers “absolutely respected [Anderson’s] privacy” and wanted to use the series to “change the narrative and perspective of what happened.” Despite such alleged good intentions, the act of reclaiming a narrative that does not want to be reclaimed in the first place comes across as patronizing and presumptuous. And much like the tape, Pam & Tommy is profiting off Anderson’s private life without her consent.
Pam & Tommy highlights the limits of cultural revisionism. Some of these TV shows seem to be a mere performative exercise where we as a culture get to congratulate and high-five each other because female celebrities are not treated as badly as they used to be. But can we really claim victory when misogyny continues to be rampant in society and women’s basic rights are constantly under threat? (See for example the new Texas abortion law.)
As journalist Andi Zeisler argues in We Were Feminists Once – her sharp critique of the apolitical, feel-good, and mediated neoliberal feminism that pervades today’s culture – “making things less bad is not the same as making them good. Subtracting misogyny from pop culture is not the same as adding feminism to it” (p.256).
The current cultural state of affairs is perhaps best encapsulated in the final season, episode seven, “The Future Never Spoke”, of the charming and irreverent Apple TV show Dickinson. When Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) travels to the future and meets Sylvia Plath (Chloe Fineman) at Smith College, the latter informs the former, “Don’t you know? The future never comes for women.” As bleak as it may sound, it’s difficult to argue with that sentiment.
Bucksbaum, Sydney. “How Pam & Tommy Was Made Without Pamela Anderson’s Involvement (or Permission)“. Entertainment Weekly. 31 January 2021.
Chicago Lewis, Amanda. “Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Sex Tape“. Rolling Stone. 22 December 2014.
Diaz, Jaclyn and Totenberg, Nina. “Texas Law That Bans Abortion Before Many Women Know They’re Pregnant Takes Effect“. NPR. 1 September 2021.
Zeisler, Andi. We Were Feminist Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. New York: PublicAffairs. 2017.