‘Pam & Tommy’: Hulu’s Exploitative Drama

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Whether we like it or not, 2022 is hurtling onwards, and somehow we’re already halfway through March.

We have witnessed a number of big releases already this year, primarily owing to Hollywood’s ceaseless nostalgia-mining, which shows no signs of slowing down as old franchises such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reluctantly forfeit new entries. Cynical as that may sound, I have found some to be particularly entertaining, and was brought genuine glee by Jackass Forever, arguably the greatest work of the decade so far. In the world of television, Euphoria has reclaimed most of the limelight, whilst Peacemaker, Ozark, and Inventing Anna have been fighting for control of the chasing pack. One series, however, has garnered a lot of attention for more troubling reasons – Pam & Tommy.

Much was made of the show back when it was first released at the beginning of February, often owing to the admittedly exceptional transformations of stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan into the iconic nineties duo of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Their performances have also received a lot of praise, and rightly so, as both lend authenticity to their respective role that is only fitting for a biographical portrayal.

Unfortunately, there has also been a lot of interest in the show’s sex appeal, which stems from a major violation of consent: the theft and monetisation of the couple’s infamous sex tape. Pam & Tommy relies heavily upon this incident in both its narrative and its marketing, and as such, the series, like the tape itself, is dependent upon the involuntary sex symbol of Pamela Anderson to achieve a level of notoriety that would otherwise be impossible. I’m as guilty as anyone else of helping to fuel the flames of true crime podcasts and docuseries alike, but we still cannot glorify franchises that profit from selling stories of real-life abuse. In addition to the misuse of the sex tape, Pamela Anderson also suffered at the hands of Tommy Lee himself, who was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail for assaulting her whilst they were married. Yet the issue of peddling such a story lies in the shadow of a far more direct concern, which is that the show not only preys upon the popularity of a tape distributed against Anderson’s will but has itself been created and sold in a similar neglect of consent.

Despite proclaiming to criticise the way that the actress and activist was dehumanised in the 1990s, Pam & Tommy is guilty of a similar lack of concern towards the woman whose name it adopts. By the admission of those involved in creating the series, they did not receive any input or acknowledgement of consent on the part of Pamela Anderson. This means that despite using promises of her body to sell the series – such as through posters entirely comprised of videotapes with Lily James’s Pamela plastered across the front – not one element of the show was designed to accommodate her opinion, or whether she would appreciate that depiction of herself.

The tagline posits that the marriage of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee is the ‘greatest love story ever sold’, indicating some understanding of the exploitation that occurred. Yet the hypocritical, almost precise adherence to the very same methods of wrongdoing suggests that the slogan is at best glaringly unburdened by the weight of self-awareness, and at worst a deliberate misrepresentation of a show that knowingly adopts the ethical failures of its predecessor. Only now that the series has come under fire for it are we seeing half-hearted apologies from, for instance, Lily James, who has since spoken about her regret in being unable to get Anderson’s blessing. But even if this attitude truly did exist throughout the creation of Pam & Tommy, it didn’t prevent them from producing something that entirely fails in denouncing the mistakes of the past, and in avoiding the mistreatment of those who were similarly used a quarter of a century ago.

It is a shame to see that any progress made during those years has not prevented the unwanted sexualisation of Pamela Anderson in the public eye; the same exploitative attitudes that facilitated the story behind the series are just as present today. Only the distributors have changed, though having harnessed the infamy of the prior offence, they are perhaps every bit as malicious as those who wronged her at the time.

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