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Opinion – ‘Pam & Tommy’ helps and hinders female exploitation

The new biopic – shunned by its titular star Pamela Anderson – has raised the question: at what point should we stop reclaiming someone’s experience for entertainment? 

Lingering beneath its comedic overtone, Hulu’s new series ‘Pam & Tommy’ unpicks an ominous 90s mega-scandal: the theft and illegal distribution of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s honeymoon sex tape.

Despite chronicling the gross-exploitation of Anderson that followed, the Baywatch star has revealed the show was made without her consent.

Hulu’s new series ‘Pam & Tommy’ chronicles the mile-a-minute marriage of Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee.

Its fast pace, bizarre drug fuelled sex montages, and the incredible makeup transformations of Lily James and Sebastian Stan have made it a hit with audiences. But despite the shows playful silliness, the story at its core is one of female exploitation in Hollywood.

Anderson and Lee’s infamous 90s sex tape was leaked by a disgruntled carpenter – played by Seth Rogen – who ransacked the couples’ safe to take back payments he was owed. The drama that followed is played out over 8 episodes, each as confusing and fun as the next.

Jumping frantically from champagne-soaked nightclubs, porn sets, and Beverly Hills mansions, it’s hard to tell what the series is truly about at times.

For the most part, ‘Pam & Tommy’ feels more like a gaudy fever dream than a comment on the female experience.

Its sporadic plot and audacious costumes have also drawn mixed responses from critics. Lance Ulanoff argues that the show follows the birth of the internet age, while CNN’s Lisa Resper’s France references the pre-social media Hollywood depicted in the series as a nostalgic ode to early 90s pop culture.

But when you really get to the root of the programme, a core that doesn’t emerge in full force until the series’ midway point, ‘Pam & Tommy’ is about a woman falling victim to sexual exploitation and misogyny.

The crude humour often distracts from this reality, but the most jarring moments from the show come in subtle pulses, lurking beneath the drama of Anderson and Lee’s sex-tape leak. Like a scene where Anderson’s lines are cut by Baywatch producers, a monologue she has eagerly rehearsed for weeks.

Instead, Anderson is forced to stay mute, have her backside pampered and prodded with makeup, and run dutifully in slow motion across the beach while male members of the crew gawk on.

The overt sexualisation of Pamela Anderson is nothing new, given her ongoing sex-symbol status. But Hulu’s new show sheds light on the ways in which micro-aggressions of misogyny and predatory sexual advances emotionally impact their victims. The ways a ‘sex symbol’ status is often used as a free card for subjecting women to continued humiliation and abuse.

Lily James’ portrayal of Anderson is as funny as it is disconcerting, with an airy tone of voice and high-pitched giggle that cuts through Sebastian Stan’s irksome Lee. Viewers have used this whimsical character study to criticise the show, claiming it makes light of Anderson’s sexual exploitation.

We often get caught up in the Hollywood drama of a leaked sex-tape. Kim Kardashian, who used her own stolen video to catapult herself to global fame, has become the blueprint for ‘girl bossing’ your way out of sexual abuse. But stories of exploitation rarely end positively (nor can anyone can speak for the ways Kim’s own experience hasn’t caused her deep emotional pain).

Unlike Kardashian, who has spoken openly about her experience and shifted the conversation on her own terms, Anderson continues to be mocked for her 90s video with Lee, a reality that many believe is only extended by Hulu’s new series. It’s hard to disagree, given the show’s status as a ‘class-conscious satire’.

The overwhelming topic of discussion following the series’ launch was not the truly horrifying, international distribution of Anderson’s most private and vulnerable moments, but a scene involving Lee’s animatronic talking penis. This response cements the fact that, for women, the consequences of ‘baring it all’ are far gloomier than knee-slapping comedy and tabloid fodder.

Most critically, behind the hubbub caused by ‘Pam & Tommy’s’ no-holds-barred storytelling, is another story of exploitation playing out in real-time.

Pamela Anderson, the show’s titular star, has publicly denounced the series and refuses to watch the trailer, both allegedly created without her consent.

A source close to Anderson told news outlets that they know ‘she’ll never, never watch this’, adding that she wanted the press to focus instead on ‘her philanthropic efforts’. For Anderson, having her story told without consent is just a continuation of the privacy-invasion ‘Pam & Tommy’ chronicles.

Responding to criticism, the show’s director Lake Bell has said her own experience of nude photo theft left her empathising with Anderson, and felt her story ‘was too prescient not to tell’.

But while a tale of female exploitation like this one may be ideal for driving public awareness, Bell’s claims that her personal struggles made her ‘uniquely positioned’ to tell Anderson’s story are considerably problematic.

Besides no two experiences being the same, and one’s means of dealing with trauma varying significantly, nobody has the right to tell somebody’s story for them, especially without their consent.

In this way, ’Pam & Tommy’ serves as a reminder that someone else’s experience isn’t ours to reclaim on their behalf. It isn’t a thing we can mould and shape to suit our own agendas – no matter how well intentioned they might be. And real experiences of sexual exploitation certainly shouldn’t be used for mass entertainment, thinly veiled by crude jokes and kitschy nudity.

Otherwise, we continue to capitalise on the same violations of trust we call out.