It may seem odd for a person who knows little about Canadian actress Pamela Anderson, who has never seen an entire episode of Baywatch, and who has certainly not seen her famous stolen sex tape to take an interest in a new series focused on her, and the sex tape that shaped so much of the public’s view of her. But after learning about the series, I decided to watch the first four episodes of Pam & Tommy, which aired this month, curious to know how the creators would interpret this story of exploitation.
Imagine for a moment that a man breaks into your home, steals intimate images you and your spouse created for your private viewing, sells them to thousands of strangers online (practically destroying your life in doing so), and TV personalities turn you into the butt of their jokes as you watch, powerless to do anything about it. Then, over 20 years later, when you might expect this chapter of your life to be behind you, a group of men recreate the whole ordeal in a miniseries about the scandal. This is what has been done to Anderson. She was victimized in 1995 when the private sex tape she made with her husband, Tommy Lee, was sold online, and now she is being revictimized all over again through the exploitative recreation of her ordeal.
The first episode of the series is told from Rand Gauthier’s perspective, a carpenter Lee hired to do work on his and Anderson’s home, then fired, and refused to pay the contractor, leading Gauthier to burgle the house in revenge. Gauthier stole the couple’s safe from their house, within which he found the infamous sex tape, which he made copies of, selling the VHS tapes to customers via a website. The video was then bootlegged by others and became available for the world to stream online. Gauthier never went to jail for breaking and entering Anderson’s home, stealing her property, or selling intimate images of her without her consent. Similarly, the creators of Pam & Tommy did not get Anderson’s consent to recreate her victimization and the most humiliating chapter of her life for mass consumption.
While Lee consented to the series being produced, Anderson never responded to the creators’ efforts to reach her, and never consented to the series being produced. Lily James, the actress portraying Anderson in the series, also says she reached out in an attempt to discuss the show with Pam, to no avail. Apparently, producers were able to develop the series without her participation (or permission) by optioning the rights to the 2014 article published in Rolling Stone that the series is based on.
After multiple failed attempts to get Anderson’s permission, why did the producers go ahead with production? Showrunner DV DeVincentis told Entertainment Weekly, “We particularly wanted to let Pamela Anderson know that this portrayal was very much a positive thing and that we cared a great deal about her and wanted her to know that the show loves her.” And reportedly, later episodes show sympathy toward the actress, and how “violated” she felt by the experience. Nonetheless, the choice to go ahead with the project, considering the woman at the centre of the story clearly wanted no part in it being dredged up, reportedly finding the situation “very painful,” is an ethically dubious one.
It is news to no one that Anderson was incredibly upset by the incident and impacts on her. In 1996, Anderson told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show: “It’s not funny. This is devastating to us!” In a post on Facebook, Courtney Love said the ordeal destroyed her friend’s life. “My heart goes out to Pammy,” she added, “And shame on Lily James, whoever the fuck she is.” This was a humiliating scandal that would undoubtedly remain a horrible memory for Anderson. One might imagine, considering this, that the show would cause her more suffering, not alleviate it. It seems the show’s creators lack that imagination, centering Gauthier’s view early on in the series, leading the audience to sympathize first with him. Although they also depict Anderson as a victim, Gauthier is supposed to be likable — not the villain of this story.
The overwhelming majority of those who paid to see the contents of Anderson’s stolen sex tape in the 90s were horny men who likely used it as masturbation material. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pam & Tommy’s main audience consists predominantly of men, for similar reasons. There is an undeniable voyeuristic element here: women do not need to see Anderson sexualized, humiliated, and turned into pornography all over again. The first time around was more than enough. We remember the lewd jokes men and teenage boys made about her — subtle reminders they could do the same to us.
Pam & Tommy may be comedic, but it also feels pornographic. It features a pornographer (Nick Offerman depicting “Uncle Miltie,” who helped Gauthier secure the necessary financing to release the sex tape), extended close-ups of Sebastian Stan’s penis and scrotum (the actor who plays Lee), multiple shots of Lily James’ fake breasts, a scene depicting Gauthier (played by Seth Rogen) having anal sex with a woman during a shoot for a pornographic movie directed by “Uncle Miltie,” and a scene depicting a practically naked woman fellating “Uncle Miltie” while another practically naked woman caresses him. While some might argue the objectification is equal, as Lee’s naked body is shown as well as Anderson’s, the series operates through the male gaze. James is positioned on the screen as an object to be looked at by men. The show reminds us over and over again what men saw in Anderson, and that her body typified male pornographic fantasies.
This sounds like the kind of project a group of men would cook up because it is. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s production company, Point Grey, developed the series with Annapurna Pictures. Rogen, a comedian and actor who fancies himself a progressive commentator online, is an executive producer for the series. Few women would take on Anderson’s story as comedic fodder, but Rogen seems to find pornography not only harmless, but hilarious. He co-wrote the screenplay for an R-rated animated movie called Sausage Party, which has anthropomorphised food perform sex acts (e.g. fellatio, anal sex), saying things like, “[…] covering our eyes with their cum, so cum-covered we can’t fucking see!” and “I’m blowing my fucking load!” He also produced Long Shot, which he stars in alongside Charlize Theron, whose character asks him to take her from behind and choke her a little. In 2018, director Judd Apatow told Dave Letterman a story about Rogen explaining internet pornography to Tom Cruise in 2006, who was apparently unaware of its existence. Rogen said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I watch it all the time, it’s great. Everybody does it. It’s not a big deal anymore.”
Rogen doesn’t seem a particularly sympathetic figure, in terms of women’s experiences with pornography and revenge porn, nor does he seem to understand pornography as anything beyond a fun thing for men to use. It seems a woman’s perspective or experience has never occurred to him, or perhaps he simply doesn’t care. That he took this project upon himself adds to that seeming lack of empathy. We are dealing with a situation wherein a woman was completely disempowered, and it is strange that this was not considered when creating a series further disempowering her, and centering a male perspective.
Given the ubiquity of pornography, why is it important to remind the world that men view women’s bodies and lives as masturbation fodder? The creators of Pam & Tommy could have taken Anderson’s refusal to be involved in or support the project as indication that she did not consent to having this humiliating chapter of her life resurrected.
If I weren’t a film analyst I wouldn’t have watched Pam & Tommy, just like I have never sought to watch Anderson’s stolen sex tape. The only person I would ever be interested in hearing this story from is Anderson herself, fully dressed, relating the events in her own words, which are precisely what is missing from Pam & Tommy.
Alline Cormier is a Canadian film analyst and retired court interpreter with a B.A. Translation from Université Laval. In her second career she turns the text analysis skills she acquired in university studying translation and literature to film. She makes her home in British Columbia and is currently seeking a publisher for her film guide for women.