Pam & Tommy is an entertaining but ultimately hypocritical take on 90s celebrity culture

The series biopic about the notorious theft and sale of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s private videotape attempts to address the issue of consent, but that conceit feels contradictory when Anderson herself did not approve the project.

1 February 2022

By Rebecca Harrison

Lily James and Sebastian Stan in Pam & Tommy (2022)Lily James and Sebastian Stan in Pam & Tommy (2022) © Courtesy of Disney
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Pam & Tommy is available to stream on Disney+ from February 3.

The judgement is in: Pam and Tommy’s legal challenge has failed to stop Penthouse magazine publishing stills taken from the couple’s stolen honeymoon video. Neither Tommy nor the lawyer can understand why. Cutting through the confusion, Pamela (played with intelligence and wit by Lily James) offers a moment of clarity in a hellish situation that has plagued them since learning that footage of their sex life has been released on VHS and sold online. The judgement’s wording is obscuring the facts, she says. “They can’t say that sluts don’t get to decide what happens to pictures of their body.”

With its feminist-fist-pump scripting and a subtle performance from James, the show peels back the sticky layers of 90s celebrity culture to humanise its subjects. Almost everyone from Tommy Lee to Rand Gauthier (the man responsible for stealing and leaking the tape) is played with nuance and sympathy. However, it’s Pam whose personal and professional life is worst affected. It’s as if the show understands what it means to be a woman in an industry that consumes its stars and spits them out on the whim of a male showrunner or chat show host. Its seemingly feminist heart, comedic style, and penchant for 90s culture – there’s dial-up internet galore, synthetic fashion and a burgeoning Seattle music scene – make for an almost binge-watchable nostalgia-fest that skewers the hypocrisies of American attitudes toward celebrity and sex.

Almost: it’s important to acknowledge that Pamela Anderson did not approve the project. Given how frequently the show remarks on consent and the lack thereof in its discussions about the commoditisation of Pam and Tommy’s bodies, it demonstrates a remarkable level of hypocrisy. Showrunners have Pam mourn the invasion of her privacy onscreen while simultaneously introducing younger generations to the tape that Anderson did not want people to see. The decision in the first episode to graphically simulate the couple’s private filming of their sexual encounter may, of course, render people’s interest in searching for the tape itself obsolete. But I doubt it.

As the credits roll, we’re told that Pam and Tommy’s video made $77 million in 1996 alone for the men who sold it on the then nascent internet. Following the Disney-backed series’ release, I can’t help wondering how much everyone involved in the show will now earn at Anderson’s expense. For all its sympathetic posturing, then, the politics of the show’s production suggest that little has changed. Anderson still doesn’t get to decide what happens to pictures of her body, and I can’t think of a bigger reason to switch off. 

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