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Pam & Tommy: Who owns Pamela Anderson’s story?

“It’s uncomfortable as all hell to watch a drama that so acutely portrays the trauma of a woman being stripped of ownership of herself for the profits and gratification of men when it’s made without her say-so and, yes, for the profits of others.”

They broke the worldwide web once, and just shy of three decades on, they almost did it again. “Based on the true fucking scandal!” hollered the viral teaser trailer for Pam & Tommy, the new outrageous miniseries about Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and what’s called the very first celebrity sex tape. 

And baby, it really does have it all: two unrecognisable A-listers! Prosthetic breasts! Sex! Drugs! Celebrity! Nudity! The internet! A thief disguised as a dog! A talking animatronic penis! See: a true fucking scandal! 

Come on, we all know the story, right? The punchlines – almost exclusively aimed at Anderson – rubbed raw and redundant by repetition. Apart from, well, maybe we don’t. Not quite. Because what Pam & Tommy makes clear (over eight brilliantly crafted and entertaining episodes starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan), is what Anderson herself has stated if anybody bothered to listen. “It’s not funny, this is devastating to us,” she said, quietly, firmly, on The TonightShow with Jay Leno in 1996 as he tried to land a few gags in the wake of the scandal. 

Anderson later described it as “just a video of when we were first married and running around the world and [it had] a little bit of nudity. And they spliced it all together and made it look like we’d created some kind of pornography.” 

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In fact, that 54-minute home video shot with her new husband contained just eight minutes of sex, but that didn’t stop it being marketed as ‘Pamela’s Hardcore Sex Video.’ That was after it had been nicked from her house, sold bootleg tape-by-bootleg tape by a couple of porno pros and then eventually put on the new-fangled internet for the world to… enjoy. 

Sympathy, or basic empathy, for Anderson hasn’t been particularly forthcoming over the years. Well, she posed for Playboy 14 times, didn’t she? And ran along the beach in a revealing bathing suit every week. And talked about her sex life in interviews. And by Christ, seemed to really, really enjoy having sex with her actual husband and later father to her children.

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See, they said: she’s a slut! A truth Pam & Tommy exposes in brutal deposition scenes – a deposition taken as part of Anderson and Lee’s legal attempts to block Penthouse using the tape (attempts that failed) when she was seven months pregnant. “Do you recall how old you were when you first publicly exposed your genitals?” Anderson is asked by one of the magazine’s lawyers who posits that come on, she sells sex, doesn’t she? As Anderson takes a break to throw up in the toilet, there’s little doubt how intensely violated she was. The stealing and selling of the most private, personal parts of herself. The suggestion that she sold her body to men a long time ago. Now it’s not yours; it never will be again. 

Pam & Tommy is many things – not least, a funny, surreal-at-times crime heist thriller – but it’s also, more fundamentally, about one woman’s exploitation. So it’s all the wilder that it has been made without her consent or cooperation, being based instead on a 2014 Rolling Stone article that told the story of the tape’s theft and distribution for the first time (it was stolen by an electrician Tommy Lee had threatened with a gun and stiffed for cash). 

The makers of the show, plus star Lily James, said that they reached out to Anderson. “She’s chosen not to engage,” said showrunner and writer Rob Siegel. “So, we’ve respected her desire not to be involved.” Er, how: by making it anyway? Anderson hasn’t publicly addressed the show, but an unnamed friend told a newspaper of her unhappiness: “The whole thing was extremely traumatic… it was one of the most difficult experiences of her life.” 

And so, it’s uncomfortable as all hell to watch hour after hour a drama that so acutely portrays the trauma of a woman being stripped of ownership of herself for the profits and gratification of men – the video made more than $77 million (£57m), not a cent of which went to Anderson – when it’s made without her say-so and, yes, for the profits of others. 

How do you reconcile those things? When women themselves write or otherwise share their trauma in exchange for payment, we talk of the commodification of trauma – of the late-stage-capitalist urge to make our pain currency. Line my palm and I’ll spill my guts all over your nice clean shoes! That’s just tacky. Whereas this, made without her, is art? 

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This is still an issue of consent. Of ownership. Of who owns this story: her story? One thing’s for sure, as we prepare to see private snippets of her life gobbled up on TV screens and streamed on the internet, it’s not her. Twenty-seven years on, the world has claimed Pamela Anderson once again.  

Pam & Tommy launches on Disney+ on February 2.

Terri White is a film critic and author  @Terri_White

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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