The following contains spoilers for Pam & Tommy Episodes 4-6 (Episode 4 written by Matthew Bass & Theodore Bressman and directed by Lake Bell; Episode 5 written by Brooke Baker & D.V. DeVincentis and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton; Episode 6 written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Hannah Fidell).
“No, Tommy, it’s not because of my big career. It’s because I’m a woman. Listen to me, people are going to think you’re cool for this. They’ll be high-fiving you on the street. Me? I’m going to be looked at like a slut by the whole world.” – Pam, Episode 4 (“The Master Beta”)
It’s no secret that women have been given the horrible end of the stick for as long as anyone can remember. It was Eve, the first woman, to have succumbed to the temptations of the serpent and taken a bite of the apple. In Alexandria in 415 CE, Hypatia, a mathematician and philosopher, was murdered by a group of Christian men because she held significant influence over the governor of Alexandria. Actress Hedy Lamar had originally developed the concept of frequency hopping, a way to prevent military radios from being bugged, during World War II but was ignored by the US Navy only for them to go ahead and use her work to develop technologies that would later lead to WiFi and GPS.
Women weren’t allowed to own land in the United States until 1848, and in the United Kingdom until 1882 (with rare exceptions). Women had to fight for their right to vote, to get an education, and even to be able to work. It would take until the 1960s for women to be allowed to open a bank account for themselves.
In the media, women have been written as either the damsel or the villain. A woman would either have to be saved by the strapping man or be the cause of the man’s fall into darkness. The ’90s began the trope of “fridging” because women were often killed to further the male protagonist’s journey. This misogynistic view in media is still being seen today with female superheroes and villains often being taken for granted because they fear that they won’t sell. Actress Rebecca Hall was supposed to have a much bigger role in Iron Man 3 until the studio believed “a female toy wouldn’t sell.”
There are laws in place for women that determine what they are allowed to do with their bodies; meanwhile, men have none. There is a tax added to “feminine care” items called The Pink Tax. One can’t look at this history and say that women have had it easy because we haven’t, and because of this stigma that has been with us since basically the dawn of time, there has been a different standard put on us.
This standard becomes visible when certain events happen, such as a private tape being leaked to the public. In Pam & Tommy Episode 4 (“The Master Beta”), when Pamela (Lily James) discovers that one of the items in the stolen safe from her home was a tape of her and Tommy Lee’s (Sebastian Stan) honeymoon, she instantly understands what the consequences will be if it’s released to the public. Her need to know its location is shown to be far greater than Tommy’s. After Tommy is done talking with the police, he and Pam have a conversation where she asks him if someone else having the tape made him feel “violated” and he says it makes him feel “pissed.” Pam’s choice in the word “violated” presents a chance for Tommy to actually show that he has some understanding as to what this all could possibly mean. At that moment, Pam is abandoned by the one person she believed was on her side.
Later on in Episode 4, Tommy is on the phone with a private investigator that they hired to track down the tape. Pam, seeing that Tommy is being far too relaxed over it, takes the phone and demands that the investigator stop the tape from spreading even more than it has. Tommy continues to reassure Pam that he has it handled, but by this point, it’s an empty promise.
When Tommy makes the statement that “it’s not like they haven’t seen it before” in regards to Pamela’s body, it just drives home the exact point that Pam had been trying to make—women are thought of differently when it comes to showing skin. The career she’s made for herself in Playboy by taking nude photographs professionally was done with her consent. It’s completely different from someone being able to see her body because of an item that has been stolen and released to the public. Having no power over what is produced causes a vulnerability that takes you completely out of your own narrative, and that is what Tommy isn’t getting.
“Why would you and Mr. Lee make a pornographic tape? If it wasn’t like all of your other pornographic activities for the purpose of financial gain?” – Bruce Hendricks, Episode 6 (“Pamela in Wonderland”)
The act of slut shaming dates back to Roman times, when women were thought to be sacred (the whole virgin vessel theology), so any woman who would partake in “extra-marital sexual activity” would be either exiled or sentenced to death. As the years passed, this term has been given to any time the term “slut” would be dropped. Girls who wouldn’t dress appropriately (low-cut tops, short skirts, too much makeup). Girls who found themself being told that they were “easy to get with” or looked as though they were “asking for it”. It’s a term that has degraded women and caused other women to be put up against one another, opening the door for belittling and shameful remarks.
The ’90s were full of this type of behavior. Look at how the world turned on Monica Lewinsky in 1995 when the scandal broke between her and Former President Bill Clinton. It’s just shortly after this that the tape would leak and the world turned its crude remarks towards Pamela Anderson.
There is a moment in Episode 5 (“Uncle Jim and Aunt Susie in Duluth”), when Pam and Tommy are in their bed watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. An article had just been published in The New York Times about how they were suing Penthouse creator Bob Guccione, who had gotten his hands on the tape before he could plaster the images all over his magazine. Leno spends the short time he does on the subject to joke about how being nude isn’t new to Pamela and that it’s just her “work attire.” He also jokes about how her breasts are basically floatation devices. Not only is he insinuating that Pamela would drop her clothes any chance she gets, but he goes on to body shame her for the fact that she decided to get breast implants. All she can do is watch in helpless horror.
After watching Pam & Tommy, I went and viewed many interviews with Anderson, and there was a constant wave of questions being asked: “What do your sons think of your Playboy past?”; “How was it wearing the red bathing suit in Baywatch?”; and my personal favorite, “How does it feel to be a sex symbol?” There is hardly a time when they actually ask about a project she has worked on. Even in the recent videos from just a few years ago, she is the one who has to bring up what she’s been wanting to talk about, and still they bring it back to the fact that she was in Playboy.
This is not to say that having Playboy be your jumping-off point is a bad thing. The magazine was founded in 1953 and according to its website, “has fought for cultural progress rooted in the core values of equality, freedom of expression, and the conviction that pleasure is a fundamental human right.” They’ve opened their platform to people who advocate for everything from civil rights to reproductive rights and even LGBT rights. Currently, Playboy has become a vocal advocate in helping communities and legalizing cannabis. Pamela has continuously advocated for what the magazine felt like for her: a safe environment where women could discover their sensual side in their own way. To her, Playboy was never exploiting women because each woman made the choice as to how they would appear in the magazine.
What is exploitative is when Bob Guccione gets a hold of the tape and suddenly puts her in an ugly position. In Pam & Tommy, he’s played by Maxwell Caulfield… talk about being taken for a not-so-cool ride.
Guccione has his lawyers call only on Pamela for a deposition in response to the Lee’s having sued him. The deposition in Episode 6 (“Pamela in Wonderland”) opens with the question, “Do you recall how old you were the first time you publicly exposed your genitals?” which only sets the stage for what type of circus show is about to go down. The entirety of “Pamela in Wonderland” is painful to watch because we go from seeing Pamela’s lived experiences to attorney Bruce Hendricks (John Billingsley) completely diminishing them. Pamela’s career as he presents it? A Jumbotron girl to Playboy sex object, constantly exposing her body for the attention. He classifies her as a prostitute because posing naked for the camera is a sex act, so maybe she had planned for this tape to be leaked to the public. That way she would be able to get more exposure.
What does this type of badgering say to women who have decided to join the sex industry because they either need the money or actually feel comfortable enough in their skin to want to share it with people? What about the activists that go use men’s magazines in order to broaden the audience that receives their messages? What message is degrading Pamela Anderson’s career sending to the many women who find themselves in vulnerable positions and wanting help but are too afraid to ask because this is what happens? You get treated as a criminal. It’s telling them all that no matter what you do in your life, the second you expose yourself, you are on your own.
The entire deposition is made even worse when Pam is forced to watch the tape and describe the fine details of certain scenes. Hendricks had asked why this tape was made in the first place? As far as Pam & Tommy is concerned, it was made because Pamela and Tommy were young and in love. They were fully living in the moment of being absolutely obsessed with one another and wanting to capture that passion they had. That reason is long forgotten because Pamela finds herself having to account for every single little detail as Hendricks asks, “Did you notice other vehicles while you were driving? Were you at all concerned that other motorists might be able to see what you were doing?”
By the end of the questioning, she has been made to feel like a piece of dirt that has been trampled on with shoes covered in some type of fecal matter. When she’s told that there is still more to come of this attack, she decides enough is enough.
Interviewer: “What would you say is your favorite thing about [the character Barb]?”
Pamela: “Gosh, good question. I would have to say her toughness. No matter what life throws at her, no matter how bad it gets, she just fearlessly powers through.”
– Episode 5, “Uncle Jim and Aunt Susie in Duluth”
Pam & Tommy spans the entire sex tape scandal, and with that presents a picture of Pamela Anderson that really reflects what she found so inspiring about playing Barb in Barb Wire, the film she was working on that coincided with these events. In the film, her character has her whole life wrapped up in the perfect ball. She runs a nightclub in the post-Apocalyptic world of 2017 and on the side is a bounty hunter. Everything turns upside down when she gets pulled into the middle of a rebellion by her ex-lover and his new wife. This causes her to lose everything, from her club to her brother, who she finds after he’s been tortured to death. Yes, I watched Barb Wire and I enjoyed it, but that’s a talk for a different time. Even with everything that happens to Barb, she still decides to help rescue her ex because there’s no turning back, you just have to continue on.
In the span of three episodes, a lot happens to Pamela Anderson. She finds out that she is pregnant. She discovers that a private tape of herself has the potential to become public (and it does become public). She has a miscarriage. She begins publicity for the film she says will jump-start her career. She decides to sue a rival magazine because they have the chance of using her image without consent. She is then ripped to shreds by the lawyer for this magazine and made to feel inadequate, all the while having to deal with a husband who is on a constant rollercoaster because he’s a has-been who refuses to accept he’s a has-been.
All of this would drive a woman completely bonkers and yet, here she is by the end of “Pamela in Wonderland” finally doing something for herself and setting a boundary by declining another deposition. It takes a lot of courage to be able to go through everything this woman has been put through. Pam & Tommy makes the choice to emphasize Pamela’s struggles because we are living in a time where we, as a society, feel a moral obligation to revisit our mistakes and review them. How the public turned a stolen piece of property into a piece of entertainment can not be forgiven, but it can be learned from.
This tape and everything that came with it turned Pamela into a joke to be held over her for years. Even in recent interviews, the headlines read “Pamela Anderson: Much More than Just a Pretty Face,” which we would have come to know sooner if we didn’t hold over her head the fact that she got started by posing for a men’s magazine. These three episodes of Pam & Tommy are where I feel the series hits its stride, and they are some of my favorite pieces of television because of the humanity they bring to a woman who could have easily been portrayed as one-note based on how society has written her. This allows her to be complex and layered, and more importantly, it allows her to be the rounded individual she’s been trying to present herself as for years.