‘Pam & Tommy’ asks us to reconsider one of the most infamous scandals of the ‘90s
The show will continue the TV trend of reexamining how the ‘90s treated women.
Between reboots, docuseries, and dramas, we’ve had a lot of time in recent years to re-examine the scandals and headlines of the ‘90s. What feels like a not-too-distant childhood era to most millennials, is now a decade finally far enough in the past to be evaluated with the fresh perspective of today. That makes for both good TV, and a lot of head scratching as we all try to remember the fuzzy pop culture phenomena of our youth. That remembrance can be a bit uncomfortable as we realize the disservice that the collective mentality of three decades ago could be. Hulu’s new show Pam & Tommy could provide that very roller coaster of emotions as it revisits the infamous scandal that was the release of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape.
From director Craig Gillespie — who has experience recoloring women from the period from directing I, Tonya — the trailer begins with Seth Rogan as Rand Gauthier, the electrician who stole the tape from their home, showing the tape to porn producer “Uncle Miltie” played by Nick Offerman. The two are portrayed as skeezy voyeurs, mullets and all. Uncle Miltie utters in astonishment at the scandalous footage, “it seems so private,” adding, “that’s kind of what makes it so hot.” It’s a damming insight into how the show will condemn the frenzy that surrounded the release of the tape. As the trailer continues, Lee (Sebastian Stan) tells a panicking Pamela Anderson (Lily James), “I’m on the tape the same as you.” She counters, “not like me, you’re not,” a subtle but accurate intuition that the culture of the time would treat Anderson differently upon the release of the tape.
Other work has come out in the last few years that takes a similar stance, recontextualizing the way that the nineties and early aughts treated women in popular culture. Paris Hilton’s This Is Paris and the multiple docuseries that have emerged on Britney Spears show a feverish desire at the time to over sexualize starlets, while also robbing them of their autonomy. The whole issue speaks to the assumptions we make about these women when they end up in the eye of the storm of tabloid headlines. While we eat up every bit of content surrounding scandal, we also often naturally assume that the subject of the scandal deserves it. That they wanted to be famous, so it’s their fault when they become infamous. Or, in the case of Anderson, that she showed her body in swimsuits on TV, so that a sex tape isn’t a major difference. But between the hungry and unchecked media machine of decades past, and the sad kind of feminism of the time that didn’t really exist beyond “I can be sexy if I want to be,” it was a dangerous climate to be a celebrity woman.
Gillespie spoke to that point with Collider. “There’s the victimization of the media and what happened with that tape that was such an affront to them, and how it really ultimately severely damaged their personal life and her career,” Gillespie said. “There’s this situation with the public who snicker and go, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that story. They sold it.’ But people just don’t know the story.” It’s the nauseating reality of these kinds of stories that we have to face: that part of what makes them compulsively consumable is that there are casualties. We become the judge and jury of the morality of a person, all from seeing their most private moments against their will.
While we’ve luckily grown a bit collectively over the years in terms of what is acceptable media fodder, there still is an insidious lust for scandal, especially the sexual variety. It’s why disturbing nuances like revenge porn have emerged, and in many ways we can look to these earlier sex tape leaks as the birth of that beast. Work has been done to put a stop to revenge porn legally, but it feels as if the fever for sex scandal of decades’ past just went underground culturally. There might be an air of more moral superiority now in terms of what can be published and consumed without question, but people still have the devious inclination to see others compromised.
Part of what has helped to end the market for leaked sex tapes is the work done by feminist thought leaders and porn industry professionals to insist on more integrity within the big sex business. Author and porn star Stoya has been formative in reframing the way that the porn watching masses treat the women that they so eagerly watch. When her book Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn came out in 2018 she spoke to the “dehumanizing” way that people viewed her, just by way of seeing her in pornography. In the opening of the book she describes, “People frequently see me as a two-dimensional representation, and twist my timeline to suit the narrative they have in their heads” — an unfortunate reality that can be applied to all of the women who have been seen in sexually vulnerable situations by the public, intentional or not. Hopefully Pam & Tommy will help to continue this cultural conversation about the way we mistreated women embroiled in lascivious situations in the past and prevent it from happening in the future. The show will certainly beg audiences to ask themselves what they would do if the same thing happened today.