Hulu’s ‘Pam and Tommy’ sex tape rehash both sympathizes and exploits

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“I don’t have any rights,” Pamela Anderson (Lily James) says bitterly in Hulu’s new limited drama series “Pam & Tommy.” The show mostly focuses on Anderson’s relationship with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) and how their private sex tape was stolen and released on video and the web in the mid-1990s.

Director Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”) is very sympathetic to Anderson and presents the release of the tape as a cruel violation of her privacy and consent.

Director Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”) is very sympathetic to Anderson and presents the release of the tape as a cruel violation of her privacy and consent. But he also, without much apology, participates in and extends that violation. “Pam & Tommy” condemns the men who used Anderson’s sexuality to profit without her permission and at her expense. And then it uses Anderson’s sexuality without her permission, and arguably at her expense.

“Pam & Tommy” spends a lot of time with the couple in the title, but it also spends a lot of time on the man who stole their tape: carpenter and very occasional porn performer Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen). Gauthier is contracted to do work on Lee’s house, but the drummer stiffs him and steals his tools. Gauthier in turn steals his former employer’s safe, which contains some guns, some money and the sex tape. With the help of porn executive Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman), Gauthier starts to sell copies of the video via the newfangled internet. The fallout puts enormous stress on Anderson’s career, relationship and mental health.

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James’ breathy, Marilyn Monroe-esque portrayal of Anderson occasionally borders on parody. But she also brings a core of dignity and sweetness to the role. Anderson, in striking contrast to her rock star jerk husband, is unfailingly kind to dressers, doormen and assistants.

She’s also clear-eyed about why the release of the tape is worse for her than for Lee. People on the street congratulate Lee on his sexual exploits. For Anderson, in contrast, the tape makes her fodder for crass jokes from Jay Leno; mainstream women’s outlets become leery of promoting her new film “Barb Wire.” Lee treated Gauthier horribly. Gauthier robbed Lee. Anderson did nothing wrong, but she’s the one who suffers the most.

The series draws a bright line between Anderson’s consensual, paid nude modeling and the nonconsensual distribution of the tape, from which Anderson never made any money. But again, here’s where it gets complicated, because “Pam & Tommy” is also profiting from Anderson’s name and sexuality. The series producers didn’t get a signed release from her any more than Gauthier did. She wasn’t involved in the production and is not being paid. Lee reportedly is excited about the project, but Anderson has said nothing publicly about the series. (Actress Lily James also said she tried to contact Anderson about the series, but was unable to make contact.)

Making this dynamic worse is the reality that women and nonbinary people who do make their own sexualized media for their own profit are heavily, relentlessly policed.

The sex tape is obviously not shown. Its notoriety is a big part of why “Pam & Tommy” got greenlighted, though. And having the series in the limelight will undoubtedly lead to more people seeking out the tape and watching it. The show thus is effectively also promoting the tape.

“The ‘Pam & Tommy’ documentary reminds me of how many documentaries on the sex industry are made,” Maya Morena, a writer, former mainstream porn performer and OnlyFans creator, told me. “The point of the documentary is often about patriarchy, sexualization and objectification. But the process of these films often involves using women’s bodies and parts of their stories in a salacious way. They become part of someone else’s vision. They are talked about instead of being spoken to as a person with their own vision.”

The Hulu series can leverage Anderson’s sexualized internet content without paying for it. Making this dynamic worse is the reality that women and nonbinary people who do make their own sexualized media for their own profit are heavily, relentlessly policed.

Congress passed legislation in 2018 that was supposed to reduce sex trafficking. There’s little evidence it helped stop abuse. But it has made it much more difficult for sex workers to advertise and sell content online. Payment processors have shut down sex workers’ accounts. OnlyFans, a site that built its entire business on independent sex workers, briefly banned adult content in August; it relented, but now follows new cumbersome restrictions demanded by the payment platforms.

Small content creators are easy targets. But the issue isn’t just that Hulu is bigger and more powerful than an indie creator with an OnlyFans account. The issue is that — as “Pam & Tommy” discusses — our public sexual ethics are frequently based on stigma and slut-shaming rather than on consent. As Morena told me, “If women don’t have the right to say yes, they don’t have the right to say no.”

When OnlyFans creators make money from their own labor, it’s often deemed immoral and even illegal. But when other people made money from Anderson’s violation some 20 years ago, it was considered funny, exciting and fair game for entrepreneurs. In the past, and still today, the rule appears to be that exploiting a woman’s sexuality can be OK as long as it’s done by someone other than the woman herself.

Of course, the sex tape was a cultural touchstone moment. That’s an argument that could justify the Hulu series. It’s also the argument that was used to prevent Anderson from suppressing the tape in the first place, as the Hulu series documents. Anderson went to court to try to prevent Penthouse from publishing stills and to prevent distribution of the tape online. She lost repeatedly on the grounds that the tape was of public interest, or news. Her private life had been made public against her will, and now it was a story she couldn’t control — and still can’t.

“Pam & Tommy” explains with considerable eloquence why it’s morally wrong to capitalize on someone’s sexuality and humiliation without their consent or participation. The show creators had a large financial stake, though, in not listening to the moral of their own story.

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