Pamela Anderson Is a Case Study in the Ethics of Storytelling About Survivors
Shortly after the release of a Hulu series called Pam and Tommy, Baywatch star Pamela Anderson announced another documentary on Netflix where she vows to tell her side of the story. The contention at the heart of the issue is that Pam and Tommy tells the story of the nonconsensual distribution of Pamela Anderson’s and Tommy Lee’s sex tape in the 90s.
The catch? The docu-series was green lit without Anderson’s consent. The ethics of storytelling have always been fraught with questions of accountability, power, and truth. Documentaries hold undeniable credibility when they unravel the lives of public figures from the outside, but there is nuance to this. When the public figure in question is a survivor of exploitation, taking their story without their consent is less an exercise of truth-telling, and more one of further exploitation.
Figures like Pamela Anderson especially deserve to be cast in a new light — one powered by their own voices that highlight their narratives. As the “90s Bombshell” archetype, in the words of The Atlantic, there is a certain tragic element to pop culture behemoths like Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, and others. They fit the mould of the zeitgeist: blond, blue-eyed, sexy starlets who shot to fame overnight, embodying just the right balance of “heroin chic” and “slim thick” body-types. They weren’t so much conversed with as they were consumed, their bodies commodified to define the sensibilities and morals of a generation.
Even as the Hulu documentary explores the nuances of how the 90s treated Pamela Anderson, it is “disconcertingly fun,” as The Guardian puts it. Attempting a comedic take on the incidents of someone else’s life isn’t always unethical. Parodies and satire exist because of our penchant for ironic humor — but these usually punch up, at dictators, political leaders, disgraced celebrities, and anyone who can safely be said to “deserve it”. The questions at the locus of the debate are these: is the subject of storytelling alive? Does their voice deserve to be heard? By whom?
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When it comes to figures like Pamela Anderson, there is obviously nothing powerful or subversive about telling their story without their own voice. Take, for contrast, American Crime Story: Impeachment. Over the course of 10 episodes, it tells the story of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal by offering a fresh perspective: Monica Lewinsky’s. Lewinsky was a White House intern in her early twenties when the President began an affair with her; one that turned public and made Lewinsky the subject of shame, ire, bullying — all with a sleazy veneer attached. Decades later, Lewinsky served as a producer on the American Crime Story — making sure that her voice and perspective were authentically represented. This helped add nuance to a conversation that continues to be relevant today.
“The show’s eponymous tape entered the world at a moment that lacked a moral framework for the technology enabling its spread. Are we similarly at a moment where retelling personal histories — even those of celebrities — should be more sensitive to their subjects’ privacy?,” asks The Atlantic. Judging by Anderson’s response, it would appear so. Reports stated that she found the series “painful,” and that it made her feel “violated,” which prompted many to boycott the series itself.
“Are we not repeating that horror now? Pam and Tommy recreates parts of the tape, has actors mimic Anderson and Lee’s sex noises, includes montages of them having cartoonishly vigorous sex, uses prosthetics to imitate their famous anatomies. It’s deliberately uncomfortable to watch, and while there’s a lot going on here, much of it interesting and admirable, not all discomfort is productive,” notes Adrian Horton in The Guardian.
Hulu is currently streaming another drama miniseries about another woman: The Dropout, about disgraced Silicon Valley darling Elizabeth Holmes. Given Holmes’ crimes, all proven in the public record, however, the important distinction is that this would be punching up. Anderson’s latest statement announcing the new documentary is thus not PR, as many celebrity-endorsed TV can often be. It is a reclamation of her voice — one that has been erased, mocked, and subdued not only in the past, but continues to be so in the present.