Arts·Point of View

By exposing the myths behind the sex tape, Pam & Tommy lays bare our toxic relationship with celebrity

The new miniseries humanizes Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee and forces us to ask some tough questions about how we handled the first viral celebrity sex tape.

The new miniseries forces us to ask tough questions about how we handled the first viral celebrity sex tape

Lily James and Sebastian Stan in Pam & Tommy. (Hulu)

When Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's sex tape was leaked in 1996, many of us weren't only too young to see it — we were too young to understand its magnitude. After all, we first knew Canadian-born Anderson from suburban television on Home Improvement, the Tim Allen-fronted sitcom in which she briefly existed as Lisa, resident woman on Tim Taylor's Tool Time. Then came Baywatch: from 1992-1997 she evolved from bit player into pop culture juggernaut, starring as CJ the lifeguard on a series that was as obsessively consumed as it was roasted. Drenched in red swimsuits, ocean water, and storylines as sensational as the slow-motion montages of cast members running out to sea, the show gave rise to Pamela Anderson, The Star™ (one for all ages, since even Barbie was soon outfitted in the iconic red bathing suit, ready to save lives).

But if you were a kid growing up in the 90s, the context around Anderson stopped there. Outside of having blond hair and being conversation fodder amongst my middle school crushes, I didn't know anything about her. I didn't know that after a four-day courtship in 1995, she and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee married and embarked on a romance that ran the gauntlet from openly intense to straight-up abusive until it ended in 1998. I didn't understand that the sex tape I heard mocked on TV shows and by friends' older siblings only existed because it was stolen by a carpenter who targeted the couple's safe after Lee denied him payment. And I certainly couldn't wrap my head around the horrifying lack of consent, the egregious breach of privacy, and the powerlessness that came from millions of people watching a couple they didn't know share in their most intimate and private moments.

Sebastian Stan and Lily James in Pam & Tommy. (Hulu)

Evidently, that's what Pam & Tommy seeks to illuminate. A miniseries starring Lily James, Sebastian Stan, and co-executive producer Seth Rogen, this story is a re-telling of the pandemonium that defined the first viral celebrity sex tape and its fallout. And perhaps even more importantly, it sheds a necessary light on our disturbing relationships with famous people and the way we tend to consume them. In this re-telling, we see Pam and Tommy as fully-dimensional, complicated human beings. The first three episodes see Pamela wrestle with her placement on Baywatch and the way she so desperately wanted to move on from how she'd been pigeonholed. We watch Tommy reconcile with having peaked a decade earlier and the way his sadness might explain his bravado (to put it very mildly). And we see two people who are so young in some ways and so old in others, wanting so badly to be loved and finding solace in each other. The thing is, their public images precede and paint them.

This is a dance most of us know too well. In the years following the stolen images of Anderson and Lee, we've watched as sex tapes featuring young women — who didn't consent to their release — have thrown people from relative anonymity into notoriety. Debates about consent, sexual morality, and whether or not fame is even "deserved" still swirl around women like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. And even now, nearly 30 years after Pam and Tommy's sex tape was released to the masses, the history behind said tape is just finally starting to emerge in detail — but not without us continuing to engage celebrity culture in the same fervent, oft-vulturous way. (Hands up if you also wanted to know nothing about Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly's relationship but have been forced to learn that MGK's first words to Fox were, "I am weed." Appropriate enough since he played Tommy Lee in The Dirt, a movie I can best define as "it is something that exists in this world, and that's it.")

A man wearing a black hat and white T-shirt, and a woman with long blonde hair and sunglasses smile into the sunshine.
Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson in 2005. (David Livingston/Getty Images)

It's admittedly ironic that a mini-series involving three movie stars is the avenue through which we might reconcile the damage we're doing through our celebrity obsession, especially given that Anderson and Lee chose not to be involved with the series. But in a way, it couldn't be more appropriate. What better way to capture our attention, lead us back in history, and force us to examine the ways in which we were complicit in forming the current celebrity climate (and mistaking breach of privacy with willful exhibitionism)? The spectacle of this story and production may be the initial draw (duh), but once we've been lured in, it forces us to confront the part we're playing in a culture that's only getting bigger. Ultimately, beyond the prosthetics and performances exists a tale with a message that eclipses a re-telling of history: there is always a much bigger story than what we as observers see.

What most of us know about Pam, Tommy, and their tape is what we gleaned from overhearing conversations or late night jokes made in terrible taste. We didn't know the nature in which the couple recorded themselves or the horror that would accompany the revelation that, holy shit, that footage is everywhere (and advertised as though it was made and distributed on purpose). We also didn't understand the power of the words we were using or the emotional anguish that turning people into punchlines would cause — especially for Anderson.

Lily James and Sebastian Stan in Pam & Tommy. (Hulu)

To build a TV show around these blind spots and misconceptions was a huge risk (especially since the early days of Pam & Tommy press were defined almost entirely by the stars' physical transformation). But the risk paid off. By taking care with the way their story was told, Pam and Tommy's saga became one worth re-telling. Especially since Pam and Tommy have always been more than, well, "Pam and Tommy." Turns out we just needed them portrayed as real people to begin registering that.


Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now