The problem with Pam & Tommy: Canadian actress Pamela Anderson is again exposed without consent
New series reopens a difficult chapter in Anderson's life without her participation
The new series Pam & Tommy is many things.
It's a bawdy look at the whirlwind romance of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee played by Lily James and Sebastian Stan, and an off-the-wall true-life crime caper involving a disgruntled carpenter, an adult movie producer and mobsters.
Look past the salacious details and wild tonal shifts and what you find is a surprisingly sensitive portrait of the celebrity couple who were burglarized and had their most personal moments become the first case of viral internet fame.
Airing on Disney+ in Canada, Pam & Tommy purports to tell the real story of how the couple's famous sex tape made its way to the web in late 1995, exploding at the worst possible time for Anderson's career. But for all the real-life details, the eight-part series lacks one critical ingredient: the real Pamela Anderson's participation.
Which raises the question, who is it for?
Senior culture reporter at Vox Constance Grady says millennials are taking a fresh look at the culture they grew up with, from Britney Spears to Tara Reid to Pamela Anderson.
"All these women who the culture sort of fetishized but also kind of despised at the same time," she said.
The makers of Pam & Tommy say their aim is to correct that narrative.
Craig Gillespie is a producer and directed the first three episodes of the series. Speaking with CBC News, he called it an opportunity to show the real story of what happened and the role the media played.
"We all have these preconceived notions of what the [sex] tape was," he said. "We consumed it; we judged it. Then you get to come in … and be surprised."
While much of the public assumed Lee and Anderson profited off the release of the tape, the series chronicles how the video was stolen by Rand Gauthier, a disgruntled carpenter who had been hired to work on Tommy Lee's estate.
In the film, Gauthier is played by mullet-haired Seth Rogen as a sad sack who masterminds a burglary for revenge.
Besides the comedic aspects, Gillespie says, he wanted to show how Canadian actor Anderson was more than the pretty blond from Baywatch.
"To be as successful and iconic as she is, you don't fall into that. It takes a strong work ethic and tenacity," he said.
This isn't the first time Gillespie has taken on a female-focused story that challenged our assumptions. With his 2017 film I, Tonya he offered a more sympathetic look at the life of figure skater Tonya Harding. For Pam & Tommy, Gillespie says one of his favourite moments comes when a studio executive asks Anderson about her ambitions.
Sitting in the office surrounded by posters for the action film Barb Wire, Anderson cites Jane Fonda, and describes how she began as a sex symbol in Barbarella but went on to become a successful activist and entrepreneur.
Helping or hurting?
Grady says a lot of good can come from reexamining our relationship with these iconic women, pointing to the recent documentary about musician Britney Spears.
"Framing Britney Spears really drove a lot of the conversation … and swung public support behind her and is arguably perhaps one of the major reasons that her conservatorship actually did eventually end."
But she points out it was not easy on the woman in the middle of it all.
"Britney herself said that watching those documentaries made her cry for days."
WATCH | Eli Glasner reviews miniseries Pam & Tommy:
Attempts to reach Anderson
So what about the woman at the centre of Pam & Tommy? According to producers and actors, there were multiple attempts to bring Anderson on board. Showrunner Robert Seigel told Variety they reached out with no response. Lily James, who plays Anderson, said she had hoped Anderson would be involved.
When asked how he can tell a story about exploitation without Anderson's input, Gillespie said he respects Anderson's journey.
"For us, we're trying to correct the narrative and show the misconceptions and exaggerations that went down and really understand how heinous the situation was. Hopefully, it changes that perspective."
Anderson did not respond when asked by CBC News about the series.
No permission required
Legally, the matter is clear. Anderson's consent or permission is not required, says Toronto entertainment lawyer Tara Parker.
"If you're telling a true story in the public interest and particularly about well-known people there's a right to freedom of expression in [Canada]," she said. "There's first amendment rights in the U.S., and that's really protected."
There are limitations on those rights. The story can't defame the subject and must tell the truth, Parker says. In the case of Pam & Tommy, it was based closely on Amanda Chicago Lewis's Rolling Stone article of 2014.
Whether in real life or in the new television series, the heart of what happened revolves about Anderson losing control — her most private, intimate moments being shared and seen by millions without her consent.
As the fictionalized version of Anderson says in the series, women who pose in bathing suits and for Playboy don't have any rights "because sluts don't get to decide what happens to pictures of their body."
It's a powerful moment. But Grady wonders if, in our rush to revisit for our own education and entertainment, we're mistreating Anderson again. "Are we still consuming in this lascivious way the pain and humiliation of these women?"
As someone who writes regularly about public figures, Grady says it's tricky. "To a certain extent, the stories are in the public."
But, she stresses, "if you're trying to reclaim a narrative, you should have that person's perspective. Don't pretend you're doing just like Pamela Anderson would want you to."