The problem with Pam & Tommy: Canadian actress Pamela Anderson is again exposed without consent

The creators of the new series Pam & Tommy say they want to correct the narrative around Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's famous sex tape, but critics warn it may repeat the harm done to Anderson in the first place.

New series reopens a difficult chapter in Anderson's life without her participation

Actor Lily James poses as Pamela Anderson. The new series on Disney+ explores the events that led to video tape of Anderson and her husband, Tommy Lee, being sold and shared around the world. (Hulu)

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. 

Pam & Tommy producer and director Craig Gillespie hopes the series corrects the narrative and shows the public the real Anderson. (CBC News)

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:

Pam and Tommy miniseries tells story of leaked sex tape

2 years ago
Duration 8:12
Pam and Tommy, an eight-part miniseries streaming on Disney+ in Canada, explores issues of exploitation and privacy as it recounts how a sex tape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee was stolen and leaked online in 1995.

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.

Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Anderson finds the series "very painful." Her friend Courtney Love told Vanity Fair the series was causing Anderson "complex trauma."

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.

A man wearing a black hat and white T-shirt, and a woman with long blonde hair and sunglasses smile into the sunshine.
Lee and Anderson at a charity event from 2005. The couple divorced in 1998. Lee was also charged and served time in jail for spousal abuse. (David Livingston/Getty Images)

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."

A promotional image of Anderson as C.J. from the TV series Baywatch. (Calgary Expo)

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."


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.  You can reach him at eli.glasner@cbc.ca.