Netflix’s new documentary, Pamela, a Love Story, is the second pop culture offering about Pamela Anderson to emerge in our current moment of revisiting the tales of famous women of the ’90s and 2000s who we now believe ourselves to have wronged. It’s also, in at least one important way, the most interesting. Along with Anderson’s memoir, Love, Pamela, also out in February, the new documentary is what we get in Anderson’s voice.
Wronged-woman revisitations have been fashionable for a few years now. After simmering under the radar with the success of the popular podcast You’re Wrong About since 2018, it came to a rolling boil in 2021 with Hulu and the New York Times’s documentary Framing Britney Spears. Pop culture populated itself with stories of the women we loved and despised and raked over the coals, and with eloquent mea culpas on their behalf.
The great achievement of Pamela, a Love Story is that unlike its predecessor Pam and Tommy, it manages to advance the analysis that all those wronged-woman revisitations are theoretically doing in the first place. It makes a convincing case that Pam and Tommy exists within the same genre of callous exploitation as all those Jay Leno jokes about the couple’s sex tape did in 1996.
About that sex tape: the tape Anderson made with then-husband Tommy Lee was meant to be private. In 1995, Rand Gauthier, a construction worker who said Lee stiffed him on the bill for house renovation, stole the tape from their home and shortly began to sell access to it over the internet. Anderson and Lee sued Gauthier and everyone else who seemed to be involved in its distribution.
The couple eventually dropped the suit, apparently exhausted by the legal wrangling. Pamela, a Love Story shines a light on the legal argument that exhausted them so. In court, Gauthier’s lawyers argued that Anderson had no right to privacy because she was a Playboy star; she had exposed her naked body to the world before, of her own free will, and so she should have no problem with it being exposed now, against her will.
“It made me feel like I was such a horrible woman,” Anderson recalls in Pamela. “I’m just a piece of meat. That this should mean nothing to me because I’m such a whore, basically.”
The legal argument here was that by having ever been naked in public on her own terms, Anderson had revoked her right to consent. She had become that kind of woman: the kind of woman who did not deserve privacy.
Anderson says in Pamela that she felt the same way when she found out that Hulu was going to make a TV show about the events. “They should have had to have my permission,” she says.
Last February, Hulu released Pam and Tommy, which aimed to do for Anderson what American Crime Story: Impeachment did for Monica Lewinsky. It was supposed to reveal the extent to which Anderson had been mistreated after her sex tape became public against her will, and late-night hosts everywhere found themselves with a new opportunity to mock Anderson as an infamous “dumb blonde.” That Anderson loudly disavowed the show and said that it was made without her consent — unlike Lewinsky, who was a producer on Impeachment — didn’t seem to matter. Shouldn’t Anderson get a mea culpa now, regardless of whether she wanted one or not?
Pam and Tommy premiered a year after Framing Britney Spears to mild interest, but also to what appeared to be a bit of revisitation fatigue. At this point, the story of another blonde sex symbol who turned out to have been mistreated seemed to feel like an old, old story, and the show didn’t add anything particularly new to what was by now becoming a formula. Reviews were anemic, and while it was nominated for multiple Emmys, it only won one, for makeup.
In Pamela, a Love Story, Pamela’s son tells her he watched the first three episodes. In response we see her anxiously munching on a vegan croissant, quipping for the cameras about emotional eating. “I blocked that out of my life,” she says. “I had to, in order to survive, really. It was a survival mechanism. And now that it’s all coming up again, I feel sick, in my whole stomach, from the middle of my chest, all the way down, just, my stomach feels like it’s been punched. I don’t feel good right now.”
In an interview with EW in 2022, Pam and Tommy director Craig Gillespie says the members of the creative team “absolutely respect the privacy” of Anderson, despite making the show without her blessing. He went on, “I felt, for us, what we’re trying to do is really change the narrative and your perspective of what happened. And this felt like such an opportunity to do that and to be able to look at the story through today’s lens and the outrageousness and just the atrocities that happened. I felt that hopefully, it would change people’s point of view on that.”
The argument here is that Anderson was a wronged woman of the type that was currently fashionable. If she did not agree to her story being retold, it didn’t matter. It’s the same logic that animated the release of the sex tape in the ’90s, the dehumanization at its core disguised with a faux-progressive veneer. The story could go on without her, because she had made herself that kind of woman.
There are always problems with a documentary made through close cooperation with its subject. Pamela, a Love Story is designed to be as sympathetic as possible to Anderson. To that end, it glosses lightly over her alliances with figures like Vladimir Putin (for anti-fur campaign purposes, she says here) and Julian Assange (in this doc she says simply that she’s very pro-transparency, but in the past she’s said he’s been falsely accused because of “the Clinton monopoly on the media”). Her skeptical comments about the Me Too movement (Weinstein’s victims “should have known what they were getting into,” she said in 2017), go undiscussed entirely.
Still, Pamela, a Love Story is a massive improvement on its predecessor. Pam and Tommy contributed little, if anything, to the public conversation that was not already there. It never quite justified its own existence.
Pamela, a Love Story does move the conversation forward. It suggests, brutally, that shows like Pam and Tommy exist more to let us indulge our titillated fascination with old scandals than to make any kind of principled stand against misogyny.