The most discomfiting thing about Pam & Tommy is how entertaining it is—the show is so awash in nostalgia-perfect needle drops, so filled with over-the-top club scenes, that you could almost forget that it’s about a sex crime and its aftermath. In 1995, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, played in the series by Lily James and Sebastian Stan, were robbed by Rand Gauthier, a contractor and former porn actor who stole a safe from their property, he says, in order to recoup losses sustained when Lee refused to pay him for construction work he’d done. (He also alleges that Lee pulled a gun on him.) The safe contained jewelry, more guns, and a home sex tape that would become infamous. With the help of one of his porn world contacts, Gauthier began selling copies of the tape online. Anderson and Lee later signed over their rights, though both say they never earned money from it.
Hulu’s new series is based on a 2014 Rolling Stone feature, and as far as grist for the true-story mill goes, it’s a worthy tale: Few crimes result in the creation of a new cultural medium (in this case, the internet-distributed sex tape), and few so wholly capture the ugly spirit of an era. But Pamela Anderson, the person most victimized by the crime, didn’t sign off on its production and is reportedly “horrified” that the show was made. Anderson didn’t want her story to be dramatized, at least not in this way. Does that mean it shouldn’t have been told at all?
Anderson bade farewell to social media at the beginning of last year and hasn’t spoken publicly about the Hulu series. But “sources close to her” are chattier and have made it clear that she’s not at all supportive of the TV show. “She feels so violated to this day,” one told Entertainment Tonight. “It brings back a very painful time for her.” Her friend Courtney Love, who’s also deeply familiar with ‘90s media sexism, posted to Facebook and later deleted a message in which she described the series’ creation as being “so fucking outrageous,” and said that it would cause Anderson “complex trauma.”
Despite Anderson’s lack of involvement, the series is very much on her side—she is shown being kind and earnestly ambitious, aware that she’s being ogled and patronized by Baywatch’s creators, and trying to make something meatier of her career. In one episode, she speaks admiringly of Jane Fonda. “She was all these totally opposite things all at once, she was protesting Vietnam and selling workout tapes. She was being a feminist and a sex object,” James’ Anderson says in the series. “She didn’t worry what people thought, she never tried to please anybody.” It’s heartbreaking to know, with the benefit of hindsight, that Anderson would not be allowed the same freedom.
It is also easy to see why Anderson would object to the show’s existence: It recreates intimate details from her life, complete with cartoonish sex scenes that find Stan and James donning comically large prosthetics in order to recall the couples’ famous anatomies. It’s also sympathetic to one of the men who victimized her, portraying Seth Rogen’s Gaultier as a sad sack loser rather than a malicious sex criminal.
The series has plenty of company as part of the broader ‘90s nostalgia churn, but as a story of a living celebrity told without their involvement, it’s more of a rarity. From the Monica Lewinsky co-produced season of American Crime Story that tackled the Clinton impeachment, to the Michael Jordan co-produced The Last Dance, to the Serena and Venus Williams co-produced King Richard, many of the true celebrity stories brought to our screens these days arrive with the seal of approval of at least some of the famous people at their center. Lewinsky was a private individual maligned on a nearly unimaginable global scale by people whose power far exceeded her own, and allowing her to turn the tables and for once participate in the recounting of her life felt overdue. Michael Jordan—rich, powerful, and notoriously prone to bullying—might not be owed the same level of creative control over his legacy.
This isn’t to say that Disney-and-Comcast owned Hulu is the most capable venue for telling the tale of the Anderson-Lee sex tape, or that, based on the three entertaining but pulpy episodes released so far, Pam & Tommy will offer the definitive examination of the story. But giving celebrities free rein in recounting popular history isn’t an unalloyed good for art, entertainment, or our understanding of that history. Just look at Jamie Lynn Spears, who, unlike her sister Britney, never had her self-expression constrained, but yet is now capitalizing on interest in her sister’s conservatorship with a memoir which she is promoting as finally allowing her to “share [her] own story.”
Personal perspectives are valuable, but they are not necessarily the most useful way to consider a tale, or to ferret out the truth, especially when the tale in question has transcended the personal and shaped the world that others inhabit. The Anderson and Lee sex tape theft might be such a case, with its prediction of a culture in which anyone could be under threat of victimization via revenge porn, where others might prowl unknown corners of the internet for illegal sexual content, and in which women are forced to walk the razor-thin Madonna/whore boundary. The story is Anderson’s, but the world it helped shape belongs to all of us.