Reclaiming the Narrative: Pamela, A Love Story

Anna Boyne

The new Netflix documentary Pamela, A Love Story takes everything we thought we knew about 90s blonde bombshell, Pamela Anderson, and refocuses the narrative. The release of TV drama Pam and Tommy brought back into popular consciousness the infamous sex tape that was stolen from the home of Pamela and her then husband Tommy Lee and sold worldwide without their consent. In this documentary, Anderson tells her story which, despite decades of abuse and objectification, ultimately has an uplifting message of perseverance, integrity, and love. Anna Boyne reflects on the new documentary.

Pamela, A Love Story humanises Pamela Anderson in a way that is necessary to combat the years of objectification in the media. Relaxed and comfortable in her own home, on her own terms, clips of Pamela reflecting on the past are shown throughout the documentary. It strips back the pop culture caricature to a normal person with very human emotions- something we can forget that celebrities experience. She comments how “It’s good to get it all out again in my own words. In my own words.”

This part of the documentary sets the tone of a life of challenges, yet Pamela’s overarching attitude towards her past struggles is gratitude for the positives that has come from them

Beginning with her childhood, Pamela opens up about the difficulties her family faced, from living off welfare benefits, to her father’s alcoholism. It is heart-wrenching when she discusses sexual abuse as a child and rape aged twelve which affected her body confidence during her teenage years. This part of the documentary sets the tone of a life of challenges, yet Pamela’s overarching attitude towards her past struggles is gratitude for the positives that has come from them.   

The documentary climaxes with the theft of Pam and Tommy’s private sex tape by a construction worker from a safe in their family home. It’s easy to feel sympathetic towards Pamela as she describes the utter dread and powerlessness she felt. One of the most striking issues the documentary deals with is the double standards Pamela faced as a woman and sex symbol compared to her rock-star husband, Tommy Lee. While it boosted Lee’s image, the tape was career shattering for Anderson. Her hopes of being taken seriously as an actor and being remembered for more than her work with Playboy and Baywatch were crushed.

Increasingly frustrating is the lack of empathy felt towards Anderson. She reflects how many people completely dismissed her right to consent. Pamela draws comparisons between the distribution of the tape, reflecting that “Playboy was empowering for me, but this felt like rape.” It was a complete violation of her privacy and reflects the horrific reality of attitudes towards female sexuality in the 90s (worryingly not that long ago at all). The backlash Pamela faced shows that the media was unable to differentiate between a woman in control of her sexuality and sexual objectification.

The documentary’s use of clips from Pamela’s home videos and voice-overs from her journals couldn’t be more fitting. They allow us a deeply personal insight beyond what paparazzi or talk show hosts of the 90s ever exposed. Pamela shows us some of her happiest moments where she is entirely herself. We also access her most private thoughts during those turbulent years. From being in the midst of a whirlwind romance, marrying Tommy Lee on a beach after four days of knowing each other, to the breakdown of multiple abusive relationships.  

It does feel tragically ironic that much of Pamela’s motivation to make the documentary came from a need to reclaim her narrative. While the director of Pam and Tommy, Craig Gillespie, claimed to respect Anderson’s privacy and sought to portray her sympathetically, the series was made without her consent. Gillespie’s assertions ultimately come across tone-deaf and the series as little better than the media exploitation Pamela faced at the time. The documentary shows Pamela visibly upset and struggling to deal with her resurfacing trauma, cast again as public entertainment. “They should have had to have my permission,” she says.

It may have been surprising that so little attention is given to the TV series Pam and Tommy as it was clearly a large part of the reason for the documentary’s production. Upon further reflection however, it seems the only logical way to handle the issue. In a documentary that seeks to put Pamela’s narrative above all other media misrepresentations, why should she promote the show in any shape or form? The documentary shows an image of Pam and Tommy billboards later being replaced by billboards being put up of Chicago starring Anderson. The meaning is clear: it encourages us to celebrate Anderson’s current career successes rather than continuing to obsess over her past trauma under the guise of sympathy.  

She doesn’t address any of the controversies, instead only briefly touches on the culture in which plastic surgery and insanely high beauty standards were normalised

Of course, an auto-biographical documentary like this is bound to be limited in some ways. I found myself conflicted over the way it dealt with Anderson’s years with Playboy. Pamela talks of her shyness and lack of body confidence during her teenage years, which she attributes to the traumatic experience of being raped aged twelve. Shooting for Playboy was a transformative and empowering experience for her. It was about taking back power of her own sexuality. Many Playboy bunnies have since come forward to discuss their institutionalised objectification. However, Pamela remains reluctant to be critical of Playboy. She doesn’t address any of the controversies, instead only briefly touches on the culture in which plastic surgery and insanely high beauty standards were normalised.

Nonetheless, the overriding tone of Pamela, a love story is that of optimism. The documentary seeks to change our perceptions of this 90s pop icon, and instead see her as a loving mother, determined activist, and a bubbly, charismatic, determined woman. Despite having experienced so much throughout her lifetime, she declares proudly that she chooses to persevere and to love.

Anna Boyne

Featured image courtesy of Thomas Kinto via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article trailer courtesy of Netflix via YouTube.com. No changes were made to this video.

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