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Performance art: Pamela Anderson is Americana

By January 29, 2022No Comments



Jenn Gannon looks back at the career of Pamela Anderson, and reviews Hulu’s new show Pam and Tommy


Kanye in his own clumsy, twisted tribute, attempted to turn Kim Kardashian into his zombified muse, restricted in corsets, drowning in a sea of beige and taupes. Jeff Koons may have pushed adult movie star Cicciolina into an exalted artistic realm with his Made in Heaven series, to vast critical acclaim. Although for all their endeavours these men could not sculpt the women they felt ownership over into an actual art form. Sometimes the muse can assemble themselves like the assistant turned magician and this is the space where we find Pamela Denise Anderson. Forever encased in the red Baywatch swimsuit, she is a symbol of Americana as instantly recognisable as the McDonald’s logo, she fits snugly between Warhol’s Coke bottles and Campbell Soup Cans. The Canadian all-star is a pop culture Statue of Liberty welcoming those newly minted It Girls and notorious women to a place of hard won liberation. 

The Pamela that crash-landed into our consciousness in the early ‘90s was a genuine sensation. She felt like a different kind of star, one who didn’t feel the need to hide her Playboy modelling credentials. An upfront, fun loving gal who didn’t subscribe to the strange puritanical notion of shame that most famous women are supposed to. She may have started off being the object of teen boys and grown men’s fantasies but when she managed to manoeuvre into television she became a worldwide weekend tea-time fixture on Baywatch. It introduced her to mainstream success but like the doomed actress Jennifer North in Valley of the Dolls, the general public could never see past ‘the body’ and had no desire for Pamela Anderson to even try to embody someone else other than the golden avatar she had become. At her peak she was a gauzy vision of beauty, a tumbleweed, haystack of regulation blonde hotness, the type of shimmering platinum perfection that had not been seen since the days of And God Created Woman.

Even though television never knew how to treat her or where to fit her in, propelling her into ill fitting sitcoms where she remained the butt of the joke or lip-glossy dramas, she has tenaciously worked her way into her own niche. Midway between a campy Russ Meyers wild child and a postmodern humanitarian crusader, Anderson has endured in a cut throat industry where women are used up like human mannequins. For decades Anderson has fascinated onlookers with her dizzying life of make ups and breakups, acting, dancing, book writing, activism, modelling at such an exhausting level it’s hard to keep track of. She seems to have sandwiched the life of every renowned starlet into herself from the factory girl Edie Sedgwick reflected in her work with photographer David LaChappelle, the cerebral side of Marilyn Monroe as a determined defender of WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange , the animal welfare efforts of Bardot as a Peta ambassador, but has also sewn in her own experiences as the ultimate rock chick. A renaissance famous woman she does a little of everything but the thing she does best is being Pamela Anderson, living pop culture performance art.

As with all stars who are thoroughly acquainted with the fame game, we feel as though we know her. Men certainly never miss an opportunity to inform everyone just how intimate they are with Pamela, but she remains glamorously unknowable and ultimately elusive. There is a touch of the old fashioned Hollywood diva spirit about her of the ‘never complain, never explain’ variety. In interviews, whether in print or found on Youtube she is the scatty sex kitten, a breathless ball of blondness, eyeliner and glitter revealing nothing more than the Tinkerbell fairy tales she chooses to offer up. Often circling back to the same broad topics of love art and animals in a ‘gee whiz’ Warholian haze. This defence mechanism employed because the parade of mostly male presenters and journalists only want to talk about her sex life or her breasts.

It seems odd that for a star who has been involved in countless iconic couplings, has been married four times, has been a Playboy cover girl fourteen times, has been on three different incarnations of Celebrity Big Brother she has managed to retain a healthy amount of privacy, and that is the way she likes it. She has split herself between Pamela Anderson a celebrity available for the public through visual mediums, a character of her own creation and Pamela Anderson the private citizen whose thoughts are not for public consumption. This has taken a very long time, and it has been an arduous journey for her to gain a modicum of respect from most who dismiss her as a bimbo. In some ways she has been afforded the privilege of time. Stars like Emily Ratajkowski, Kim Kardashian, Bella Thorne and Megan Fox have now occupied that certain white hot space in pop culture where the tabloid press feed off their bodies in a ravenous frenzy. 

In a recent FaceTime chat with the New York Times, having deleted all her social media, Anderson opined the days of mystery before the misery of the all knowing- all Googling-all-the -time- internet. As with most famous women, the internet has not been kind to the actress but she above most knows just how caustic and costly it can be and right now that past that she wishes wasn’t so accessible is being dredged up in the latest, highly anticipated Hulu series Pam and Tommy.

Taking their cue from Ryan Murphy who creates shows that are hewn from recent headlines like the People Vs O.J. Simpson and the recent Impeachment series, Pam and Tommy looks back on the sex tape that started it all, the private honeymoon video that was stolen from the couple by a disgruntled workman and released to the salivating public. The show’s tagline is ‘The greatest story ever sold’ which indicates that this is not going to be a sobering look at the misogyny of the ‘90s that almost derailed Anderson’s career completely. If anything the show is a confusing semi-celebration of opportunistic men who used the birth of the internet to further exploit women. 

The series show-runners and stars have been at pains to say that like Ryan Murphy’s efforts with Impeachment, they too are trying to refocus the story on women and frame the story to highlight how Pamela Anderson was treated during this time. Unlike Ryan Murphy they failed to gain approval from the person who the show is actually about. In a Vanity Fair interview, Ryan Murphy said he would never have made Impeachment without Monica Lewinsky’s involvement because ultimately he was attempting to reset the narrative. He wanted to look at how the Clinton scandal was viewed by the press and public alike and her voice was obviously paramount in changing the perceived story. 

By comparison, Anderson has said she finds the idea of Pam and Tommy extremely painful and wanted no part in it. The star has always been in on the joke, always understanding the ideas surrounding her public image so for her to release a statement about how traumatising this all was, feels significant. The fact that Hulu decided to continue with the production of the show seems ill-advised in a post ‘Free-Britney’ landscape – where through their own voices, women are speaking their truth about their experiences and are finally, tentatively being heard. 

Instead with Pam and Tommy, Pamela’s own story has been hijacked again and sold to the highest bidder. There is also the prospect that this series will introduce a whole new audience to the tape and will of course pique the curiosity of others. Anderson will be forced to relive this news cycle once again, unintentionally making the moral of the show that women can never be free, can never escape past decisions and will always be at the mercy of powerful men. 

The creators of Pam and Tommy (including Craig Gillespie the director of the dubious Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya) may think it is an astute commentary on the sexual politics of the ‘90s but it’s more like an elongated farce. For all its lofty and seemingly virtuous ambitions the series bizarrely trains its focus on the grubbier characters of the piece with Seth Rogen’s Rand Gauthier having considerably more screen time and more characterisation than even Lily James’s portrayal of Pamela Anderson. It’s truly hard to care about the opportunistic Rand and fleshing out his character feels pointless. Trying to inject him with morality and humanity is redundant. The real life Rand has no shame about how he conducted himself or how he acted and yet the show wastes valuable time in all of its eight episodes trying to convince us otherwise. They want everyone including Rand to have some kind of redemption perhaps because he agreed that his part in the tale could be told. Centring his character as the silly but amiable antihero in the story about a woman whose privacy he deliberately destroyed is tone deaf. 

Then there’s the annoyingly predictable concentration on the porn industry that comes across like a poor facsimile of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. There is no incisive critique of the industry other than a lot of men made a lot of money out of it. Seth Rogen’s Rand and Nick Offerman’s porn impresario ‘Uncle’ Miltie are depicted as two lovable rogues in a bumbling heist movie, there are moments where it has all the hallmarks of a slapstick, knockabout comedy. This continuous reliance on Rand’s story is disappointing especially when we don’t get anything from Anderson’s perspective until much later in the series. 

James’s Anderson may look the part with jaw dropping prosthetics and wigs but she spends far too long adhering to a fantasy image than being a three dimensional character. Also, with the application of such mask-like prosthetics there is the danger that it manages to further dehumanise Anderson, reducing her to the status of a blow up doll. For something that is bursting with interesting topics  – the emergence of the internet, the evolution of the celebrity couple, the ownership over images, the chasm between ‘legitimised’ stars and those treated as trashy titbits, the show is curiously lacking in substance.

The twosomes whirlwind courtship and marriage is played for laughs with Sebastian Stan’s Tommy Lee being completely cartoonish even down to his animatronic talking penis (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas). If they were positing the series as a more feminist take on the story it fails miserably. Is it being ironic or does it actually want to say something important about Anderson’s treatment at the hands of the press and the public? It’s hard to tell with its montages full of blaring jukebox hits and its heavy, vacuous nostalgia, this is not the sad poignancy of Marcia Clark buying tampons to the strains of Portishead in The People Vs. OJ Simpson, this is 90s references thrown into a blender becoming bubble gum entertainment history. Anderson’s story is only afforded a single episode showing her progression from the Playboy mansion to Baywatch.

It touches on her desire to break into Hollywood and how she was continuously hamstrung by circumstances. There is a glimpse at how her image was eroded because of the sex tape, one that ironically is now deemed as sweet and naive compared to today’s more violent, extreme tastes. It’s bittersweet to think that Anderson would have recovered if this incident had occurred in the 2000s. Because of her fight to retain the rights to her personal property, the tape of her body that had been leered over by millions, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian learned to take ownership over their images and make serious money from them, and become party to a celebrity world that promotes and profits from supposed scandals. 

Pam and Tommy only makes sense when we see things through Pamela’s eyes, how she was ridiculed during her deposition when the couple tried to sue Penthouse’s Bob Guccione to prevent him from printing photos from the tape. When it details her becoming joke fodder on late night talk shows, when Tommy Lee leans into his new found notoriety at her expense and how sex scandals always champion the men involved. 

Unfortunately the bulk of Pam and Tommy feels sadly exploitative. It amounts to a boy’s own tale of revenge and capitalising on nascent celebrity at all costs. A snigger behind the hand at a stag party staple. It is a reinforcement of a state of objectification when an everlasting icon like Pamela Anderson deserves so much more. 

Pam and Tommy starts on Disney+ on 2 February 2022