How 90’s Nostalgia gets “Pam and Tommy” Wrong
The 90’s are back, and in a big way. Designer Ava Nirui attributes current 90’s nostalgia to the fact that it was the last era without the internet, yet still marked the beginning of modern, sensationalist media and culture that has become mainstream in the 21st century. However, a closer look into this 90’s sensationalism reveals that the majority of its “culture” came from a systemic degradation, infantilization, and hyper-sexualization of women.
The 90’s built itself upon not taking women seriously and blaming them for either leaning into sexuality too much or, inversely, standing up for themselves. This decade-long trend began in 1991 with Anita Hill’s testimony against future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings. Hill claimed that Thomas had sexually harassed her, but instead of focusing on Thomas’s transgressions, both Democrats and Republicans undermined and wholly rejected Hill’s testimony, thus setting a dangerous precedent that female victims of sexual assault, harassment, and exploitation did not matter.
Two years later, in 1993, Lorena Bobbitt became a public caricature of female rage and insanity after cutting off her husband’s penis in response to enduring years of domestic abuse. The public was highly sympathetic to her husband, as evidenced by this St. Louis Post headline: “Man Denies Rape of Wife Before She Mutilated Him.” As with the Thomas hearing, media coverage of her trial diminished the seriousness of domestic violence and sexual assault and took that precedent a step further by infantilizing and summarizing female pain, suffering, and violence into one-liners.
Photo Courtesy: Frederick M. Brown/ Getty Images
Finally, in 1996, Pamela Anderson - Baywatch icon, the most featured Playmate in Hugh Hefner’s now discontinued Playboy Magazine, and ex-wife of Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee - emerged as the first female victim of sensationalist culture and the internet. However, Anderson is perhaps most famous for her honeymoon sex tape that Lee’s former electrician, Rand Gauthier, stole and illegally circulated throughout the internet. Her cruel treatment and objectification by the media set the stage for, and was largely overshadowed by, Monica Lewinsky’s public degradation in 1998 and the ferocious media attack of Britney Spears’s mental health, which reached its peak in 2007. Despite this erasure, Anderson’s degradation notably brought upon the idea of “revenge porn” - defined as the distribution of sexually explicit images and videos of an individual without their consent - which revolutionized how women could be commodified in American society.
This cultural moment is being brought back into public consciousness in the form of the Hulu series “Pam and Tommy,” starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan, which began streaming on February 2. Notably, the series was created without permission, consent, or guidance from Anderson, meaning that the show is re-victimizing her for profit and a brand new audience. James rationalized the show in the absence of Anderson’s consent by asserting that it was made to force the world to admit its “culpability” in the shaming of Anderson. However, this optimistic viewpoint is clearly refuted by the series’ tagline - “The Greatest Love Story Ever Sold” - which simultaneously makes light of a breach of privacy that ruined public perception of Anderson and willfully ignores Lee’s abusive history, which resulted in a 6 month prison sentence in 1998 for domestic violence.
This optimistic retelling of Anderson’s relationship and invasion of privacy speaks to the hypocrisy of Hollywood; even during the #MeToo era, it is still intent on producing content which re-exploits and commodifies Anderson against her will in order to augment the wealth of incredibly rich white men such as executive producers Craig Gillespie, Seth Rogan (who also stars as Rand Gauthier in the series), and Dave Franco.
The aggrandizement of white men at the expense of Anderson is nothing new. While Gauthier originally circulated the sex tape as a way to get revenge on Lee for poor working conditions, the tape was notably sold as “Pamela’s Hardcore Sex Video,” revealing that Gauthier’s true intentions were to objectify and profit off of a woman’s private sexual actions.
In fact, it seemed as though everyone in the world profited off of the sex tape besides Anderson herself: at it’ most popular, the sex tape made $77 million dollars in just one year and transformed Lee from an irrelevant bygone of the 80’s, into a bona fide, immortalized rockstar. In stark contrast to her ex-husband, Anderson became infamous as a “punch line.”
Looking ahead, critics speculate that Lily James is an awards contender for her portrayal of Anderson, however, the top stories about the series are not about James’s acting abilities. Rather, they almost all resemble this Toronto Sun headline: “Lily James needed dozens of fake breasts for “Pam and Tommy” Series.” This journalistic focus proves that society exists in a post Pam and Tommy era - in which both online and in real life, women are only deemed valuable when their bodies are sexualized and commodified.
Recent 90’s nostalgia teeters on the edge of revisionist history, wherein the decade is glorified as pre-internet cultural golden era. However, behind its wild sensationalism, the 90’s was the decade in which capitalism and the early internet converged to create new ways of degrading and subjugating women, which are now cornerstones of the 21st century.
Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon asserts that “Sexuality is… that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away:” a statement which precisely illuminates what a capitalist, American society has cruelly done to Anderson for decades. After the series and her re-exploitation comes to an end, Hollywood will move on. However, Anderson’s legacy will stay in the 90’s: as a victim of Gauthier’s incessant white, male rage and low self esteem, Lee’s domestic abuse, and most of all, the victim of an entertainment industry, and American society that objectified her for personal gain, ignored her wishes, stole her sexuality, and then left her behind after she bravely came forward about her domestic abuse.