The fictional Hulu series Pam & Tommy defined model and actress Pamela Anderson by the worst moment of her life. That was the 1996 theft, release, and viral spread of her home sex tape made with then husband, Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. The series’ narrative was sympathetic to Anderson. But in revisiting her trauma without her consent or participation, it re-enacted the ugly dynamics of the sex tape itself. Someone else was again making money off her exposure, humiliation, and sexuality.
Netflix’s Pamela: A Love Story is a quietly defiant response. The documentary allows Anderson to tell her own story, which means it allows her to be something other than a victim, a sexpot or part of the relationship with Lee. The “Love Story” in the title doesn’t refer to the Anderson/Lee relationship, or to any relationship with men, but to Anderson’s relationship with herself. The director is Ryan White, but it’s all Anderson’s show. She uses it to love herself and treat herself right, on the reasonable grounds that she can’t trust anyone else to do so.
The documentary doesn’t sanitize Anderson’s life. On the contrary, it includes painful details the Hulu series didn’t even hint at. Born and raised in Ladysmith, a Canadian island in British Columbia, her father was an abusive alcoholic. She was molested by a female babysitter for years as a young child, and then raped by an adult male acquaintance at 12. In large part as a result, she was a painfully shy adolescent.
That’s part of why she found posing for Playboy so empowering; it was a way to take back her sexuality and to reject guilt and self-loathing. The release of the sex tape, and the violation of her consent, was miserable not least because it felt like a restaging of her past abuse. Her rape left her feeling like she was branded and dirty. And then the whole world saw the tape, and suddenly misogynist jerks like Jay Leno felt they had the right to tell her she was branded and dirty to her face.
That’s where the Hulu series ends—with Pam’s life in shambles. The tape wins and she loses.
Anderson’s life, though, did go on, though it never exactly settled down. She broke up with Lee after he physically attacked her. She then got married over and over, had other abusive relationships, which she got out of soon after they went bad. Her career stalled. The culture, it seemed, would never forgive her for violating her consent, abusing her, and sexualizing her. In order to pretend they’d done nothing wrong, people acted like she was to blame for being robbed and humiliated.
But she also tried to turn her notoriety to good account. She was passionate about animal rights and did provocative ads for PETA—even allowing herself to be the subject of a television roast, which she hated, to raise money for the cause. She became friends with and tried to bring attention to the plight of Julian Assange, who was targeted by the U.S. government for publishing classified documents. (There’s no mention that Assange was accused of rape by a Swedish woman—an unfortunate omission given the discussion of abuse in the rest of the documentary.)
The movie ends with Anderson’s Broadway debut at 54, playing Roxie in Chicago to—not rave reviews but respectful ones. Her son, Brandon can barely restrain his pride as he reads the notices aloud. It’d be nice if the theater appearance and the documentary got Anderson a Hollywood role or two. She remains a charming and magnetic presence, and her name still sells tickets.
Whether that happens, though, the documentary itself at least provides partial validation. Watching it, you often want to shout at the screen, “No… Pam! Don’t date that… no don’t marry him!” But she does, and then, as she says, she survives. She’s sad about her failed marriages—to Tommy especially—and she’s sad about missed opportunities. But she’s not sad about being herself. The love story can’t have a happily ever after, since she’s a real person still living her life. But it does end with a solid, and welcome, happy for now.