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16 February 2022

Pam & Tommy is proof – if we needed it – that there’s too much sex on our screens

Far from defending privacy, the series is formed by and fuels a culture of exploitation. Where will the titillation arms race lead us next?

By Louise Perry

One good thing I will say about the new Disney+ series Pam & Tommy: the make-up artists have done an excellent job.

First, there’s the transformation of the delicate English brunette Lily James into the bold American blonde Pamela Anderson – a process that apparently involved three to five hours daily spent fitting fake breasts, dental veneers, artificial eyebrows and a forehead prosthetic to adjust James’s hairline.

Then there’s the gimmick that provoked such horror in Rachel Cooke when she reviewed the series in these pages on 4 February: the animatronic penis that apparently demanded the expertise of four puppeteers and which converses with the actor Sebastian Stan, who plays (its host? Owner?) the rock star Tommy Lee.

The series portrays Anderson and Lee’s meeting, their marriage in 1995, and the theft and release of a sex tape that was recorded privately while they were on their honeymoon. The first celebrity sex tape scandal took place at the height of Anderson’s Baywatch fame and six years after her first Playboy cover.

Unsurprisingly, there was high demand for the tape, with the violation of Anderson’s privacy only adding to the allure. The TV series depicts the terrible humiliation she experiences, as well as the miscarriage she suffers during a period of high stress. Focusing on Anderson’s pain is how the show morally justifies itself.

But in retelling the story of the stolen tape, Pam & Tommy again draws attention to this distressing episode in Anderson’s life. Google Trends reports a sharp uptick in worldwide searches for “Pamela Anderson sex tape”, coinciding with the release of the first episode of the series. Not only has Anderson refused to participate in the creation of the show, she is reportedly suffering “complex trauma” as a result of it.

“Poor Pam”, the show says, but does so while zooming in on Anderson’s cleavage. In an age when sex scenes are standard fare on every channel except CBeebies, this show still manages to be mildly shocking, particularly given that its message is supposed to be pro-privacy.

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Aside from the animatronic penis, there are the very many scenes in which Anderson and Lee are shown rutting against various expensive surfaces. Of course, the real sex tape isn’t featured (for copyright reasons, if nothing else), but there are plenty of scenes that have clearly been choreographed to suggest realness. If we are agreed that watching the real tape is a violation, how should we feel about the couple’s sex life being used for our entertainment?

[see also: Pam + Tommy reminds me of porn: it’s boring, lifeless and full of erect nipples]

This is an awkward question for film-makers in the post-#MeToo era. Predatory individuals such as Harvey Weinstein are, of course, solely responsible for their crimes, but they tend to flourish in particular cultures and sets of circumstances. The film industry offers the right conditions for widespread sexual exploitation, since it has an over-supply of beautiful young women and an under-supply of jobs, with (mostly male) gatekeepers granted extraordinary power to make or break a budding actor’s career.

As sex scenes have become a routine part of filming, there are now even more opportunities for exploitation. Last year the Guardian published allegations made by 20 women of sexual harassment by the actor, screenwriter and director Noel Clarke, who denies wrongdoing. Some of these incidents were reported to have taken place in private, but others occurred on set. Clarke often wrote explicit sex scenes into his films and then starred in them himself. The actors he cast for these scenes later said that they did not feel able to say no.

After #MeToo, film-makers have tried placing ever greater emphasis on consent. For instance, the creators of the TV series Normal People, adapted from the Sally Rooney novel, crowed in the media about how sensitive they’d been in the filming process; how they’d been so careful to enlist an “intimacy coordinator” to manage the huge number of sex scenes in the show.

But the show’s two stars, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, were aged just 20 and 23 when they were cast to play the teenage protagonists, having been relatively unknown beforehand. They will both have given their consent during the film-making, but their professional inexperience surely adds some context to their decision-making. After all, how many young actors would feel able to turn down such an enviable opportunity because they felt uncomfortable at the prospect of filming sex scenes, particularly when they are now seemingly all but compulsory for anyone without significant clout?

It’s not uncommon for successful actors to add clauses to their contracts that guarantee no nudity will be required of them. Keira Knightley has said she will no longer shoot sex scenes filmed by a male director, and Claire Foy has said such scenes have left her feeling “exposed and exploited”. These actors have the seniority to refuse; other colleagues are not so lucky.

The titillation arms race occurs because film-makers believe that’s what viewers want. I wonder if they are making a false assumption. After the animatronic penis stage of sexualisation, is there anywhere left to go? Or is it time they found some other way to entertain us?

For a recent alternative to Pam & Tommy that is also about sex, and features media intrigue, Nineties nostalgia and prosthetics, try Impeachment, a sharp dramatisation of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. It is radical in just one, important way: the victim of sexual exploitation gets to keep her clothes on.

[see also: BBC One’s This Is Going To Hurt is cold, mean and – crucially – not funny]

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War