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For her characterization in the role of Pamela Anderson in Pam & Tommythe Hulu series, actress Lily James had to undergo four hours of makeup a day and wear up to 50 pairs of size 34DD breast prostheses, which had to be changed several times during filming, and which were sometimes so sweaty they were almost they fell off
The series chronicles the whirlwind marriage of Anderson and her ex, Tommy Lee, drummer for Mötley Crüe, and focuses on the video recorded during their honeymoon and later stolen from their home and released to the masses. But this adaptation of the story, in which they have not participated, aspires to be the empowering version of the events: it is an attempt to capture the difficulties that Anderson had to overcome later, and “provoke a conversation about how we treat women James said.
That the camera seems quite interested in stopping at those breast prostheses? Don’t worry: this is feminist art.
And it’s the kind of art that seems ubiquitous in Hollywood today, part of a series of announced projects that aim to “revindicate,” “redeem,” “recontextualize,” and “reconsider” famous, beautiful, typically white women. and always misunderstood of our semi-recent past, and that at a certain moment they were vilified, usually for something of a sexual nature. The reasoning—and the language of marketing— tends to be that by retelling—and consuming!—the hardships these women endured from today’s more tolerant point of view, we are helping women to claim their power.
Pam & Tommy It is not the most recent example of this genre, although it is perhaps the most controversial, in part because Anderson wanted nothing to do with it. At the time it was announced, in 2018, there were already many other similar successful projects: a biopic and a documentary about Anita Hill, about the treatment she received after denouncing Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment; I, Tonya, about figure skating Tonya Harding, today treated as a more complex person than a mere lower-class villain; Y Lorraineabout Lorena Bobbitt, who today goes by the name of Lorena Gallo and whom we no longer see only as the woman who amputated her husband’s penis, but also as a victim of domestic abuse.
“They always focus on that Gallo said in 2019, in an interview published in The New York Times. And it was like they didn’t want to notice or didn’t care why I did what I did.”
These stories took place before #MeToo, before social media, before we started reexamining everything from the art we consume and the monuments we’ve erected to the very founding date of our nation. Thus, many of these recent attempts to look back have been very revealing: Framing Britney Spearsfor example, the documentary produced by the Times last year, and Britney vs. spears, on Netflix, delve into details about the pop star’s exploitative conservatorship and tabloid coverage of it, which reignited conversation about conservatorship abuses. Documentaries about Janet Jackson, including the one she produced, reignited the conversation about how she was treated after the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2014 Super Bowl, when her chest was exposed and Jackson was blacklisted. But not the man who exposed it, Justin Timberlake.
We owe some of this redemptive context to Monica Lewinsky, of course, whose affair with the president was the backdrop during my teenage years and whose return to the public eye I surely helped to facilitate, once I was old enough to recognize its complexity. I wrote about Lewinsky in 2015, shortly before his TED talk on public humiliation, and then again last year, when he became the subject of the FX series Impeachment. (The series, which counts Lewinsky among its producers, tells the story of the affair from the point of view of the women involved).
Since then, I’ve applied a similar approach to the lives of other vilified women: Katie Hill, the former congresswoman who resigned amid a “revenge porn” scandal; Paula Broadwell, the former mistress—a feminine word in English that has no male equivalent—of General David Petraeus; Amanda Knox, who was acquitted a decade ago of the shocking murder of her roommate and has been trying to regain her footing ever since.
So I am not immune to the lure of this redemptive arch. And yet…
There is a term that I recently learned: “scoptophilia”. It means “love to look”. It could refer to pornography or even a car accident, but is often used in film to describe how we look at women portrayed on screen. It’s no secret that human beings love to consume entertainment, and they love it doubly when women and sex are involved. But at what point did both the fictionalized portrayal of that show, and us watching it, become as bad as watching the show itself?
Ursula Macfarlane, director of an upcoming Netflix documentary about Anna Nicole Smith, the troubled actress and model who died of an accidental overdose at age 39, said when the project was announced: “This seems like the right time to reexamine the lives of another beautiful young woman whose life was scrutinized and ultimately destroyed by our culture.”
Perhaps, but at what point do those reexaminations simply perpetuate the tropes that made them worthy of retrospect in the first place? Who tells these stories, who should take advantage of them, and when did all the talk about recontextualizing and overthrowing the male gaze begin to have more to do with the representation of a redemption than with the women who are at the center of it? those stories?
Writer Kathryn VanArendonk has called this “empathy tourism”: the attempt to take viewers on a trip to a past recent enough to be recognizable, but far enough away to be outlandish. As a result, some efforts—and, perhaps even more so, the way people talk about them—can slip into a kind of conceit.
We can still consume these stories, but from a more tolerant point of view. We’re given a chance to feel good about where Lewinsky is today (she’s a producer!), but also to gawk as she shows off her thong to the President of the United States, a scene she told me she reluctantly agreed to.
We can nod our heads when listening to a resounding dialogue; for example: “It happens that the anyone”, says Anderson’s character after a disappointing court ruling, “can’t decide what happens with the images of his body”. But seeing them, we are doing the same.
There’s nothing like rewatching a woman’s life come crashing down over a sex tape in the name of straightening history.
For what it’s worth, the real Anderson — who is currently experiencing something of a renaissance — hasn’t seen the show about her. They tell me that she doesn’t want to. According to people close to her, she regrets few things in her life—not even Kid Rock—but that tape is the one thing she wishes she could get rid of. She is now working on her own version of her story, in a documentary with Netflix, co-produced by one of her children, as well as some memoirs of hers.
Spears, now free of his guardianship—possibly a result of the new attention drawn to movies about her—said she felt “embarrassed” by Framing Britney Spearsand is also working on a memoir where he intends to tell everything.
Lewinsky is perhaps the one who has handled her rehab the most delicately, insisting on being a part of it. But she has also told me that she would have preferred that this series about her did not exist.
“I hope it’s the last time,” he said.
There are enough fables about wronged women in history to go on telling them forever. But are we really better today for having heard so many?
It doesn’t take much effort to discover examples of flawed women whose lives our culture is scrutinizing, in real time. Those whose credentials are called into question. Whose fashion tastes are discredited. Whose personal lives are transgressed by the tabloids. About whose falls from grace, whether for good reasons or not, they salivate too much.
Last week, actress Amber Heard took the stand in her libel trial. She has been sued by her ex-husband, Johnny Depp, over an op-ed she Heard wrote in 2018, where she claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. (Depp has denied mistreating Heard, and has accused her of mistreatment.)
The outcome of the trial is still weeks away, and there are plenty of reasons to express skepticism about both sides of the story. And yet, it is Depp’s admirers who line the courtrooms daily, waving from the gallows, while social media—and commentary on live streams of the trial—are awash with memes and insults against Heard, branding her of “fortune hunters”, “false”, “bipolar” and “manipulative”, to the point that, apparently, he has had to hire a security service.
The redemptive plots, in theory, are supposed to be a teaching about empathy, about the intrinsic humanity of every chaotic and imperfect woman. But what good are they to us, if they can’t help shape how we treat each other right now?
Until the next redemptive plot, I guess.