The Error Of Our Ways

We All Forgot Pamela Anderson Was A Mom. She Never Did.

In the new Netflix documentary Pamela, A Love Story, Anderson shows us what it means to mother fiercely in spite of public degradation, misogyny, and abuse.

In the ‘90s, when I was a teenage girl coming into my sexuality, no one captured the male gaze quite like Pamela Anderson. Posters of her draped the bedroom walls of almost every boy I knew. I made out on unmade beds with one eye open, studying the curves of her body, unable to see her as anything but a sexy cartoon. She was a caricature I didn’t realize was constructed by a society that branded its bombshells as sex itself.

Every boy wanted to f*ck her and we all knew it, which is what made it so easy to laugh at the jokes made on late-night TV about her body, most notably her breasts.

I hadn’t thought much about Anderson or this particular ignominious part of my ‘90s childhood until I watched the new Netflix documentary, Pamela A Love Story, last week. The actor speaks with disarming honesty about her past: posing for Playboy, the sex tape scandal that engulfed her marriage to Tommy Lee, and raising her sons, Brandon and Dylan. The film shows Anderson at home in the small Canadian town where she was raised and where she lives today, interspersed with home movies and lots of archival footage of the ‘90s.

When the sex tape was released, instead of feeling empathy for a woman whose private moment of empowered sexuality was stolen and sold to an audience, we all collectively shrugged.

As I watched the movie, it became apparent to me that the exploitation of Pamela Anderson was one of the defining moments of an era that enabled (and celebrated) rape culture, slut-shaming, and the MILFification of any woman who dared give birth with a body previously defined by its f*ckability.

In the documentary, we learn that posing for Playboy empowered Pamela after years of sexual abuse that made her fearful and ashamed of her body. Which doesn’t mean she wasn’t also placating the male gaze and a world of horny dudes. Both are true and should not come as a surprise to any woman — ‘90s-reared or not.

Pamela Anderson and her husband Tommy Lee in 1996.Getty

And yet, when the infamous sex tape was widely released in 1997, instead of feeling empathy for a woman whose private moment of empowered sexuality was stolen from the safety of her home, exploited, commoditized, and sold to an audience that felt justified in owning a piece of her, we all sort of collectively shrugged.

I could say I didn’t know any better at the time — perhaps none of us did. It’s an excuse but not a good one. It takes maturity and perspective to come to her defense, and in that era, we didn’t have much of either, which made us all quick to blame whatever slut felt threatening instead of condemning a society that planted the word slut in our consciousness.

The year Anderson’s stolen sex tape was released, I was a junior in high school, and there were whore lists at every local school in my area, punishing any teenage girl who dared to be sexual, big-breasted, or both. The more f*ckable a boy found a girl, the more hated she would become and while stories typically portray popular girls as the ones in control, the truth was, the more popular you were as a girl, the more you were scrutinized, dissected, and chastised. Power was only temporarily wielded before it became threatening and then immediately made you a target, a thing to run through the rumor mill.

Pamela Anderson was a mother now. And the culture seemed to say, how dare you…

Perhaps this is why instead of pushing back, we assumed responsibility. For being groped. For liking boys and sometimes, yes, their attention. For enjoying sex acts. There was no alternative. Fight back against what? Complain to who? Who is going to take the side of the Playboy centerfold? Of the big-breasted popular girl? Misogyny may have been force-fed to us, but we still ate it up. Realizing later it was making us sick didn’t change that.

Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee fought back when their personal home videos were stolen, but it was Anderson who was deposed for days on end in a room full of male attorneys, all of whom argued that Anderson had no right to privacy since she willingly got naked for Playboy.

Her power was theirs now. And instead of fighting what she knew she’d never win, she went home. While it is likely coincidental that Anderson’s private sex tape was stolen while she was pregnant, the timing of its release and the public’s reception of it was not. She was vulnerable, enduring what felt like a public rape approved by the California legal system. But Pamela Anderson was a mother now. And the culture seemed to say, how dare you…

Anderson holds one of her sons as a baby.Courtesy of Netflix
A sleeping Anderson cuddles two sons as young boys.Courtesy of Netflix.

Her punishment felt biblical, Nathanial Hawthorne meets Jerry Springer. Women built for sex aren’t supposed to have children. Tits are not supposed to be breasts. Even Tommy Lee, feeling rebuffed and “third in line” for Pamela’s affection, admitted to feeling the same when questioned about why he assaulted his wife while she was holding their infant son, an abusive act that landed him in prison.

“Tommy comes third,” he said, “I don’t know how to deal with that.” (Anderson, fiercely protective of her sons, filed for divorce.)

In her documentary, Anderson could have easily taken every one of us down, but she did not. Instead, she did what every great storyteller does: She gave us, the viewer, the opportunity to recognize ourselves, for better and for worse, in her story. And she did so without resentment, fear, or judgment, with the unwavering support and pride of the two grown sons she raised while in the throes of the public’s assault on her character, career, and autonomy.

It was assumed that my children would be mortified to know that their mother liked to have sex and felt zero shame expressing it.

Anderson dismantled society’s perception of her by carrying multiple truths at once: That it is possible to be empowered by one’s sexuality and also exploited, raped, and abused because of it. That it is possible to love an abusive partner, leave him unapologetically and still grieve him decades later. And in the end, it is possible to thrive as a mother of well-adjusted sons in a society that has slut-shamed her across every platform, rising from the ashes of the stake she was burned at to declare: Oh me? Hi, yeah, I’m still here.

The present-day Pamela Anderson is fiercely defended, adored, and appreciated by a new generation of men that came of age in her care: her sons — clearly in awe of the woman she was all along. The woman we never got a chance to know because we were too busy judging her. A woman who was writing her side of the story all along.

About a year ago, in response to some of the backlash I was receiving for my book and subsequent essays about sex, infidelity, and “leaving my children to have sex” after their father died, my teenage daughter made me a sweatshirt that said DON’T SLUT SHAME MOM. I had just launched my Sex and the Single Mom column, and people — strangers — were going out of their way to feel sorry for my children, messaging me directly as well as reviewing my book with personal stabs at me, the mother.

It was assumed that my children would be mortified to know that their mother liked to have sex and felt zero shame expressing it. Beyond that, people judged me for writing about my complicated relationship with their father — because silence, it is assumed, is a mother’s duty. Silence keeps our children safe. How dare you tell your story when you have children? When you have a family. When it is your job as the mother, as the woman, to lie in order to protect. This was not commentary solely reserved for me. My own mother was getting it, too. But what about her children? people asked her. I was not surprised. I’ve been on the internet long enough to know they would.

Judging any mother based on the assumption of goodness is in itself a social crime.

I don’t know of a single mother who hasn’t written about sex or marriage or complicated relationships and not received pushback because of it. I don’t know any mothers who have taken off their clothes for money or expressed an interest in sex acts in any form who hasn’t had her children — her motherness — weaponized against her. (Case in point: A child was recently suspended from school when parents found out his mother was supporting her family on OnlyFans.) Not that you have to write about sex or do sex work as a mother to have your woman-ness become a threat to your mother-ness. The amount of shame and judgment that goes into motherhood without a Playboy centerfold or stolen sex tape is already high.

A still of Pamela Anderson from the documentary about her life.Courtesy of Netflix

Which is why perhaps the most relatable scene in the documentary was the one in which Tommy and Pamela are ambushed outside of The Viper Room, and Pamela — the new mom — is castigated for daring leave her baby for a few hours. The way the paparazzo sneers “where’s your baby” hit a chord in every mother I’ve spoken to who had watched the film. Because once you become a mother, you better f*cking act like one.

There is poetic justice in watching this scene 25 years later as part of a documentary produced by the same baby (her son, Brandon) who she was shamed for having not mothered well. It is crystal clear that Anderson’s love and care for her sons was always her priority. The love between the three of them is so palpable, a reminder that judging any mother based on the assumption of goodness is in itself a social crime.

At its core, Pamela: A Love Story is about a mother’s love for her sons and what she was forced to endure thanks to a patriarchal culture that takes pride in degrading, deriding, and punishing mothers for being sexual and wives for prioritizing themselves and their children over their insecure husbands.

Knowing that with all she survived she was still able to raise young men who lovingly centered her voice gives me hope for the teenage girl I was, metabolizing the most toxic of cultural references along with my peers. It made me cheer for the mother I am now, still unlearning at age 41, with a son on the cusp of adulthood and three daughters deep in the throes of adolescence. There is so much power in reversing the patriarchal narratives we have been steeped in as women, as mothers, as formerly-teenaged girls. I am grateful to Pamela Anderson for sharing her story. I am also in awe of her bravery and willingness to be deeply human, emotionally naked, and fearlessly herself in front of an audience, even after everything we put her through.

Perhaps that says more about who she is than anything.

It’s no wonder her sons are so proud.

Rebecca Woolf writes Romper’s Sex & the Single Mom series. She has worked as a writer for more than two decades and is the author of two books, Rockabye: From Wild to Child and All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire. You can subscribe to her newsletter, The Braid, for more. She lives in Los Angeles with her four children.