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Journalismism

Who Is The Celebrity Documentary For?

Pamela Anderson
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

A quick story: In the middle of an interview with a rap artist I was conducting for a site that shall remain unnamed here, things got especially contentious. The rapper didn't like that I was addressing his legal issues, but mostly I believe he didn't like that I was trying to control the conversation instead of letting him talk uninterrupted. At any rate, at some point in our arguing back and forth he decided he didn't want to be interviewed anymore, that it was pointless to talk to me and the outlet I was representing when he could probably make a bunch of money doing his own documentary. "Why should I talk to y'all when I can just film my own movie, so I can tell my story the way I want to and get paid for it," he said to me.

There was no comeback to that, because he was correct. The gold rush for content to fill up streaming libraries has made the celebrity documentary one of the most ubiquitous genres running. The idea of getting an artist in a room to finally tell their story in their own words is both appealing and economical to the corporate entity green-lighting the project. These docs can be made quickly and cheaply, and the celebrity can attract a built-in audience.

Considering her history—including her feelings about the Hulu miniseries about her first marriage—it makes sense that Pamela Anderson would attempt her own celebrity doc. Women in the public sphere rarely get to control their narrative, especially when looks or sex appeal play a big role in their fame. Anderson's new doc on Netflix, Pamela: A Love Story, has plenty of things to admire. It's Pam Anderson in her natural state—charming, playful, self-aware but unashamed of her image, deeply sensitive, and an advocate for romance and love. It is also just a long commercial for Pam Anderson, the brand: She talks about her time on Baywatch, her children, her advocacy work for PETA, and of course her feelings and trauma regarding the theft and sale of her sex tape with her then-husband Tommy Lee. She is shot gloriously, covered in soft natural lighting in her home, proudly bare-faced, and tells the story she wants to tell and leaves out whatever she doesn't (sorry to any fans of Stacked). No one else provides any input on the documentary, apart from a few brief appearances by her sons. It's Anderson's show—sweet and interesting, but like every other celebrity doc of the last few years, incredibly flattering.

Whether or not documentaries need to be journalistic exercises is a debate that's been going on for a long time. Some, like Ken Burns, take them very seriously and believe they should always be objective and discerning. To channel Scorsese, there seems to be a similar battle between documentaries as journalism and documentaries as entertainment as there is between cinema and IP blockbusters. In both cases, the pursuit of limitless content has blurred the line between the two. This isn't Anderson's fault, any more than it is Sheryl Crow's, Shaquille O'Neal's, or Lil Baby's; but the more this becomes a viable way to both eschew critical coverage and profit off one's own star power, the fairer it is to worry about the future of documentary filmmaking. If these celeb-driven documentaries keep finding platforms and audiences, then why would any public figure need to cooperate with any documentarian that wants to do a less PR-savvy story?

Consider Tiger, a 2021 two-part HBO documentary about the rise, fall, and rise again of Tiger Woods. It was an attempt at making a rigorous, OJ: Made in America-style doc about the golfer, flaws and all. It was pretty good, if way too long, but it suffered in the end. Not necessarily because they didn't have the participation of Tiger Woods, but because it was clear that Woods made sure no one still prominent in his life and inner circle talked to the filmmakers. As a result, the film was mostly painted by people who either had reason to have a grudge against Woods, or who just hadn't talked to him in years. Even if they were being completely truthful, it's hard for their contributions to not come across as skewed when there is no counterweight present in the film.

Pamela: A Love Story is notable in that is a celebrity documentary that also fits neatly into another of the form's burgeoning categories. It's the latest in a sub-genre of the celebrity doc that can best be described as the apology doc—media made to stand in as an apology from society and the pop-culture apparatus to a wronged famous woman (it's pretty much always to women) for the crazy-making level of vitriol, exploitation, and general misogyny they were put through during the peak of their careers. Sometimes these docs are made by the celeb themselves, and sometimes they are made by outside filmmakers interested in a media criticism angle. Janet Jackson got one, Paris Hilton got one, Britney Spears has gotten multiple (with more almost certainly on the way), and Brooke Shields just had her own doc premiere at Sundance. These apology docs don't always feature the participation of the subject, but when they do, as is the case with Pamela: A Love Story, their shortcomings compound.

Anderson is more than deserving of her own apology doc, particularly with regard to her feelings about the Hulu series. She goes into detail about how upsetting and traumatic and invasive the robbery of that tape and the subsequent coverage of the debacle was for her, with her sons even sharing how it felt to get into fights about it in school. She's also open about the abuse she faced as a child, the tumult and violence in her various marriages, and how it felt to have her body be such a popular topic in the media.

Anderson is certainly deserving of people's sympathy, but if there's an issue with the apology doc, it is inherent to the concept. They insist on far too pat of a resolution, using a clear-eyed look at the past to give the impression that the culture of the present has progressed beyond such ugliness. Even assuming that the wrongs of the past can be righted through content, none of that would be true. MeToo did not put an end to the practice of exploiting famous women and profiting off their trauma. The only difference between Pam Anderson or Britney Spears and today's pop culture obsessions is that enough time has passed that we can now miss Pam and Britney. These apology docs feel more focused on mining the audience's nostalgia than any genuine desire to make anything right.

Anderson viewed herself as a model and an actress, and she took herself and her persona seriously. This was years before the "celebutante" era and the idea of being famous for being famous, but the Pam and Tommy tape certainly helped give rise to that phenomenon, however inadvertently. To wrestle with the Pam Anderson story is to wrestle with all of that history and context, good and bad and messy, which documentaries are better at doing than they are at crafting apologies.

The problem isn't that Anderson, or many of the celebs who produce their own documentaries, aren't willing to wade into controversies and painful memories, or show themselves in an unflattering light. It's that this atomization of the documentary genre into distinct and limited sub-genres greatly limits the ground that any one entry can cover. So much of a documentary's value is—should be—found in its ability to wade into complexity and discomfort, to untangle competing narratives and contextualize and leave the viewer to sort out their own feelings. The format gets further away from that ideal with every one-sided, simplistic story that gets sent down the streaming-platform conveyor belt. Every famous person can now see the value in going this route as opposed to putting up with any kind of journalistic rigor. It's easy to see the appeal in purely controlling one's own narrative, but it's worth it to ask ourselves whether we're interested in these celebrity stories or just the celebrities themselves.

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