Pamela Anderson’s Netflix documentary is worth watching for many reasons, but one of the greatest lessons it has to offer is what a victim-survivor of intimate partner abuse looks like: resilient, resourceful, eternally optimistic and compassionate.
Unlike most other victim-survivors, Anderson has been granted a platform for a narrative we still rarely hear in the mass media but which professionals in the field have known for decades. People who experience intimate partner abuse are not the submissive stereotype but often strong willed and resistant.
Netflix are billing Pamela, A Love Story as a “humanising documentary”, necessary precisely because this is a woman who has been systematically dehumanised by media narratives throughout her life.
Anderson’s voice has always been drowned out by the stories other people have written about her. Most recently her experiences in her relationship with Tommy Lee and the exploitation of her reputation and private life have been mined without her consent in Hulu’s drama series, Pam and Tommy (2022).
This has prompted a woman who has finally found her power (spoiler, it was inside her all along) to tell her own story, out loud and in control of her narrative.
Narrative power and intimate partner abuse
Narrative power is an important aspect of social identity – and taking control of it is one of the most powerful tools used by perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour.
Techniques such as gaslighting (where an abuser constructs a false reality by denying and contradicting their victim’s perception) manipulate and degrade the victim’s sense of reality and their sense of self. Yet it is not only within the abusive intimate relationship that a victim’s sense of identity can be warped by narrative.
Criminologist Nils Christie drew attention to what many of us think of when we consider victims of crime – especially victims of intimate partner abuse - in his classic work on the “ideal victim”. Christie explained that we view victims as inherently weak or vulnerable and that anyone who deviates from this is not considered a “real” victim.
In my research as an expert in intimate partner abuse, I often hear the common misconception that victims are submissive and dependent. Those who show resistance to their abuser are considered to be complicit or provocative.
Many victim-survivors I’ve spoken to explain – just like Anderson does in her Netflix documentary – that they do not perceive themselves as victims. This is because they do not align with the “ideal victim” stereotype. Instead, they see themselves as strong and fiercely independent, and with good reason.
Optimism and compassion
Pamela Anderson is eternally optimistic and compassionate – she believes in love and romance. We hear the story of how Lee “wooed” her with constant messages and a whirlwind of drugs and champagne before they settled into a life dominated by his heavy drinking and control of her everyday activities.
It’s only looking back, she says, that she sees these red flags. Anderson continued to believe in her love story as she juggled young children, a gruelling work schedule and media onslaught.
“I thought I could love him/her better” is a common refrain in the work that I do. Persistence in an abusive relationship is not submission but fierce loyalty and generosity. Even after the relationship with Lee ends, Anderson retains her faith in romance, going on to marry three more times in attempt to find it.
It’s evident that she is not dependent on men – it’s clear that she was the one holding her life with Lee together. She just believes in the love stories we are all saturated in.
Resilience and grief
Anderson is also resilient. She withstood Lee’s demanding behaviour until the point that he attacked her physically.
At that point, she ended the relationship swiftly and with conviction, admitting that she was lucky to have the resources to do so. But she continues to co-parent with Lee and she endures the trauma of having had her most private moments revealed to the world in the infamous “sex tape” with integrity.
Read more: Don't watch Pam and Tommy – the series turns someone's trauma into entertainment
The documentary uses old photographs and videos to tell the story of how Anderson made a safe and happy life for her young sons, despite the heartbreak of “not being able to make it work with the father of my children” – a grief she carries still.
This is not to say that victim-survivors are invincible. Anderson explains that she doesn’t see herself as a victim, but as someone who puts herself into “crazy situations” and survives.
A resourceful survivor
Anderson uses the status she has been conferred with – “sex-symbol” and “thing that belongs to the world” – to campaign for animal rights, an issue she is passionate about.
In a montage of chat show interviews, she is seen sidestepping the hosts’ jokes about “the sex tape” and relationship with Lee to talk about her work with the animal charity Peta. But the most poignant example of her resourcefulness comes through her pieces to camera – especially towards the end of the documentary, where we see her draw on her reputation and her survival instinct to train for the starring role in Chicago.
Anderson has transformed her experiences into wisdom, self-reliance and confidence.
In one of my research interviews, a victim-survivor told me: “I’m stronger than I could ever have been if this hadn’t happened.” This glows from Anderson too, as she’s shown performing on the Broadway stage at the end of the documentary.
It is not enough for Pamela Anderson to tell her story – it needs to be heard. I hope the world is ready to listen carefully.