Baywatch, a television show turned would-be summer blockbuster about heroic lifeguards and the form-fitting one pieces that love them, was never “good.” With nary a complex antihero or a chilling dystopia in sight, Baywatch was more “rerun you watch halfheartedly while waiting for your doctor’s appointment” than appointment television. Anyone who’s genuinely upset that the new Baywatch movie has an 19 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating either doesn’t understand the concept of Baywatch, or is way too protective of Zac Efron. No amount of mouth to mouth—even with tongue!—can adequately bring this franchise back to life.
Of course, bemoaning Baywatch’s inability to recapture that old Hasselhoff magic triggers a trip down memory lane. What, aside from boobs, butts, and a devil-may-care attitude toward malignant melanomas did the old Baywatch have in the first place?
The answer is, of course, a cast of beautiful people and soon-to-be icons—none moreso than Pamela Anderson. In the olden days, casting a culturally momentous TV show required more than just calling up Elisabeth Moss. Actors had to be handpicked, often from obscurity. In Anderson’s case, the buxom blonde was cast as C.J. Parker after two seasons toiling away on Home Improvement, a show with fun props but absolutely no bikinis. Baywatch may have jump-started Anderson’s career, but it also set her on a very specific path: one that would culminate in a 2004 naked Playboy cover shoot and turn toxic in the wake of her non-consensually leaked sex tape.
In many ways, the new Baywatch movie is both a lesson in progress, and a window into the sexist double standards that regulate the men and women brave enough to run in slow-mo. On the one hand, the new Baywatch is ethnically diverse and feminist AF. A franchise that was originally a textbook example of the male gaze—the network equivalent of an upskirt shot—was transformed into a vehicle for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s biceps and Zac Efron’s abs.
Go-girl male objectification doesn’t get much better than The Rock, a man affectionately nicknamed after a non-sentient mineral mass. Still, by comparing Anderson and Johnson, we see that all eye candy is not created equal. To be a female sex symbol is to be seen as an object forever—an exclusively sexual being whose sex tape was more of a cultural moment than any of her major films. Meanwhile, to be Dwayne Johnson is to be able to seamlessly transition from object of desire to aspiring presidential candidate. Having been so thoroughly categorized and constrained, it’s no wonder Anderson never quite recovered her career, eventually becoming one of our most tragically lost—not to mention utterly confusing—celebrities.
If Anderson had only done Baywatch, it would have been enough. Unfortunately, due to situations really beyond her control, the actress formerly known as C.J. Parker found herself playing a role she would never live down. That tape, which featured Anderson and her then-husband Tommy Lee engaging in not-fit-for-primetime activities, was stolen from the couple’s house and let loose on the world wide web. This was back in 1995—long before Kim Kardashian discovered how to break the internet and used her sex tape as a career stepping stone. Anderson’s reputation took a serious hit, despite the fact that she “made not one dollar” off the illegally procured picture.
Charting the Baywatch actress’ descent from network stardom to sex tape punchline offers vital insight into the woman and anti-porn activist that Anderson is today. On paper, Pamela Anderson—a woman who became famous for what she covered up and later bared on camera—seems like an unlikely crusader against the evils of online pornography. That’s why fans within the adult entertainment industry and beyond were shocked and more than a little miffed when Anderson co-wrote a polarizing op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. The September opinion piece, co-authored by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, sought to approach the issue of porn addiction and over-reliance from “our respective positions of rabbi-counselor and former Playboy model and actress.” We’re listening. The piece went on to label our vulnerable youths as the “crack babies” of porn: “In a world where accessible pornography is increasingly ubiquitous,” they argued, “we must educate ourselves and our children to understand that porn is for losers—a boring, wasteful and dead-end outlet for people too lazy to reap the ample rewards of healthy sexuality.”
In sweeping, largely unsubstantiated statements, Boteach and Anderson campaigned on behalf of the porn-addicted, whom they painted as majority male and married, victims of their own middle-class ennui. In addition to picking the one demographic most difficult to sympathize with—dudes with fast Wi-Fi connections and too much time on their hands—the op-ed wholly elided any notion of female sexuality or sex positivity.
Anderson was revered for 22 years as one of Playboy’s longest working and most beloved cover girls. It seems there are two options for what is going on here, and neither of them are any good. Either Anderson did not have autonomy over her own career, and didn’t reap any pride or power from her pin-up days, or she’s simply incapable of coming to terms with this brave new viral world of budding female sex symbols and internet pornography.
By condemning porn, Anderson all but abdicated her sex symbol throne, becoming something far more confusing in the process. These days, Anderson is certainly some kind of symbol and/or activist—it’s just hard to pinpoint exactly what she’s doing, or who she’s fighting for. In October, the Baywatch actress had a highly publicized meet-cute with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The anti-fur activist and longtime friend of PETA visited the Ecuadorian embassy in London on something resembling a blind date, set up by mutual friend Vivienne Westwood. Naturally, Anderson was armed with a vegan sandwich from Pret a Manger, which she offered up to the asylum seeker in what can in retrospect be described as an elaborate mating ritual.
Paparazzi snapped pictures of Anderson outside the embassy and the rest is weird internet history—Assange lost his Wi-Fi connection, and rumors spread that it was death by panini. Of course, Assange was not actually murdered, an eventual revelation that led us into an even stranger alternate reality: a world in which Pamela Anderson is sexually attracted to Julian Assange. This was seemingly confirmed during Anderson’s appearance on a Scandinavian talk show, where she insisted that she finds Assange “very sexy.” Meanwhile, on an Australian radio show, Assange demurred on details of his romantic life, but called Anderson “an attractive person with an attractive personality,” adding, “She’s no idiot at all—she’s psychologically very savvy.”
In a subsequent blog post, Anderson further described Assange as “the most intelligent, interesting and informed man in existence.” Anderson’s blog went from vaguely disturbing to downright political earlier this month, when she used it as a forum in which to attack Laura Poitras’ Risk, a controversial documentary about Assange. In what appears to be an effort to defend her boyfriend against sexual assault allegations, Anderson penned non-rhyming couplets like, “I have to say it a lot of this / ‘feminist’ discussion is intellectually retarded.” Not surprising, since Anderson previously referred to the Swedish allegations as “defamation.”
She continues, “If you take away the sexist angle and reframe it as power dynamics, / Let’s examine Laura’s relative role to the organisations and her subjects. Her wealth. / Her Oscar. / Julian’s role relative to others in the organisation in terms of freedom and exposure to political persecution. / The narrow lens Laura has picked has been to please a narrow constituency.” All in all, it seems like Anderson is putting a lot of effort into doing pro-bono PR work for her problematic man, when she could be poolside somewhere making it rain with her Baywatch cameo cash. Money isn’t the key to happiness, but I don’t think a romantic partner who is confined to the Ecuadorian embassy is either.