Photo-Illustration: Susanna Hayward; Photos by FX Networks, Getty Images
We live in the golden age of the humiliated woman. For Hollywood, at least, what started as a trickle over the past few years has become a firehose of reconsideration. Britney Spears, once a cultural laugh line, is actually a human caught in a terrible situation. Monica Lewinsky, once a cultural laugh line, is actually a human caught in a terrible situation. Janet Jackson is, you guessed it, human. So do Pamela Anderson, Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, Marcia Clark – all once objects of ridicule, now refocused in their own supporting stories. To borrow from the podcast that helped define the redemption genre: you’re wrong about that woman.
This genre is about revisiting, about emphasizing the to visit, and its examples are above all period pieces. The FX series Impeachment: A History of American Crime follows Lewinsky through the era of shoulder pads, the Drudge Report and dial-up modems. For New York Times documentary Supervise Britney Spears, we’re transported to the start, inundated with boy bands and sexualized teen idols wearing skintight spaghetti strap tank tops. Hulu’s Towering Achievements Pam and Tommy are her costumes, makeup, and production design. These are Pamela Anderson’s breasts and hair, the fuzzy CRT television by her bed and the middle-aged man’s mumbling conversation Baywatch producers around her, debating where to stick the red bathing suit on her ass.
Simply put, these shows, movies, and docuseries are a form of tourism that takes contemporary viewers on a journey into a past recent enough to be recognizable but distant enough that its customs and cultural landmarks now seem bizarre. We are strangers in a foreign land, and our guide is there to show us something special: the real story of a woman much decried, often mocked, misunderstood. The genre may be about women’s redemption arcs, but the mode is empathy tourism. We travel to that time and experience the interiority of someone whose interiority was unworthy or inaccessible. Like all tourism, empathy tourism has a perpetual double vision: it is the culture of a place seen through the eyes of a foreign traveller. We absorb the details of a world that is no longer ours. At Accused, Monica paces her apartment, not wanting to leave because the president might call her landline. When we register how foreign this framework seems, it frees us to see its values as obsolete. Monica raves about how much she loves Bill; its viewers watch from a 2022 perspective on consent and the power imbalance. Of course, he had all the control! Of course, she didn’t deserve an avalanche of criticism!
Sometimes the woman herself is the guide: Lewinsky’s extensive involvement in Accused does not make her fall into hagiography, yet her presence is palpable in the smallest details that she shows of her life. The tone is personal and rightly furious. See how they treated me? As with all tourist guides, it all depends on whether you get a good one. Janet Jackson is disappointing because its subject is not a compelling narrator of his own life and because the docuseries only shows the construction of his world, skimming over the specifics of Jackson’s childhood. How can we sympathize with a prospect so reluctant to let us in? Framing Britney Spears succeeds despite the absence of its subject precisely because the documentary is such an effective part of cultural tourism, investing heavily in recreating and examining its world.
Any kind of story can be moving, but empathy tourism asks its viewers to travel for a reason. This is a mission trip, not a vacation. In the end, a woman is meant to be redeemed, the audience is meant to have changed, and often an accusing finger is pointed at everyone who got it wrong the first time around: parents, husbands, boyfriends, bosses, paparazzi, Jay Leno . (A little surprising how often it’s Jay Leno.) Throughout the work, viewers have to imagine themselves as this woman so they can feel an echo of the trauma she suffered: What if it had been you, faced with these circumstances, these parents, these desires, these demands on your body, these shoulder pads, these breast implants, this perm, this bare stomach? What would all of this have looked like? What do you think of her now that you’ve taken this journey through her life? Just in case you need help, direct chat is often there to help. “I have no rights,” the show’s Pamela Anderson has to explain to her distraught lawyer and her husband. “It’s a place you’ve never been before, but I’ve been. Many times.”
The wrinkle of empathy tourism is the same inevitable problem that exists for all types of tourism. When you visit from afar, you never really see what it’s like to live there. You can aim for authenticity at every step – the best docuseries use interviews with lots of friends, family and witnesses – but there’s no getting away from that contemporary point of view, to escaping that old platitude that wherever you go, there you are. The redemption arc assumes we are visitors from a more enlightened time. We look at this world as strangers and we don’t care about the things they got wrong. No matter how close any of these works are to the authentic experiences of women, we still only watch them from our comfortable retreat.
How different is that, really, from the exploitation we’ve come to recognize in the true-crime genre, which takes the worst moments in real people’s lives and repackages them for public entertainment? The woman’s redemption plot makes a similar return to humiliating scenes of public mockery. Yeah, the point is to point out how unfair it all was, and in some cases, like with Lewinsky’s role in Accused, it can be satisfying to see it all again, this time with the default assumption that the audience can care about you. But it’s not always the case. Pam and Tommy is eager to align our point of view with Anderson’s, but he also wants us to laugh at his expense. This show is for her audience, not Anderson, which she herself has made very clear. Spears was also “embarrassed,” she said, about how Framing Britney Spears the current. Janet Jackson, on the other hand, is immensely respectful of the boundaries Jackson maintains around his life, which results in a much less revealing piece of television. Yet there is no consistent correlation between a work that considers its subject matter and one that is entertaining. The best option is definitely the Accused model: a subject who wants to participate and a work of art worthy of the sacrifice of his participation. Any film or series is immensely collaborative, and the result is often alchemical. When a work of art is wrapped around a mission statement, how many minds have to be changed before the argument for its existence trumps the desires of its subject?
Then there is the other pitfall of empathy tourism. Going there and digging it all up is a mirror image of physical tourism, a tangle of interlocking motivations. As tourists, we trample everywhere, demanding that an entire industry spring up to fulfill our desires. It can be so good to revisit a great cultural story from 30 years ago, to get the bracing dose of masochism that comes with this woman’s excavation of pain (I laughed at jokes like this. I was part of the problem) while feeling that now we can understand the story law. Even in the best applications, this type of art has a quality of formula, and that formula has primed it for commodification. Surely there must be more women whose stories can be turned into an enjoyable eight-episode trip down memory lane! This grouping is its own form of erasure. Anderson’s story is not the same as Bobbitt’s, which is different from Harding’s and Jackson’s. While we enjoy the experience of getting closer to them, we will always return to the blind spots of our own cultural moment.
The formula does not necessarily mean that a work has less power. On the contrary, the last decades of entertainment have demonstrated that the formula East power, that there is immense influence in the kinds of stories that are told over and over again. There’s obliteration to putting these stories together, and there’s strength. Only in concert do they reinforce the need to reframe history more broadly, beyond the reputation of a single person. Tourism, for all its faults, is still better than never leaving home. But when each of these expeditions comes with its own motivations, desires, and goals, it’s worth asking: who’s paying for the trip?