A String of Documentaries Are Reckoning with Hollywood Misogyny
Are they telling a new story?
In the 2000s, while millennial girls like me moved through the end of girlhood, celebrities disintegrating in the public eye were a major cultural obsession. Famous women, of course, were at the center of the hottest scandals: Pamela’s sex tape was released in 1996, Janet’s nipplegate was 2004, Britney broke down in 2008, Anna Nicole died in 2007. The aughts was a hot decade for public takedowns and breakdowns of messy women.
Armed with the power of perspective offered by #MeToo and a more nuanced discourse on celebrity culture, a wave of documentaries have now staged a reckoning with Hollywood misogyny. At their best, these documentaries offer the wisdom of hindsight. We watch them and we find some hope— we might even feel, for a moment, like overcoming the violence of men is possible, even as the world around us says otherwise. So many years later, we see the women we loved to hate differently. We see the stories we grew up with in a new light, and although the light is harsh—we see it, you know? At least that’s progress.
At their worst, however, these documentaries replay the destruction of women whose bodies, faces, and actions were fetishized and picked apart every day for years by the public eye, and with little awareness of how to apply the revelations of #MeToo and #TimesUp to the stories they aim to tell.
The newest installment in this genre dropped at Netflix over the weekend. The Anna Nicole Smith documentary, You Don’t Know Me, follows Smith’s rise to fame, from poverty in small-town Texas to the Playboy mansion to Guess model. In a trailer for the doc, a song plays over with lyrics that announce the film’s vague promise to tell the “truth”: “a reckoning has come, the time is now.”
The reckoning never really comes. Instead, the film’s score remains moralistic — tragic piano accompanies images of women dancing in strip clubs, meant to signify Anna Nicole’s days as a sex worker; tender music overlays Anne Nicole speaking in cliches about following your dreams. When the film features archival footage of Anna Nicole on a balcony looking either a) tired, or b) high, it’s silent save some squawking of seagulls in the background.
The first half of the film is fascinating: we meet Anna Nicole’s lover, Missy Byrum, and almost explore Anna Nicole’s closeted sexuality, alongside her deep desire to provide for her son, Danny. But most of the film mixes images of Anna Nicole looking beautiful with footage of her looking dumb or wasted. Then the film culminates with the tragic and shocking (at least to me while watching, I didn’t remember this happening) death of Danny, now an adult, from an overdose—which occurred just days after Anna Nicole gave birth to her new daughter, Danielynn. Anna Nicole died just five months later. The copy that closes the film suggests the most painful revelation of the story is Anne Nicole’s failure, after everything, to provide for her remaining heir: Danielynn, Anna Nicole’s daughter, didn’t inherit any of the money Anna Nicole was owed by the estate of her late second husband, the billionaire J. Howard Marshall.
While much of the doc centers on the public spectacle surrounding the legal battle for Marshall’s estate, by the end of the film, Anna Nicole’s story illustrates some of the problems that arise from our cultural fascination not only with fallen women, but with recovery and/as redemption narratives: Can a woman in the throes of addiction be redeemed? What about a woman who dies from addiction, having never recovered?
But there’s also a more sinister set of questions bubbling underneath the film, one related to how we view mothers who are addicts: Is a mother responsible for their child’s addiction? Can a woman be a celebrity, an addict, and a good mother? Was Anna Nicole a good mother?
You can probably guess my rough answers to these questions if you’ve been here long enough.
Most people don’t really understand addiction as tangled in a web of power structures and systemic failures. It’s much easier to depict it as an evil and a moral failing— as the result of “bad choices” or bad desires. Or, as with all things, you can just blame the mother. You Don’t Know Me blames Anna Nicole, mostly implicitly, for her son’s descent into addiction, by tracking Anna Nicole’s own increasing substance abuse alongside her son’s budding use of methadone.
As comments about the film on YouTube and on Reddit illustrate, many viewers of You Don’t Know Me seem more curious (read: disciplinarian) about who was taking care of Anna Nicole’s kids while she was “gallivanting” around Hollywood than they do about how a woman’s slow descent into the hell of Hollywood misogyny and addiction might be interconnected problems. To be expected.
But this kind of feels like it’s a product of the film’s structure. While the documentary does highlight Anna Nicole’s easy access to pills, it fails to question— or to even invite viewers to question—most of the misogynistic figures who appear throughout the film as experts on Anna Nicole’s life— men who label her as “manipulative” and a “glutton” for money, but also for “alcohol or sex or drugs or food.” As with many of these docs, maybe we’re supposed to see these statements in that new post-#MeToo light, given what we now know about the pervasiveness of male power and misogyny in Hollywood. But the film itself does little to facilitate those connections.
Instead, the film opens up questions about whether there was something wrong with Anna Nicole’s pursuit of pleasure and power—with her addiction, with the weight she gained later in her career, with her marriage to an elderly billionaire, with her lifestyle, and with her general feminine ambition—rather than question the worlds through which she moved.
In the recent documentary, Pamela, a love story, we get a bit more interpretive guidance from the filmmakers, but also from Pamela herself, which is part of what made it, for me, so much more appealing. Pamela, for instance, explores her sexual abuse, her sexuality, miscarriage, domestic violence. It’s utterly refreshing and illuminating. As my friend Allie Rowbottom writes of Anderson’s memoir, “of the events that readers might be most curious about, Anderson says little — perhaps she thinks there’s little meaning to be found there.” In the doc, Pamela does address the infamous sex tape, but it’s just one element of the larger narrative of her life, and she doesn’t dance around the meaning behind the scandal. She is steadfast that the tape theft was a misogynistic violation of consent.
What makes Pamela compelling—and endearing—is that she’s clearly wise to what happened to her, in a way Anna Nicole never gets the opportunity to be in You Don’t Know Me. Which is not to say Anna Nicole wasn’t aware of how male power shaped her life— she just isn’t really given the chance to speak for herself, despite the film’s framing. I don’t think I had ever really seen Pamela this way—as intellectually and psychologically complex—before watching Pamela tbh. That challenged me as a viewer, which I appreciated.
Pretty Baby is a slight deviation from this new canon, if only because of Brooke Shields’s biographical timeline—she came of age in Hollywood in the late 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps because of the historical distance her story affords, the docuseries goes a bit deeper into the misogyny and pedophilia in Hollywood that traumatized her from a young age, leading to sexual confusion and bouts of dissociation in response to on-set abuse.
[I cut out a whole section here on dissociation and “dissociative feminism” because… there’s just so much to say… maybe more soon.]
Pretty Baby explores more confounding feelings, too—the kind that haven’t been explored much in pop culture, such as the confusing mix of shame and pride women might feel when they are assaulted, and the tendency for women to carry self-blame years later, even if they come to understand, intellectually, that they were not responsible for their own abuse. There’s also an under-explored thread on postpartum depression, and while the series nearly makes room to consider how all these threads intersect, it stops short of identifying how a lack of postpartum care and the sexualization of young girls both stem from the belief that women’s bodies are not fully human, and are made to be used by men.
In a recent piece for Vulture, Alice Bolin explored some of the ethical dilemmas at the center of highbrow true crime (Bolin’s book Dead Girls is really fucking good btw, highly recommend). Like the redemption narratives into which these new fallen-women-post-#MeToo docs play, Bolin notes that true crime is a tale as old as time— or at least as old as In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song. “The new true-crime boom is more simply a matter of volume and shamelessness,” Bolin writes.
Tales of women making their comeback are also an American tradition, if a counter-cultural one. I won’t bore you with the history of 19th-century domestic autobiography and disguise novels, in which women thrillingly transgressed familial or patriarchal law, often to get back at abusive husbands, but it’s there. So, maybe what makes these fallen women docs A Trend™ is, similarly, just volume and a certain amount of shamlessness. But many of them also purport to be above the original media that covered these women’s lives— to be more intellectual, more tasteful. And as Bolin points out with respect to true crime, higher brow representations of suffering are usually only aesthetically different from their lower brow counterparts.
I mean, really: What makes the new documentaries on fallen women more highbrow (or middlebrow) than, say, the crappy one just released by TMZ about the “price of freedom” Brit is evidently paying, allegedly evidenced by her erratic behavior on IG? In some of the better (“better”) docs we get to see our beloved shamed women up close and personal—home videos of Anna Nicole, Brooke Shields at her family table, Janet “unfiltered,” Pamela on Vancouver Island, where she grew up, spliced with snippets of her diary. These are intimate, behind-the-curtain looks, supposedly.
But is our voyeuristic consumption of women’s suffering—even with the power of hindsight— all that different from the way we consumed these stories in the 2000s? Does this string of redemption narratives provide anything new, in terms of how women are allowed to exist in public space, and what we expect of them in return? Are we not just still consuming their pain, this time with a new sociocultural backdrop?
I want it to be different this time. But I cannot help but wonder, as much as I enjoy re-watching and re-thinking the cultural fodder of my late youth (it’s actually been a healing practice for me, personally, dare I say it), whether we feel good consuming these documentaries because they, as Bolin writes of highbrow true crime, have “perfected a method of making us feel less gross about consuming real people’s pain for fun.”
And here’s the kicker, friends: Many of these docs also end with maternal narratives— after all, it’s THE redemptive arc in most fallen women stories. They are not going to hell anymore, but they are Eve now, full of sin yet saved by maternity.
Is this why Anna Nicole feels so unredeemable in You Don’t Know Me, because we are left feeling like she wasn’t—or never had the chance to be—a good mother? And what does THAT say?
Well, you know what that says.
My friend authorwrote about how Pretty Baby was “frustrating” and she “wanted more” because the docuseries “doesn’t necessarily call anyone out” and at times even “Shields seems to justify the behavior of those who scrutinized, exploited, and sexualized her before she was old enough to recognize what that meant.” But Rebecca also recognizes this response isn’t “fair,” and she finds hope in the series when Brooke Shields’s daughters speak to what they have learned from their mother’s legacy.
Like Rebecca, I also appreciated the ending but wanted more from Pretty Baby. I want more from all of these docs, even as, watching them, I am utterly flabbergasted and—dare I say!— transformed, thinking about how complicit I was (and still am) in the consumption of these women’s pain. I can recall my horror at Brit shaving her head, but only in a fuzzy outline. What must I have said about her? How must I have distanced myself from her, to make myself feel better about my own early substance abuse?
And what more do I want? I’m not sure. Justice? Retribution? Something a TV doc surely cannot give me?
One thing I know: I want to feel as though these women could have been redeemed without becoming mothers, without saving themselves at all, but I’m not sure that’s possible here.
Btw: Two opportunities to work closely with me on your writing this summer coming up: I can be your literary mom for June and/or July (info here), and I’m offering an 8-week mentorship and workshop program for those who want to make significant progress on a memoir or essay manuscript (info and apply by July 1 here).