The Limits of the Women’s Redemption Plot

Photo-Illustration: Susanna Hayward; Photos by FX Networks, Getty Images

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We are living in the golden age of the humiliated woman. For Hollywood, at least, what began as a trickle over the past few years has become a fire hose 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, a human. The same goes for Pamela Anderson, Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, Marcia Clark — all of them once objects of ridicule, now recentered in their own vindicating stories. To borrow from the podcast that helped define the redemption genre: You’re wrong about that woman.

This genre is about revisitation, emphasis on the visit, and its exemplars are period pieces first and foremost. FX’s series Impeachment: American Crime Story follows Lewinsky in the era of shoulder pads, the Drudge Report, and dial-up modems. For the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, we’re whisked to the early aughts, awash in boy bands and sexualized teen idols wearing spaghetti-strap body-con tanks. The towering achievements of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy are its costuming, makeup, and production design. It’s Pamela Anderson’s boobs and hair, the fuzzy CRT television by her bed, and the muttering conversation of the middle-aged male Baywatch producers around her, debating where to tape the red swimsuit onto her ass.

Put another way, these shows, movies, and docuseries are a form of tourism that takes contemporary viewers on a voyage to a past recent enough to be recognizable but distant enough that its customs and cultural guideposts now look bizarre. We are strangers in a strange land, and our tour guide is there to show us something special: the real story of a much maligned, often mocked, misunderstood woman. The genre may be about women’s redemption arcs, but the mode is empathy tourism. We get to travel back to this time and experience the inner life of someone whose interiority was unworthy or inaccessible. Like all tourism, empathy tourism has perpetual double vision: It’s the culture of one place seen through the eyes of a foreign traveler. We absorb the details of a world that is no longer ours. On Impeachment, Monica paces around her apartment, unwilling to leave because the president might call her landline. When we register how alien this setting feels, it frees us to see its values as outdated. Monica raves about how much she loves Bill; her viewers watch from 2022’s vantage point on consent and 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 significant involvement in Impeachment doesn’t tip it into hagiography, yet her presence is palpable in the minute details it shows of her life. The tone feels personal and righteously furious. See how they treated me? As with all tour guides, so much depends on whether you get a good one. Janet Jackson is underwhelming because its subject is not a compelling narrator of her own life and because the docuseries merely gestures at its world building, skimming over the specifics of Jackson’s childhood. How can we empathize with a perspective so reticent to let us in? Framing Britney Spears succeeds despite its subject’s absence precisely because the documentary is such an effective bit of cultural tourism, investing heavily in the re-creation and examination of her world.

Any kind of story can be transporting, but empathy tourism asks its viewers to travel for a reason. This is a mission trip, not a vacation. By the end, a woman is supposed to be redeemed, the audience is supposed to have changed, and frequently an accusatory finger is pointed at all the people who got it wrong the first time around: parents, husbands, boyfriends, bosses, paparazzi, Jay Leno. (A little astonishing how often it’s Jay Leno.) Throughout, the work demands that viewers imagine themselves as this woman so they may feel some echo of the trauma she experienced: What if this 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 midriff? What would it all have felt like? How do you feel about her now that you’ve taken this trip through her life? Just in case you need some prompting, blunt dialogue is often there to help you out. “I don’t have any rights,” the show’s Pamela Anderson has to explain to her clueless lawyer and her husband. “This is a place you’ve never been before, but I have. Many times.”

The wrinkle of empathy tourism is the same unavoidable trouble that exists for all kinds of tourism. When you visit from far away, you’re never really seeing what it’s like to live there. You can aim for authenticity at every step — the best docuseries use interviews with many friends, family members, and witnesses — but it’s impossible to discard that contemporary point of view, to escape that old platitude that wherever you go, there you are. The redemption arc presumes we are visitors from a more enlightened time. We look into this world as outsiders and cluck at the things they got wrong. No matter how close any of these works get to the women’s authentic experiences, we are still only ever looking back at them from our comfortable remove.

How different is it, really, from the exploitation we have come to recognize in the true-crime genre, which takes the worst moments of 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. Yes, the aim is to point out how unfair it all was, and in some cases, as with Lewinsky’s role in Impeachment, it can be satisfying to see it all splayed out again — this time with the default assumption that the public may care about you. But that’s not always the case. Pam & Tommy is anxious to align our perspective with Anderson’s, but it also wants us to have a laugh at her expense. This show is for its audience, not for Anderson, which she herself has made very clear. Spears was similarly “embarrassed,” she said, by how Framing Britney Spears presents her. Janet Jackson, on the other hand, is immensely respectful of the boundaries Jackson maintains around her life, which translates into a much less revelatory piece of TV. Still, there’s no consistent correlation between a work that is considerate of its subject and one that’s entertaining. Surely the best option is the Impeachment model: a subject who wants to participate and a piece of art that lives up to the sacrifice of her participation. Any film or series is immensely collaborative, and the result is often alchemical. When a work of art is packaged around a mission statement, how many minds need to be changed before the argument for its existence overbalances its subject’s desires?

Then there is the other trap of empathy tourism. Going there and digging it all up again is a mirror of physical tourism, a tangle of interlocking motivations. As tourists, we tramp all over everything, demanding that an entire industry spring up to cater to our desires. It can feel so good to revisit a big cultural story from 30 years ago, to get the bracing dose of masochism that comes with excavating this woman’s pain (I’ve laughed at jokes like this. I’ve been part of the -problem) while feeling that now we can get the story right. Even in the best applications, this type of art has a formulaic quality, and that formula has primed it for commodification. Surely there must be more women whose stories can be shaped into a pleasing eight-episode journey to the past! That grouping is its own form of erasure. Anderson’s story isn’t the same as Bobbitt’s, which is different from Harding’s and Jackson’s. However much we may enjoy the experience of getting close to them, we will still return to the blind spots of our own cultural moment.

Formula does not necessarily mean a work has less power. If anything, entertainment’s past several decades have demonstrated that formula is power, that there is immense influence in what kinds of stories get told over and over. There is obliteration in lumping these stories together, and there is strength. Only in concert do they reinforce the need to reframe history more broadly, beyond the reputation of any one person. Tourism, for all its flaws, is still better than never leaving home. But when each of these expeditions comes with its own motivations, desires, and aims, it’s worth asking, Who’s paying for the trip?

The Limits of the Women’s Redemption Plot