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HomeArts & EntertainmentTV & ShowbizCould Pam & Tommy be the start of sex selling for Disney?

Could Pam & Tommy be the start of sex selling for Disney?

Has anyone ever exercised such a tungsten grip on its own image as the Walt Disney Company? For decades, you saw the name Disney, and you knew exactly what you were going to get. Flying elephants. Singing lions. Fresh-faced kid heroes. This was a studio that was unremittingly wholesome. Sex? Forget about it. Violence? Only what children can stomach. In recent years, Disney characters have been forbidden from so much as lighting up a cigarette on camera, lest some supple-skulled infant sees glamour in the smoke. This week’s marquee Disney Plus release, then, ought to come as some surprise. Nestled somewhere between Aladdin and Toy Story in the streaming service’s catalogue is Pam & Tommy – a buzzy biopic focusing on Baywatch star Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) and their infamous 1998 honeymoon sex tape.

Pam & Tommy takes a playful approach to its subject matter, and doesn’t skimp on the raunch. Episode two features a lengthy discussion between Tommy and his own penis, which is animated in quite startling clarity. Other scenes see the couple have sex, dance, have sex, take drugs and have sex. Make no mistake about it: Pam & Tommy is scarcely better suited to the Disney brand than The Human Centipede. And yet, the series is premiering in the UK and internationally under Disney’s Star banner (a subsection of the main service).

Last year, Star released Dopesick, the excellent Michael Keaton-starring drama about the American opioid crisis. This was a show that didn’t shy away from the uglier sides of addiction; it, too, was flying in the face of traditional Disney fare. Hell, even The Beatles: Get Back had enough smoking and crude language to merit a disclaimer. Scroll through the older catalogue of films and TV series offered by Star – many of which were originally produced for Fox, before the 2019 merger – and you’ll find plenty more examples of projects that buck Disney’s long-held content restrictions. Are we to take it, then, that Disney has relaxed its policies on adult content? Is the famously upright company enjoying some kind of long-awaited sexual glasnost?

It’s not that simple. On one level, the decision to feature adult-focused content on Disney Plus is a monetary no-brainer. There is undoubtedly a market for violence, sex, and drugs on-screen; genres like true crime and horror have proved reliable catnip for mass audiences on other streaming services, Netflix in particular. Just look at the unprecedented success of Squid Game last year, a show that the BBC described as “hyperviolent”. If Disney fenced itself out of the adult market through some vestigial sense of puritanism, it would be leaving big money on the table. And a company does not swell to Disney’s Godzillan size without being ruthless in its pursuit of profit. The very existence of Disney Plus is a testament to this. When there’s gold in the hills, get digging.

However, while shows like Dopesick and Pam & Tommy are sold to most viewers outside the US as Disney Plus originals, they aren’t. Both series, and several others, were produced in the US for the streaming service Hulu.  Disney’s self-produced originals have skewed towards a much more traditional family audience – the highest-profile examples to date being the Star Wars spin-offs The Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian, and Marvel shows such as WandaVision and Hawkeye. It’s all well and good carving out a nook for syndicated adult content, but it’s clear from Disney’s forthcoming slate of films just where their money is really being spent. Animated family films (Pixar’s Turning Red; Ice Age 7; Rio 3). Live-action remakes of old children’s classics (Pinocchio; Lilo & Stitch; Peter Pan and Wendy). Superfluous sequels to beloved family hits (Shrunk; The Return of the Rocketeer; Cheaper by the Dozen). Projects like Ridley Scott’s brutal, expensive and defiantly adult epic The Last Duel – greenlit by Fox shortly before the Disney merger – seem like a dying breed, a polar bear clawing at the last, diminishing patch of ice.

Cultivating a separate section for adult-themed content might seem like a good idea, but it only works if there is parity. As it stands, Disney’s main, child-friendly output – including the Marvel and Star Wars brands – is absolutely dominant when it comes to both budgetary backing and popularity among the general public. Regardless of how good these shows hope to be, there needs to be a viable alternative. When safeguarding content for younger audiences, even the more credible all-ages projects like The Mandalorian are still forbidden from exploring whole swathes of the human experience. We should be demanding more.

Depictions of sex, violence and drug use on screen aren’t important because they titillate; they’re important because they’re honest. The alternative is fine for children, of course. But for adults, these sort of kid-glove restrictions often amount to nothing more than mendacity. This can take the form of small lies – omitting Walt Disney’s chain smoking from Saving Mr Banks, for instance – or far more insidious ones. Historically, restrictions on sexual content have often been used as a pretext to erase depictions of queerness from the screen. The road from prudishness to bigotry is short and straight.

There’s still a grim ambiguity about the future of adult-oriented film and television – and Disney is an undeniable factor in this. But there is at least some solace to be found in the raunchy excess of Pam & Tommy. If half of popular culture is to be shovelled under the auspices of one children’s film company, the least we can ask is that it grow up a bit.

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