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Taking the Fall: The Biggest Lesson Learned from “Pam and Tommy”

Women with dark curly hair wearing a tan polo shirt reflected in a shattered mirror

There were many reactions and emotions sparked from the show, but perhaps the touchiest question it posed: Are we the silent generation? And more importantly, when will we stop keeping quiet?

Many of us have our own stories of ways we were sidelined or shamed and felt we had to just live through it. Put up with it. Have a stiff upper lip.

Have you watched “Pam and Tommy”? Or maybe the “Janet Jackson” documentary? Both have been huge hits with millions of people, including women our age, binging on them…and feeling their emotions hit full boil afterward.

“The show made me realize how negatively the sex tape impacted Pam’s life, something I had never considered before,” says Elisa, 56, a retailer in NYC. “She had an entire career based on her sex appeal, so I guess people felt it was her fault or that she deserved to be punished, which is totally absurd. And Tommy, of course, was perceived as a well-endowed stud. Reminded me of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the way he emerged just fine.”

“I was furious to see how Janet Jackson was disrespected,” says Melinda, 48, a physical therapist in Nashville (who also describes herself as Jackson’s number-one fan). “Of course, Justin Timberlake wound up unscathed, invited back to the Super Bowl for another halftime show years later. His career soared, while Janet was a total pariah!”

Watching these shows can churn up similar thoughts among many women in their 40s and 50s. Indignation, identification, sorrow, frustration—they are all in the mix! Many of us have our own stories of ways we were sidelined or shamed and felt we had to just live through it. Put up with it. Have a stiff upper lip.

Faceted glass reflecting prismatic light onto a dark background
Image by Maria Orlova

Why are women so often the fall guys?

So, let’s come out and ask: Why do we women sometimes take it?

“I think there is absolutely a sentiment of over-accountability held by women,” says Sarah Bren, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Westchester, NY. “This may be due to the historical, cultural pressures on women who are expected to tend to the feelings of others while simultaneously not taking up much emotional space of their own. And this kind of emotional martyrdom is typically conditioned quite early in development. Young girls were very explicitly expected to be nice, sweet, gentle, kind, and even meek. Anyone who behaved to the contrary was often shamed quite publicly.”

Ouch. That is tough to hear, but it may well ring true for so many of us. “When I think about my younger years, I honestly feel as if I want to slap some sense into myself!” says Rachel, 51, a technical writer in Seattle. “I remember a male boss screwing up assignments and casually blaming my research, which was not in fact the problem! I sat there and took it for two years. It completely eroded my confidence, but I felt I had no choice. I didn’t dare make a fuss. I wound up taking a lesser position at another firm just to get out of there.”

And it’s not always a male-versus-female situation. Sometimes, women keep quiet when wronged by other females.

“When I was in my 20s, I had a best friend who was pretty wild. Lots of bar-hopping, lots of drinking, lots of parties. At first it was fun, but then it became my mess to clean up. Footing the bill, apologizing for her behavior,” says Colette, 53, a teacher in San Luis Obispo, CA. “And I did it, time and again, as if it was part of the friendship bargain. She was the ‘alpha’ and I was there to follow in her wake and fix things.”

Why look back in anger?

If you can relate to these scenarios and that feeling of lowering yourself or “taking it” when you wished you’d said your piece, now what?

Interestingly, midlife can be primetime to review such past behaviors. “Over-accountability—ruminating on whether one has been good enough, effective enough, or made the right life-decisions—is common,” says Terri Apter, Ph.D., psychologist and Fellow Emeritae of Newnham College, University of Cambridge, in England. It emerges, she says, because age brings sufficient experience to see your life in terms of patterns and ponder how things might have been different had you made other decisions.

While hitting the rewind button may seem futile (cue that voice in your head saying, “You can’t change the past!”), it can serve an important purpose. “Mulling over the rightness or wrongness, wisdom or ignorance in previous choices helps women forge new, better paths through their futures,” explains Dr. Apter.

The challenge, she says, is not to wallow in self-blame, regret, and even despair, sentiments which can commonly rise to the surface. The shifting lens of society can contribute to and intensify these feelings.

“The #metoo movement really made me kinda hate my younger self, seeing how empowered women are today,” says Rachel, whose male boss blamed her for his professional missteps. “I felt like, ‘Wow, I am really someone who lets others trample all over me.’ It made me see myself in a really bad light.”

Taking control of the narrative

How to shake off this kind of negativity?

“All of this is best understood through the lens of intergenerational transmission–where one generation passes down their own biases, fears, or even traumas to the next generation through the parent-child relationship,” says Dr. Bren. “These notions that women must hold in their needs and feelings and focus instead on holding space for others likely have ancient roots. Importantly, this is not to blame mothers! We must have compassion and empathy for them. They were doing the best they could with the knowledge and skills they had, based on how they themselves were mothered.”

So, accept that some of these attitudes were (sorry!) bred into you since birth. Then, pivot to loosen their grip. Here are some strategies to help:

Look back, then forward. Yes, you want to explore your past behaviors, says Dr. Bren, but also be in the present, asking “Who am I right now and how can I be okay with that?” Her advice is to honor the emotions and needs of your inner child as well as your adult self. This is an olive-branch moment. Understand what happened, release it, and be ready to move forward.

Break free. Next, move past over-accountability and shame. “We need to be curious about how we can take up space, make noise, be ‘messy,’ be imperfect—and be comfortable with that,” explains Dr. Bren. Don’t hold yourself to being a martyr and worrying about everyone else’s feelings. “We don’t have to be perfect. It's about lowering the stakes, not because it doesn't matter, but because it's not all on us,” she says. In fact, “It’s not all on me” makes as good a personal mantra as “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Take your pick.

Find the like-minded. Society may push back on this refusal to obey old cultural rules. When women in midlife resist the pressure to be “good” in others’ eyes, says Dr. Apter, “instead of celebrating it, people around you may activate negative images with words such as ‘brazen,’ ‘brassy’ or ‘masculine.’” Her advice in this situation? “Dig in, and join forces with other women by celebrating assertiveness together.” Let’s bring this back to Pamela Anderson: She just announced that she’s telling her side of the story in an upcoming Netflix documentary—a perfect example of a woman who is demanding to be heard and inspiring others to lean in.

Janet Siroto
Janet Siroto is a writer and content strategist specializing in lifestyle and wellness topics. She’s held senior editorial positions at Good Housekeeping, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and other titles. She is also a trend tracker whose work has been presented on the main stage at SXSW, WSJ: The Future of Everything, Cannes Lions, and other summits.

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