Pam Ewing, Prime-Time Pioneer

Dallas, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

O, pioneer!

If re-watching “Dallas’s” first season taught me anything, it’s this: Pam Ewing is one of prime-time television’s pioneering women.

No, really.

When “Dallas” begins, Pam isn’t the Miss Goody Two-Boots many of us remember from the show’s heyday. She’s spunkier, scrappier – and more sexual.

The show makes no secret of the fact Pam isn’t a virgin when she marries Bobby.

In “Digger’s Daughter,” the first episode, J.R. tells his younger brother that Ray, Pam’s ex-boyfriend, has bragged for years about her prowess in the bedroom. Later, in “Barbecue,” the season finale, J.R. ticks off a list of Pam’s past lovers (“Just offhand, she’s known Jack what’s-his-name and Ray Krebbs….”), before dismissing her as “trash, just plain trash.”

In this instance, Bobby belts J.R., but Pam’s reputation doesn’t seem to faze him otherwise. As Bobby tells Ray at the end of the first episode, “Pamela’s past is none of my business. She was not my wife in the past – but she is now.”

Bobby’s attitude is refreshing, but so is Pam’s. She’s never afraid to let her husband know she enjoys sex. In “Spy in the House,” for example, Pam suggestively invites Bobby to help her “try out” their new living quarters.

This makes Pam much different from her sister-in-law Sue Ellen, who feels sexually neglected by J.R. but is almost too afraid to tell him.

Breaking Barriers

Bobby and Pam’s healthy sex life makes them unlike most other couples on television during the 1970s – something Victoria Principal points out during the 2004 “Dallas” reunion special.

Standing next to Patrick Duffy, the actress recalls how unusual it was for them “to portray two happily married people who celebrated their physicality – and who were good vertically and horizontally.”

Yet Pam never seems to get a fair shake from television historians.  (Maybe because “Dallas” is a soap opera?)

When the barrier-breaking women of ’70s television are recalled, the focus is almost always on the characters who pursued careers (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), expressed opinions (“Maude”) and raised children alone (“Alice,” “One Day at a Time”).

On “All in the Family,” Gloria Stivic was pretty frisky and “The Bob Newhart Show’s” Emily Hartley seemed to enjoy having sex with her husband, but their experiences were played for laughs.

Pam Ewing is probably the first woman on a prime-time drama who was sexually fulfilled – and not ashamed of it.  She helped make possible “The Good Wife” and other contemporary shows that aren’t afraid to depict women enjoying their sex lives.

Praising Principal

In interviews over the years, Principal has suggested she likes Pam best during “Dallas’s” first season – and when you watch these episodes, it shows. The actress is wonderful – confident, relaxed, charming. She supplies “Dallas” with heart.

Pam’s independent streak continues during the second season, when the character resumes her retail career – a decision that leaves Jock aghast. (“What does she need a job for? Ewing women don’t work!”)

But Pam changes during the third season, when she embarks on an all-consuming quest to give birth – reinforcing the old-fashioned notion that a woman’s fulfillment lies in motherhood.

The evolution in Pam’s character can probably be traced to the departure of “Dallas” creator David Jacobs, who essentially handed over the show’s creative reigns to producer Leonard Katzman after its first season.

Jacobs is a genius at writing for strong women characters, as he demonstrated with his next series, the “Dallas” spinoff “Knots Landing.” Under Katzman, “Dallas’s” depiction of women’s sexuality is different. When women are seen enjoying sex, it’s often under illicit circumstances (J.R.’s mistresses, Sue Ellen’s affairs).

J.R.’s increased popularity with audiences also alters Pam’s character. As he grows nastier, the producers try to counterbalance him by making Pam nobler (read: boring).

But no matter who Pam becomes, we shouldn’t lose sight of who she is when “Dallas” begins – and the trail she blazes during those fascinating first five episodes.

How do you feel about Pam Ewing? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. This is a great essay! I totally agree with your assessment of how the show handles Pam’s sexuality. Too many shows rely on the tired societal cliche of the stud/slut dichotomy (a dichotomy that annoying plays out later in J.R. and Sue Ellen’s marriage).

    • Thanks! Pam is a real breakthrough character when “Dallas” begins. The show helped change the way women are portrayed in prime time. It deserves more credit than it receives — so does Victoria Principal.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I love you insight about Pam’s sexuality Chris, she was so expressive, spunky and unintimidated. She loved Bobby and was not afraid to show it, like the scene in the family room on the 1st episode when JR is escorting her outside to chat she stops and kisses Bobby in front of the family. What I liked also was her independence, wanting to work whether Bobby liked it or not. I missed that Pam ,after the first 2 seasons she began to diminish into weak individual in need of rescuing and desperate sometimes for Bobby’s love and attention. Although through out the following seasons she shows small signs of her former self (strong, confident, no nonsense Pam) but never fully went back. When Katzman took over he really did not depict women of Dallas in a positive light especially Pam, Lucy and Sue Ellen, makes you miss Jacobs’ reign. Katzman’s sexuality of women were illicit, like Sue Ellen’s affairs, JR’s mistresses and Pam’s almost affair with Alex (the Pam of the first 2 seasons would never be so easily swayed) I guess this is one of the reasons VP decided to quit the show in the 10 season, she did not like the person Pam became and missed the old Pam like I did.

    • Thank you for the feedback. This is one of the very first things I ever wrote for this website. Nice to see folks are still finding it.

      It sounds like we’re on the same page regarding Pam.

      Thanks again,
      Chris

Trackbacks

  1. […] make Julia Roberts envious. Pam is also unapologetically sexual, making her one of television’s breakthrough women characters. If you’ve forgotten how intriguing Pam is when “Dallas” begins – and how terrific […]

  2. […] scenes in “Little Boy Lost” are much less satisfying. Pam, who began life on “Dallas” as a confident, pioneering, is suddenly obsessed again with having children, a storyline that played out two seasons earlier. […]

  3. […] character for her. The woman who tries to jump off a high-rise rooftop in this episode isn’t the strong, spirited heroine I fell for when “Dallas” began. On the other hand, the show deserves credit for taking a […]

  4. […] over having children – doesn’t bear much resemblance to the strong-willed, independent-minded heroine we meet when the show begins. That’s the Pam we see again in “The Prodigal.” It’s nice to […]

  5. […] other significant legacy. Victoria Principal’s Pam Ewing was one of television’s first sexually liberated women, and “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing” deserve credit for showing women could be every […]

  6. […] with J.R. It puts her on the same page as Pam, who is the original “Dallas’s” most sexually liberated woman (occasionally incurring her own husband’s wrath). Perhaps more anything, J.R. and Sue […]

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