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Cam is a Haunting Yet Humane Look at Sex Workers and Internet Identity

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Everybody lies on the internet. There are little white lies, like padding one’s height on an online dating profile or using Photoshop skills to give yourself a more conventionally attractive appearance. Then there are larger, more nefarious lies, like stealing someone’s identity, catfishing, and running scams for cash. But they all hinge on the same principle: the internet allows us to be whoever we want to be, and our online presence and identity is limited only by our imagination (and perhaps some computer-savvy skills).

This is true for everyone online, but especially for camgirls, who traffick in fantasy and sexual wish fulfillment. Cam centers on Alice (The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Madeline Brewer) an ambitious camgirl who is pursuing a top 50 ranking on her site. Every night, Alice assumes the identity of Lola, where she creates elaborate fantasy set pieces that include glitter bombs, bubble baths, and Grand Guignol-inspired performative suicide.

Her hard work has earned Alice a devoted following of fans who shower her with gifts and adoration, and gladly pay extra for private one-on-one chats. Alice is good at what she does and is passionate about her work and her online community, which is a welcome departure from the typical portrayal of sex workers in popular culture. Alice isn’t a victim, she isn’t abused, and she isn’t another dead body on Law and Order: SVU. She is a woman in full control of her career, with agency and ambition, not a broken down doll in need of rescuing.

This sympathetic and destigmatized portrayal comes courtesy of screenwriter and former camgirl Isa Mazzei, who draws on her own experiences to create the story. In an interview with Vice, Mazzei discussed her original plans for a camgirl documentary before landing on a horror film framework, saying “I really wanted an audience to feel what it was like to be in it. I felt like often, for people that I talk to about camming, no matter how much I would explain it or show it to them, they still didn’t fully get it. And so I think the genre is an incredible way to bring an audience inside of a character, or inside of an experience.”

Everything is going well until Alice finds herself hacked by a mysterious doppelganger, who locks her out of her camming profile and takes over her live feed. Alice struggles to regain control of her online identity, as the mysterious entity impersonating her rises through the ranks to become even more popular and adored. The tension rises as Alice tries to reclaim “Lola”, and the film turns into an identity thriller brimming with paranoia and anxiety. The film also comments on the instant gratification of “like” culture, and Alice’s dependency on the positive reinforcement that comes with her work.

Cam is an effective, taut thriller that keeps the viewer engaged, and while it doesn’t quite stick the landing, it is a compelling and satisfying watch. Brewer’s committed performance anchors a film that, while it is centered on sex work, sidesteps the exploitation and lurid voyeurism so often associated the profession.

As Mazzei says, “At the end of the day, I don’t think audiences fully realize that they are rooting for a sex worker to return to sex work. Because what they’re feeling is her loss of agency, this loss of control, and they’re relating to that on a human level and then rooting for her to get that back. I really thought that doing this genre would be the best way to get that message across.”

(via VICE, image: Netflix)

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Author
Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.