‘Cam’ is a Humanizing Portrayal of Sex Work and a Horrifying Look at the Internet

Black Mirror has tapped into our fears of the looming power of technology: cell phones, virtual reality, constant surveillance, it has addressed it all. But many of those episodes address a not-so-distant future. What about the technological fears happening now? Daniel Goldhaber’s film, Cam, addresses our current fears in the digital age, using the perspective of a cam girl who has had her identity stolen.

Lola is a cam girl who aspires to be in the Top 50 performers on her cam website. For those unfamiliar with camming, it is when someone, usually a woman, holds sex shows via webcam. Lola has devoted customers who tip well and even get private Skype chats for the right price. She works hard and has cultivated an online persona and aesthetic that she believes will get her to the top. But, just as she’s hit her stride and on track to hit that coveted top 50 spot, someone steals her account. What comes next is an increasingly bizarre journey to get her account back and find out who did this to her. 

Sex workers in horror are treated like trash. They are extras to be thrown away, women to be punished for their overt sexuality, and scantly-clad figures to be torn apart. However, Cam succeeds in humanizing sex workers and showing them as hard-working people, mostly in part to Isa Mazzei’s involvement. Mazzei, a former sex worker, wrote the film and used many of her own personal experiences with camming for inspiration. This is not a film that demonizes sex work or tries to show Lola that she needs to stop doing it for some kind of retribution. Rather, it shows the reality of profession that is rarely seen in horror, or any genre of film really. Instead of sensationalizing her work or exploiting her body, the film presents her work as a job, something she’s doing for money and how she gains control over those watching her to rake in tips.

This brings in another theme of the film: voyeurism. Very literally, Lola works in voyeurism, giving anonymous viewers the ability to watch her doing anything they want. But, what they want is an illusion constructed by Lola; she has her own rules and operates within them. Yes, she is taking off pieces of clothing or eating with her hands, but only because she consents to it. It is a complicated topic to tackle in general, with some critics of porn and sex work saying that there is no consent in porn and it is purely exploitative. Even as Lola resorts to suicide scenes, the horrors of the Internet are emphasized, and how the tastes of strangers known no bounds behind an avatar. However, Cam offers a new perspective on the agency in this line of work and explicitly shows the knowledge these women possess, from how to avoid creepy clients to knowing what shows will generate the most tips. 

But, just as the film establishes agency for Lola, it also takes it away as she loses access to her account. Someone who looks like her, acts like her, and even seems to be in her house has taken over and is pushing her way through the rankings. Lola becomes her own voyeur as she watches a version of herself play in a kiddie pool, talk with her clients, and collaborate with other girls. Just as her clients do to her, Lola basks in the blue light of her laptop, watching herself perform for a faceless crowd. Her agency has been revoked and someone with her face is taking her coveted top 50 spot. Something feels wrong when it is not Lola herself performing, but rather someone pretending to be her. 

This also brings in questions of identity and how we portray ourselves on the Internet. How real are we actually online and how far do we go to cultivate an aesthetic or a brand? Who is the person behind a few thousand pixels? Even in Lola’s house, the difference between her online persona and real life personality is obvious — the room where she cams is pink, fluorescent, and perfectly feminine while her actual room is that of any millennials, covered in tapestries with a mattress on the floor. She has poured money into a room that represents one side of herself, one that is purely utilitarian and serves as a set. So when someone steals her account, it begs the question: are they truly stealing Lola’s identity or just her perceived identity?

Cam succeeds not only because of its writing, but because of Madeline Brewer, who plays Lola. Brewer is almost constantly on screen, as she is the film’s focal point, and her performance never wavers. She is able to turn on the flirtatious, sexy Lola persona instantly, then turn it off as she puts on sweatpants and plans her next show. Brewer also expertly showcases Lola’s slow decline as she becomes more desperate to regain access to her account. Brewer’s performance is an anchoring point for Cam and creates empathy for Lola’s situation, one that seems far from this anxiety- and paranoia-inducing. However, Brewer creates empathy and has the audience thinking, “what if this happened to me?”

Cam does something horror struggles with — humanizing sex workers and portraying them as people rather than gore fodder — and creates a thoughtful, terrifying film that speaks to trying to maintain our identities in the digital age. Cam is not a perfect movie, with some plot lines needing more development and a rather questionable ending, but it is one of my favorite films of the year. Not only is the concept terrifying, but it also shows the real nature of the Internet and the people that lurk on it, looking for the most depraved version of sex possible. It echoes films like Perfect Blue that speak specifically of the Internet’s power to target women and take them down with a few keystrokes or an algorithm. Cam is a cautionary tale not about sex work, but about the Internet in general and what hides in its darkest corners. 

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