Cam. 2018. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Screenplay by Isa Mazzei.
Starring Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey, Flora Diaz, Samantha Robinson, Jessica Parker Kennedy, & Quei Tann.
Gunpowder & Sky/Blumhouse Productions
Not Rated. 94 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following article contains major spoilers.
Things have never been great for women. Although global society lurches forward in terms of women’s rights that doesn’t mean every change means moving ahead. The majority of the world’s in love with capitalism— a system not ideal for anybody, let alone vulnerable groups such as people of colour and women.
While many would have you believe capitalism’s the right system for all of us, just look at the world of porn and cams. Sure, women can make money, and it allows them a new economic independence. At the same time it’s fine to go ahead and make money using the body, our patriarchal society turns around and abuses the women doing so, leaving them unprotected. Any other business would be protected. Men in dangerous jobs are protected. Why don’t women get the same protection?
Cam concerns a girl named Alice (Madeline Brewer), an online cam girl who calls herself Lola. She makes enough money to keep her living in a beautiful apartment full of all the latest mod cons. But camming’s a competitive business. Might call it… cutthroat?
Eventually Alice’s real life and her online persona blur, sending her on a journey of surreal psychological horror. She must confront a misogynistic, capitalist system that’s enabled her to use her body as a commodity and simultaneously cast her out into the deep, dark internet with little protection. She also has to deal with the internalised misogyny that’s turned her against other women and herself.
“So, you wanna be watched?”
Alice’s identity struggle is the screenplay’s focus. She doesn’t only do nude stuff on cam, she caters to people who want to see things get a little crazy. She slices her own throat – fake, of course – for one audience, taking her up several notches on the Top 50 Girls for the host site. The fact she commits fake suicide is significant, as a symbolic killing of an identity. No coincidence a while later she begins seeing a totally separate version of herself hosting shows on her channel. She’s then divided in half between the digital world and the real one.
Ideas of representation, authenticity, and identity recur often throughout the screenplay. Cam life is presented as a woman living her life and letting people in to watch, when it’s not an actual life, only a fabricated image of womanhood specifically catering to men. Lola’s representative of infantilised women reduced to girls by the male gaze with all her pink, fluffy furniture, stuffed animals, dildos in the shape of bears (reminiscent of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”). Cams, and porn, aren’t authentic representations of women. These are fantasies brought to life to make lonely men hard. Alice subverts the concept of the cam show by luring men in and turning her channel into a Grand Guignol act, playing upon the anonymous masses of creepy, horny dudes and their sick impulses.
Trouble begins for Alice when her online Lola character merges with everyday life. First, a fleeting incident in a department store where she sees one of her regular audience members, Tinker (Patch Darragh), creeping on her. She feels the breaking of a boundary. She’s met other men, but this is not initiated by her, so there’s immediate danger. Danger colours Alice’s interactions with men, online or otherwise. In one show she gets a sick message asking if she’ll use a knife instead of a dildo. This turns out to be a ruse she set up, to enact her bloody suicide routine, yet the fact so many men cheered it on, even if they were joking, illuminates an unsettling nature inherent to online interactions.
“You look beautiful, even covered in blood.”
What further defines Alice’s relationship to men is expectation and entitlement. In one scene, she meets with big spender Barney (Michael Dempsey) at a restaurant trying to track down her doppelganger. At one point she goes to the bathroom, and Barney checks his phone to see Lola’s doing a live show. This leads him to a strange fit of anger, wondering how she could be in two places. His expectations are skewed— Alice is far less overtly sexual in person than Lola online, feeding the rage of his male entitlement. Luckily she gets away before anything bad happens. This single scene hammers home the extremely corporeal threat to women’s lives and bodies when the real people behind digital screens meet out in the world, free from the distance of constructed personas and dual identities online.
This commences her surreal trip into fighting the fake persona she’s created— one threatening to become more real than her. Once the membrane between private and public sphere is pierced, Alice’s world gets exponentially scarier. Before the boundaries are crossed, she and PrincessX (Samantha Robinson) were competing as two women trying to get further ahead in a war of bodies. Afterwards, she’s turned against herself: Alice v. Lola.
The screenplay uses the name Alice creatively with its story. When she has to sign up for another cam account because Lola has become a living entity, she uses MadHatter and MrTeapot as screen names. This cobbles together an homage to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, itself a surreal exploration of the nature of identity, specifically a young woman’s identity. This further illustrates the infantilisation of women with children’s literature popping up again. Also, like Carroll’s Alice, Cam‘s Alice takes a wild trip down the rabbit hole until her life is a postmodern, Kafkaesque struggle, from the paradoxical argument(s) she has with technical support for the cam website to an awkward revelation of her job at her younger brother’s birthday party.
Cam is a cautionary tale about the postmodern digital landscape where bodies are commodities for sale at the click of a mouse. In the end, Alice has to go up against Lola in a cam show like a capitalist battleground. To take control, she destroys herself physically, smashing her nose into a bloody mess. She later fixes herself up, returning to the cam. She uses the name EveBot – the misogyny of Biblical Eve resonating, the dehumanisation of ‘bot’ alongside as the rotten cherry on top – and carries on, telling her mother she’ll keep starting new accounts if necessary.
Is Alice indoctrinated into the misogyny of an economic system that sees her only as a body/its various parts, not a whole person? Or, is she determined to use her bodily autonomy for personal profit and not the capital of another? Maybe both. Maybe she has no other choice but destroy herself to maintain autonomy and independent power because that’s one of the few options society’s left her.
This movie’s not solely about cam work, or sex work, whatever form it takes. It’s as much about the division of ourselves into wholly different identities across the digital spaces of our lives. Due to increasing digitisation, authenticity is a bigger issue than ever, as people conduct themselves differently on Facebook than they do in real life, and differently on Twitter than they do on Facebook, and different on Instagram than they do on Twitter. How do we keep ourselves from fracturing psychologically? Can we? Cam doesn’t have the answers. It asks those questions in a surreal and horrifying way, touching on issues that only get more troubling with every technological advent taking aspects of our social lives into the digital shadows.