‘Cam’ shines light on internet identity, sex work through horror

Netflix’s horror-thriller strives to empathetically portray sex work and internet identity.

For a streaming platform that plays such a large role in reshaping our consumption and understanding of media, it remains ironic that one of Netflix’s biggest hits is “Black Mirror.” The “Twilight Zone”-esque series’ regular oscillation between character work and larger technology-based scares has become such a distinct part of the recent pop culture landscape that it’s easy to compare similar pieces of work to it.

With its release as a Netflix original film, it might seem natural to rationalize “Cam”— in which a camgirl is inexplicably replaced on her web profile by an exploitative doppelgänger — as a 2018-era answer to the futuristic dystopias that drive every “Black Mirror” episode. But to dismiss “Cam” in this way would misconstrue many of the horror tropes with which creators Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei are trying to pointedly engage.

From its opening moments, “Cam” manages to stand out by rooting itself in contemporary internet culture. When Alice (Madeline Brewer of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Orange is the New Black”) first chirps, “Hey, guys,” on her computer monitor, it’s immediately reminiscent of the swaths of YouTubers and influencers filtered between other forms of online entertainment.

Alice also makes her living by crafting an engaged persona — in her case, through online sex work. Every night, she heads into her neon, pink-carpeted filming room and assumes the name Lola, chatting with devoted viewers amidst fantasy set pieces that range from glittery bubble baths to performative suicide. As she climbs the site’s ranks, Alice’s ambition gives her a shot at making it into the top 50 most-viewed profiles.

Just when things are going according to plan, though, Alice wakes up to find that an exact replica of herself has gained control of her profile. The “new” Lola quickly breaks all of Alice’s camming rules — no fake orgasms, no public shows, no saying “I love you” to patrons — and proceeds to somehow trespass into private, offline corners of her life from within the site itself.

As Alice races to regain control of her online identity, Goldhaber and Mazzei are quick to remind audiences of how sex workers are generally portrayed. It’s no secret that women’s sexualities in general have long been points of contention in horror, with tropes like slasher films’ “final girls” arising out of the genre’s history of killing off sexually active women. Female sex workers tend to have it even worse, as gory victims that start a scary movie or more than one episode of “Law and Order: SVU.”

Many people who Alice turns to for help — from invasive cops to disapproving family and friends to viewers who overstep their boundaries — fail to see camming as a job that she likes and has agency in, forcing her to take matters into her own hands. This arc is somewhat reflective of Mazzei’s own experiences, bringing a nuanced portrayal of the billion-dollar industry to the screen.

As a former camgirl herself, the screenwriter has spoken at length about her desire to create a mainstream horror narrative where sex workers are humanized and empowered. Her personal experience undoubtedly contributed to the impressive level of detail in the film, from Alice’s detailed content calendars to the constantly updating chat feeds on her profile. It’s a shame that, at its tight runtime, “Cam” isn’t able to fully realize more specific sub-discussions around camming that it alludes to and quickly drops.

Even with Mazzei’s intentions in mind, “Cam” also focuses on the question of how authentic online personalities are and should be in the first place. Alice clearly enjoys connecting with viewers in her filming room, and that neon extravagance — courtesy of production designer Emma Rose Mead, who created similar sets for Janelle Monáe’s “PYNK” video — makes for some of the film’s most stunning visuals. But outside of it, her house is undecorated and cluttered, with much of her time spent planning for her next show and boredly running errands in her hometown. Camming is an outlet for Alice that she enjoys and makes a profit off of, but when she loses it, audiences are posed the question of how much virtual identity versus day-to-day runoff matters.

This question is never concretely answered, but the same could be said about the mystery behind the quasi-supernatural doppelgänger on Alice’s account. When she finally manages to confront the fake Lola, Brewer’s excellent leading performance doesn’t ultimately eschew the fact that the film’s tension goes out not with a bang, but with a very augmented whimper. Even so, “Cam” is horror thats trope-resistant merits force viewers to question their own inherent biases about the sex work industry and their presence online. Life on the internet might be the stuff of nightmares here, but with any luck, the avenues that streaming services give ambitious, media-savvy writers will make these representations alone less stunning.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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