‘Cam’ and the Performative Dimension of Sexuality and Work

(WARNING: This will contain spoilers for the entire film. Read at your own risk.)

Netflix’s original movies are more often talked about for negative reasons rather than positive ones, which is why when one of their outings does get some acclaim, I can’t help but be intrigued. So when my best friend and I decided to have a movie night together, we decided to give Cam a shot. After 90 very confusing minutes and another hour of frantically googling possible explanations, we parted ways and I was left thinking about it a little longer. My first impression was that it was a good movie by Netflix standards, but nothing incredible. After a good night of sleep, I found myself still thinking about it way more than I thought I would, and realized that I severely underestimated the film.

But before digging into the heart of this strange film and what it might all mean, let’s quickly review what happens in it. Our main character is Alice, an increasingly popular camgirl, thanks to spectacular and sometimes quite gory shows. She does these shows under an alias, Lola, and seems to enjoy her job (probably helps that she’s obviously making good money out of it — she just bought a house! And it is not small!). It’s all fun and kinks until one morning she tries to log in and realizes that she has been locked out of her account. This is frightening enough as it is, but Alice’s hacker isn’t your usual dudebro with way too much free time: it turns out to be an exact copy of herself, willing to go way further than Alice ever did for fame. She tries to contact the cam website and the local authorities, but none of them take her seriously. Powerless, Alice slowly watches her double get more and more popular as she gets more and more isolated in her everyday life. This all leads to a final showdown with her double where she finally regains control.

So, huh… What’s that all about ? Although the film doesn’t explicitly say it, the second Alice’s “real” identity is revealed: “she” is a virus who already took control of many girls in the popular section of the cam site. We see her glitching more and more throughout the course of the film, making it easy for us to realize that she is, at the very least, not human… Although, weirdly enough, Lola’s audience either doesn’t realize it or doesn’t care at all.

We know what Lola is, but that is far from being the only mystery of the movie. It asks us a lot of questions and often leaves us our our own to come up with our own answers. The bigger question lies elsewhere: why did the virus choose to target Alice and those other girls ? In other words, how does it choose who to copy ?

When Alice confronts Tinker, who seems to be suspiciously connected to every girl who was copied, he admits that even though he is not responsible for the copies himself, he can tell which one of them will be targeted by the virus. He does not tell us or Alice how, but his confession does give us a clue. Tinker is quite an unsympathetic and repulsive character, but we do have something in common with him: he’s part of Lola’s audience. If he could figure it out simply by watching her and the other girls, there’s a good chance we can do that as well.

Let’s go back to the beginning, then. Let’s watch Alice not as a character in a movie, but as part of her audience. Let’s focus on her Lola persona, the cam shows that she actually was in control of before the virus took over the account. What can we learn from these ?

The first camshow of hers that we see is the very first scene of the movie, where she commits fake suicide. It is quite a way to introduce her as a character, and therefore we can learn many things about her solely from that scene. All of the suicide is one big performance that she obviously enjoyed considering her reactions to the success of the show. What I think is the most important part of this is that everything happens exactly like she wanted it to: the “hate” messages she gets were planned, and she gets exactly the reactions she wanted. She’s fully in control of what she’s doing, of her image and of how people will perceive her. It is probably the happiest we see her over the course of the film.

If I’m not mistaken, the second camshow we watch fully is the “barbarian Lola” one. In this bizarre sequence (NOTE: it is fully possible that it is not that weird and that I just don’t know anything about kids and their weird kinks these days. I truly don’t know. I don’t keep up with this stuff. I feel like I know enough already.), Alice… Well, she tries to eat meat in a sexy way, I guess, and everyone in the chat loses their mind over it (another mystery of the film, but maybe one I’m not strong enough to try looking too much into). The show becomes so successful that Alice, for the first time since signing up, ends up in the top 50 of the most popular girls of the website. She is ecstatic upon seeing this, but her new rank is short lived, as another camgirl named PrincessX tells us on her own liveshow that she is about to go nude for the first time… But only if Lola drops ten places in the overall ranking. Alice logs out before it happens, but she is obviously left shaken by the events.

This is where a big mindset switch happens for Alice. She had previously turned down an offer from her friend and fellow camgirl Fox to do a joint show, because the premise of it made her uncomfortable. Now convinced that this show, the most explicitly sexual she ever did, is her only way to boost her popularity again, she agrees to do it. This is her last show as Alice — after that, the copy takes over the account.

When we look at them in this way, the difference between the first two shows and the last one is pretty obvious — her final show is not on her own terms. While she was shown having fun with the first two, this one is exclusively to please her audience. This is where the split between Alice and Lola begins. It’s even made quite explicit: Alice passes out at the end of the third camshow, making the break between the two personae pretty clear.

Now… this might be a surprise to some of you guys but sex, sexuality and all that stuff… It’s complicated. As in, really, really complicated. And it’s made even more complicated when you live in a society that makes it really hard to figure it out on your own, or that tells you that what you figure out isn’t good enough. It can even be really scary! We constantly see, read, watch what other people do, and think that we have to do them as well to be liked. And because of this, we might end up doing things not because we enjoy them but because we think we have to, or because we think our partners will like us better for it.

All of this can end up in people showing a sexual version of themselves that is them… But also not really them. Sometimes, the disconnect is so strong that you can almost feel like you’re watching yourself doing these things. Kind of ironic, really: one of the most intimate act you can do with someone else, and you’re not even really there !

This separation between different versions of a self is, I believe, in part what happens to Alice, only in a much more literal way.

After her final show as herself, Alice watches Lola, powerless to stop her and often distressed by her actions, as she puts on shows that go more and more against what she is. One of the worst part of this is coming to the realization that people like this fake, not even human, version of herself more than her. As sex becomes more and more of a commodity, I believe this is unfortunately a common experience. Sure, most of us don’t have perfect copies of ourselves walking around and taking our money… But is that really true ?

I don’t think sexuality is the only aspect of the film worth exploring. Indeed, in every single aspect of our life, we show a different aspect of our selves. I don’t think it is too hazardous to say that we generally don’t behave in the same way around our boss, our best friend and our grandmother. We are often lead to believe that our real self isn’t good enough to please the other person, so we sometimes have to become something else. However, it’d be too easy if simply repressing our self completely erased it. Deep down, we’re still the same person with the same personality, values, boundaries, which is why doing things that are untrue to ourselves always feels at least a little bit weird. And the more untrue to ourselves we are, the weirder it feels.

I’ve never been a camgirl and I’m not a sex worker either. I can’t pretend to know anything about it. I do think that Cam is a step forward for their on-screen representation, and was really pleased when I learned that Isa Mazzei, who co-wrote the film, is a former camgirl herself. Slowly but surely, more and more marginalized groups are becoming able to tell their own stories, but sex workers haven’t been able to do so often (please correct me if I’m wrong — I would love to see more stories like these). Seeing a sex worker portrayed as an actual person is not only incredibly refreshing but also helps finally get a new and well-needed perspective on their lives. We can all relate to the fear of losing our self in some way, which still doesn’t take away the fact that this is a story about sex work. By making us relate to Alice’s struggles, Cam deeply humanizes a profession that has been neglected for way too long. Being a camgirl is never seen as inherently bad — the real enemy are some aspects of the industry, and the actions that Alice did despite being uncomfortable with them until she lost herself.

To me, this is what “Lola” is. On a surface level she may be just a particularly well-made virus, but she’s also everything Alice doesn’t want to be. It is only when Alice confronts her double and fully realizes that the best version of herself is well, herself, that she regains her agency. Many people were confused by the movie’s ending, where Alice comes back to the site under another pseudonym. However the problem was never the job — we see it in the beginning of the film, as long as she has the control, she genuinely loves it. Tinker could tell she was about to be copied because she was too ambitious, too careless at first. Now, she’s grown, and sure, the risk of losing herself again is still here, but now that she knows what it’s like, it’s unlikely that she will ever do it again. In its final minutes, Cam gives us a weird kind of happy ending, but a happy ending nonetheless for Alice. It might also make us question the way we behave around others. Do you have your own Lolas ? And are you really in control of them ?

probably napping

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store