Deep Dives: WTF is Going On in Cam?

Madeline Brewer in Cam (2018)

From IMDb: Alice, an ambitious camgirl, wakes up one day to discover she’s been replaced on her show with an exact replica of herself.

Non-Spoiler Thoughts:

This seemed like one of the more promising horror films on Netflix, so I started with this on my journey to go through my Netflix watchlist. It is definitely intriguing. Many have already made this comparison but it has serious Searching vibes.

Is it a Horror Film?

Although I enjoyed Cam I’m not sure I would consider it a horror film. The realistic tone of the film felt more like a thriller with elements of horror to me. I think if some of the more chilling scenes had a creepy soundtrack or bigger buildup I would consider it horror. But despite how creepy some moments had the potential to be, Alice’s matter of fact approach to solving the mystery of the replica took out the atmosphere I feel is crucial to considering something a horror film. Instead, I felt like I was watching a variation of the Catfish movie (which interestingly enough felt more like a horror film to me than Cam).

Sex Work and Cam

Beside the intrigue of the mystery, another great reason to watch Cam is its depiction of sex work (or sex adjacent work depending on how you view cammings proximity to sex work). The screenwriter Isa Mazzei worked as a cam girl, and incorporated some of her personal experiences into the story. I can’t speak to if it does a good job at representation, but I do think it is consciously trying to undo some of the negative tropes associated with consensual sex work we see in media. Cam doesn’t blame sex work for Alice’s problems (as the DeadMeat Podcast states, if you swapped camming for YouTube this movie would still work). It also avoids glamorizing OR disparaging sex work. I would definitely be curious to know what sex workers think of the film.

A Refreshing Female Protagonist

I also like the choice to not show or even comment one way or the other on Alice’s love life, which is something pretty rare for any film with a female protagonist. Isa Mazzei cites Whiplash and Black Swan as influences on this film, both of which show protagonists who obsessively work to obtain a career goal at the expense of all else. Although Alice is shown to have a family life, it is clear she focuses a lot of attention on her work as a cam girl. The movie also shows us the fruits of that labor when we see her casually spending thousands of dollars on a couch for her new house.

The Problem with Cam

One thing this film arguably doesn’t stick is its resolution. To me, it feels like there was an excellent idea but not enough payoff for the suspense and mystery presented. But even if the ending was more satisfying, the best elements of the film are the themes and ideas it explores when it comes to our identities, content creation, and online personas.

*****SPOILERS AHEAD*****

CAM Introduces Us To the World of “Deep Fake” With Madeline Brewer ...

WTF is Happening in Cam? And is it Supernatural at All?

Cam is about an A.I. who steals cam girl’s content and creates deep fakes that takeover their accounts. I had nearly convinced myself something supernatural had to be at work because of one scene where the deep fakes are walking through Alice’s newish house the exact way it is setup with moving boxes and everything. Alice is established as a private person with a set of specific rules that are partially in place to guard her personal life and safety. Her deep fake counterpart even says she has never shown her bedroom to her guys before. I thought it seemed unrealistic that this footage would exist in a way the A.I. program would be able to manipulate so seamlessly. But we do see Alice talking on a webcam with a friend in her bedroom in an early scene. So it is possible her data could have been hacked and mined for that content as well. The way TinkerBoy, an obsessive fan, tells Alice about the A.I. makes it sound supernatural as he keeps referring to it as “it” e.g. “it is copying girls and I’m not sure why…”. So ultimately, it seems like the work of a very high tech hacker’s program.

Why Does the A.I. Target Alice?

There isn’t really a solid explanation for this. I saw one commenter argue that it is because Alice/Lola pretends to commit suicide during one show, so it assumes she is dead. But that same program would have seen that Alice logged in multiple times since then, so I don’t think that is the reason.

I thought I was real slick with my own theory at first. I thought it was because Alice broke one of her rules, and therefore sacrificed part of her identity for her pursuit of being a top cam girl. Alice lays out three rules at the beginning of the film: she doesn’t fake orgasms, she doesn’t tell her guys that she loves them, and she doesn’t do public shows. Early in film, she decides to do a partnered show where she rides a vibrating machine and another woman operates the controls based on the tips she is getting. Other cam girls keep warning her it is very difficult to ride the machine and some women completely lose sensation because of it. Princess X, a competitor, even suggests Alice will have to break her no fake orgasms rule. So I assumed she faked an orgasm during the show since she looks pretty uncomfortable while riding the machine like she is on the verge of passing out. But riding the machine is what helps Lola finally crack the top 50, and her orgasm seems like it could be genuine when she hits the 47th spot on the cam girl ranking system. So it doesn’t appear to be because of breaking one of her rules.

What is the Meaning of the Film?

The film is a representation of the way our manufactured online identities and content have a life of their own, but that life still impacts us personally. The dual personality is not only alluded to by Alice having the stage name Lola, but her account’s name is specifically Lola_Lola to indicate there are two of them,

The cam girls in the film work tirelessly to perform and come up with new ideas and content for their audiences who consume it. When some are replaced with deep fakes, the audiences seem to respond even better due to the A.I.’s ability to be online constantly. The deep fakes also break any preconceived rules of the real women behind the personas. Alice’s deep fake duplicate does not conform to her rules, and explicitly breaks them all. The deep fakes will do anything to keep the accounts they take over exciting and generating the most money, presumably for a hacker.

The A.I. can also do things the real cam girls simply cannot do. The most obvious example is the reveal that the real cam girl who created the BabyGirl account is dead; so her account has been run by a deep fake for months. The real Alice does a show as Lola where she realistically pretends to slit her throat after getting enough tokens. The deep fake Lola takes this to an extreme and shoots herself in the head, only to instantly come back to life in a way that would be incredibly difficult for the average person to fake.

Controlling Our Online Personas

When Alice is outed as a cam girl to her family and friends, we see that most people don’t see any difference between Alice and Lola. Her high school friend Katie, who was embarrassed when Alice saw her working at a Party City type store, seems happy to see Alice has a “more shameful” job. Alice’s brother, who was shown to be privately supportive of her, is later upset with her when his friends find the deep fake Lola’s public show and ridicule him for it. At least Alice’s mother is surprisingly accepting of Alice, noting that Lola is a strong, confident side of Alice she should reveal more often.

When Alice controlled Lola, she could keep the identity separate from the rest of her life. Once Lola has a life of her own through the deep fake, she violates Alice’s privacy and reveals the Lola persona to Alice’s friends and family. Alice’s obsessive fan TinkerBoy shows up at her mom’s hair salon with flowers thanks to the deep fake Lola revealing Alice’s personal information, violating her privacy. For the most part, Alice’s acquaintances are unable to distinguish the persona Alice has created from Alice herself, despite the fact that we all consciously AND unconsciously create online personas of ourselves that may or may not match what people think of us.

The film also alludes to other doubles. Alice’s cat is named Ziggy – presumably a reference to David Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Alice calls her brother Jordan or Jordo at different points. Her clients like Arnold/TinkerBoy and Barney/BarnacleBob all have their own alias meant to protect their real lives.

Why Does Alice Keep Camming After Everything That Happened?

Alice goes through this horrendous experience with the fake Lola, finally getting the upper hand but having to break her nose and delete her account. It is devastating to watch but it makes sense. But Lola was ultimately just an alter ego for Alice. So she goes to work generating a new one named “EveBot”, and starts her cam work all over again in another attempt to rise to the top.

It isn’t difficult to watch because she is engaging in cam work again, which is not treated as negative in and of itself. It is frustrating because we now know the top spots are taken by deep fake A.I.s that would be difficult, if not impossible, for a human to best. But Alice wants to be on top. So Alice’s decision to start all over again feels like Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill. As she tells her mom who asks “what if it happens again?”, she will just keep making accounts over and over.

In the end, Alice doesn’t have an identity to lose. She just has an alter ego. She can delete that alter ego, as hard as it is because of the progress and content she has already made, and start a new one. Her new alias, “EveBot”, seems to be a metaphor for the biblical Eve (the first woman) mixed with a robot, perhaps indicating Alice’s desire to compete against the deep fakes as the first real woman bot.

Original vs. Derivative Content Creation

The deep fakes are all feeding off one another. When Alice is doing research by watching various real cam girl channels and taking notes, we get the sense that they all have a particular theme and atmosphere they have cultivated. This can be contrasted with the deep fakes of Lola and the top cam girl BabyGirl, both of which give the same exact monologues and perform in generic, unsurprising ways. There is no art in what they do, unlike the real top cam girls. The fake Lola lacks a sense of authenticity that makes Alice’s Lola so popular.

Some audience members seem to flock to and follow particular cam girls based on their unique content. Others seem to search out the most salacious things (such as when Princess_X offers to go nude). Still others like TinkerBoy knowingly watch and get off to content by deep fake bots. They don’t care that the content is derivative or fake as long as it does what they want.

What Happens Next?

Can Alice best the A.I. and rise to the top again? It is hard to say. But her passion to create content on her terms drives her to keep going. Now that the deep fake Lola has forced Alice to be open about being a cam girl, there is no longer a fear hanging over Alice about being outed. The worst that can happen is to get locked out of another account and start over again.

Unlike Lola, who seemed to possess elements of Alice’s personality, EveBot is now more removed from Alice, which protects her from negative repercussions. She even uses a fake ID to create the new account, further splitting her real life from online life. So while the ending doesn’t feel triumphant, it feels like Alice is ready to throw her hat in the ring to reclaim her accolades and glory. Her obsessive dedication to best herself has created a self-sustaining path of growth and creativity that nurtures her. So game on EveBot.

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