This article contains plot details of the movie Cam.
Calling Jordan Peele’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar victory for Get Out “thrilling” would be an understatement. It was a validation of the sort that aggrieved outsiders hate to admit they appreciate, a mainstream acknowledgment of the potential for deep empathy through the experience of identifying with the protagonist of a horror movie. As well as being by their nature metaphorically rich, horror movies—at least, the good ones—activate the body’s adrenal system, setting our hearts pounding and palms sweating along with the hero or heroine’s. And there’s nothing that bonds people like surviving a traumatic event together, whether in real life or on screen.
Peele’s screenplay used horror as a vehicle to talk about race and the commodification and degradation of black bodies in American culture, but the genre’s potential to build empathy extends to other marginalized groups as well. Feminist film scholar Carol J. Clover made this argument 25 years ago in her book Men, Women, And Chainsaws, in which she contended that the slasher films demonized by second-wave feminists could actually make men more empathetic towards women by forcing them to identify with, and celebrate the victories of, the so-called final girl. (Interestingly, Peele used this same vocabulary in a January 2018 interview with the Washington Post, saying simply, “Daniel [Kaluuya’s Chris] is the final girl.”)
One defining characteristic of the traditional ’80s final girl is chastity, or at least the implication of such. But this year, a horror screenplay subverted this trope by telling a story through the perspective of a woman whose sexuality is a key component of her identity. Cam is centered on the character of Alice (Madeline Brewer), who shares characteristics with many final girls of horror. She’s capable, smart, and a bit of an outsider. She’s even a brunette, the traditional hair color of the woman who fights back. But there’s one key difference: Alice works as a camgirl, performing in nightly live-streaming shows for an audience of horny regulars who know her by the name “Lola.” Alice works in the sex industry by choice and—even more rebelliously—likes her job and wants to succeed at it. Neither victim nor virgin, her existence breaks the binary of acceptable archetypes for women in horror.
In the shadow of SESTA/FOSTA—Trump legislation ostensibly aimed at combating sex trafficking that’s actually resulted in putting consenting adults in online sex trades at risk—making a sex worker the hero of your movie is a radical act. Even among supposedly progressive feminists, patronizing and vilifying sex workers is common enough to have its own acronym, SWERFs (sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists). For Cam screenwriter Isa Mazzei, whose own experiences working as a camgirl heavily influenced her script, using the comforting familiarity of a genre movie to convey that experience was a deliberate choice.
Mazzei initially wanted to make a documentary about camming, even going so far as to outline a few scenes with her friend and creative partner Daniel Goldhaber, who went on to direct Cam. But, as she tells The A.V. Club, she almost immediately realized that “a documentary is from an observer’s perspective, by definition. And so, when you are from the outside looking in, you’re never going to really fully embody the subject’s experience.” In her experience showing her friends camming videos in an attempt to explain what she did all day, “I think a lot of people... often couldn’t get past [the feeling of], ‘Omg I’m watching porn,’ to really see the art, performance, craft, and labor that was going into these shows.” She adds:
I started to realize that a documentary might end up with the same issue. Since it’s about porn, it would have to show porn, and watching porn for a lot of people can be a huge hurdle. Putting them inside a sex worker’s head, however, and seeing what she’s seeing, and feeling what she’s feeling, is very different from the outside observation we get with documentary... I could talk to a camera about how it feels to have my digital identity taken from me, or we could make an audience feel digital agency being ripped away from them.
The concept of digital agency is key to one of Cam’s most universal themes: the controlled curation of online identity, and the disassociation that occurs when that control is lost. Social media is the most obvious example of where and how this curation occurs. Who hasn’t posted a beaming photo with a partner on Instagram after the relationship has begun to sour or carefully edited a Facebook status to reflect accomplishments but not failures? It’s the same for Alice, who puts extensive time and effort into molding a perky, playful persona for dream-girl-next-door “Lola.” The horror of the film comes from Alice losing control over her online persona—and, therefore, her identity—when a supernatural double locks her out of her camming account and begins performing in her place, forcing her to utter perhaps the most dreaded words in the English language: “Hi, I’m having some trouble with my account.”
The mundane nature of a Kafkaesque customer service call provides another key to Cam’s careful crafting of empathy. The film’s screenplay makes a point of including scenes where Alice performs everyday errands and chores, actions that are generally excised in the name of efficiency. But in this context, they serve a specific purpose. Underlining Alice’s routine responsibilities—shopping for props, vacuuming her performance space, answering messages and opening mail from clients—emphasizes the similarities of her work to more mainstream jobs. Mazzei pushes this identification a step further by inserting these prosaic details into exotic scenarios. One of the film’s funniest moments comes when a fellow performer standing just off camera holds up two delivery menus while Alice and her friend Fox (Flora Diaz) are in the middle of a show. Without breaking character, Fox gestures that she’d like sushi, please. Alice, topless and sitting astride an industrial-strength vibrator, nods in agreement. We all have to eat.
Of course, there are elements of Alice’s work that aren’t universal, and Mazzei has said repeatedly in interviews and Q&As that her greatest hope for the film was that sex workers would find it relatable. This specificity is especially apparent in the vivid characterizations of Alice’s clients, a pantheon of creepy-dude archetypes that includes the leering Barney (Michael Dempsey) and the pitiful Tinker (Patch Darragh), both of whose personalities are coded into the screenplay through their dialogue. For Alice, the loss of control over her accounts has higher stakes than most, given that she relies on the internet for her livelihood—not to mention the physical danger that occurs when her double gives a particularly obsessive client the address of the hair salon where Alice’s mother works.
All these elements—specificity, relatability, empathy—are delivered through the conduit of a traditional thriller structure, beginning with a setup establishing the protagonist’s goal (Alice wants to be the No. 1 camgirl on her site), then creating a barrier (Alice loses control over her account), before following a series of escalating events to a final confrontation and the accomplishment of that goal. Here, as with her subversion of the final girl archetype, Mazzei further plays with the audience’s sense of identification by inserting the psychologically loaded symbol of twins into the film’s core confrontation.
Twins represent cosmic opposites in Jungian psychology, and the dual nature of humankind. That symbol becomes further complicated when those twins are women, stoking misogynist paranoia about the deceptive nature of women (Eve lying to Adam when she gave him the forbidden fruit, e.g.) and reinforcing Freud’s Madonna/whore dichotomy. If two women, one good and one evil, look exactly the same, how is a man supposed to tell the difference? Alfred Hitchcock explored the question from the male point of view in his 1958 masterpiece Vertigo, as did his most slavish devotee, Brian De Palma, in his 1972 film Sisters.
Both of those films feature sets of female look-alikes who serve as mysteries for the protagonists to solve, but Cam subverts this formula by making the main character the one whose identity is split. Rather than an unknowable other, Alice is our gateway into the story, which makes her twin terrifying not because it’s so far away, but because it’s so close. By blending millennial anxiety about how we present ourselves online with the psychologically and politically loaded symbol of the twin, Mazzei’s Cam script appeals to both the viewer’s conscious and subconscious minds. She’s asking us to see a sex worker not only as a relatable human being whose fears we understand and whose triumphs we celebrate, but also as the hero of her own story. The face in the mirror may be different, but its outlines are familiar—too familiar to dismiss as anything but ourselves.