In the genre thriller Cam on Netflix, the protagonist, Alice (also known by her online moniker, Lola, and played by Madeline Brewer), a young woman successfully working as a camgirl gets her online identity stolen. Either a digital simulacrum or an unnervingly identical imposter starts posting cam sessions that Lola didn’t make, and locks her out of her account while her regular fanbase is none the wiser. With no help or protection to speak of, Alice/Lola has figure out what the hell is going on and how to get herself, her image, and her career back.
Cam is a radical, neon, sexually vibrant, super-charged, and, at times, pretty horrifying flick. And although the horror and thriller aspects of the film are all fiction, the camgirl experience comes right from screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own life.
Cam does a striking job of shaking loose the usual sad song of sex work usually seen on screen, and Mazzei has a lot to say about the complicated nature of the field. She portrays female sexuality—and sex work in particular—as something creative and empowered rather than exotic, victimizing, or disgraceful. Most importantly, Cam takes a step toward both reworking and revealing aspects of sexuality that usually get crushed and toxified.
“When men pay you for one thing, they think you owe them everything.” –Isa Mazzei
While it seems like a wild ride, it’s also a revitalizing one.
Mazzei’s story is unique in some ways, common in others. Mazzei studied Russian literature at UC Berkeley and worked in web development when she graduated. She didn’t like her job and felt aimless and meandering. She wanted something new to do: a job that was more creative and exciting. Mazzei always wanted to be a stripper, but she hit a snag—she didn’t know how to dance.
So, while trying to reroute her career path, she dated a guy who suggested she try being a camgirl.
“I got so hooked on watching them,” Mazzei says. “l loved what they were doing, I found it exciting and inspiring.”
And she took to it immediately. She found it artistically fulfilling. It was financially rewarding. She felt proud of the success she was having in her new field, and was open about what she was doing with those close to her, despite common negative perceptions about sex work.
“There are so many stereotypes of sex workers in the media. I didn’t want any shame coming into it,” she says. “I was able to tell my friends about it, and telling them about being proud of the cool things I was making. But when I met other people and told them I strip online, they just didn’t get it.They were always asking, ‘Do you really need money that bad?’ They didn’t understand that it was a choice for a job.”
Cam is an artistic step toward repairing a shame-ridden culture that condemns any form of sexuality deemed non-normative.
Mazzei was taken with the creative agency that camming allowed her, and she put a lot of effort into her shows and maintaining relationships with her clients. She says that it was the most demanding job she’s ever had. She describes how niche the different cam shows got: some girls would just sit there, text, and yell at their viewers; some would create elaborate scenes and costumes. Every cam artist had different ways to bring their personalities and style into things like stripping and masturbating.
“In a strip club you follow other people’s rules, like even how high your heels have to be,” Mazzei says. “On a cam site you are your own brand and you bring your own creative edge.”
There were elements that made the job more complicated, unsettling, and even dangerous, and most of it comes to down manifestations of toxic masculinity. The character of Barney in Cam, a fan that gets a little too attached to Lola (played with a brilliantly disturbing and very sweaty desire by Patch Darragh) is based off real-life examples of men she encountered. Much like her former clients, Barney experiences a familiar male entitlement over the female body.
“When men pay you for one thing, they think you owe them everything,” Mazzei says. “They demand so much more than [just the show.]”
Not surprisingly, Lola and her struggles online hit on some of the more existential and political questions Mazzei came to while camming. Lola’s fictional horrors manifest the very literal fracture between the digital persona and IRL self.
“I was thinking, where do I stop and this starts?” she says.
Ultimately, these experiences and thoughts led Mazzei and her ex-lover, director Daniel Goldhaber, to make Cam together in the first place. They’d previously collaborated on pornography, but they felt the time had come to tell a story about camming on Mazzei’s terms in a genre they both loved.
Mazzei says that the scenes with law enforcement in the film were also based off of real exchanges of her own or others she’s known. When Lola tries to seek help to regain her online identity, she gets shamed and isn’t taken seriously by police.
Mazzei says this speaks to a big problem with law enforcement and the stigma of sex work.
“Law enforcement don’t take sex workers seriously, and don’t prioritize protecting them,” she says. “They often don’t report the crimes or [workers] get hit on or harassed.”
“Law enforcement don’t take sex workers seriously, and don’t prioritize protecting them.” –Isa Mazzei
Isa even experienced invasive questions like, “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to do?” from executives while pitching the film. She describes how police are generally unadapted to dealing with online altercation, and cites an article she read about a woman who contacted the police after being targeted online. She was told “if you don’t like this you should stay off the internet.” This kind of treatment from law enforcement has to change.
“We are ready for something different,” Mazzei said of the representation of sex workers in the media and cultural at large. “I have a hope that people start to think critically about incredibly diverse representation across the board—in everything.”
Mazzei’s depiction of sex work and Lola’s overall journey does just that: It’s an artistic step toward repairing a shame-ridden culture that condemns any form of sexuality deemed non-normative. And although the mysterious villain in the film tries to take free expression from Lola, she takes it back in a big way.
Mazzei also says that we need begin to consume things actually created by sex workers if we’re actually hoping to shift awareness about what sex work is like, and provide workers with the rights and protection they deserve. Listen to their experiences, she says, whether through books, films, memoirs, blogs or social media.
“The more we have authentic representation,” she says, “the more empathy we are able to cultivate for each other and the more respect we are able to have for each other.”