Madeline Brewer in Netflix's sex-worker film Cam

How 'Cam' Flips Hollywood's View of Sex Workers

Star Madeline Brewer and the Netflix camming film's team discuss nudity and removing the male gaze

Courtesy: Netflix

When Isa Mazzei set out to sell her first feature-length script, her past life as a cam girl should have worked to her advantage. Cam, now streaming on Netflix, draws from her own experiences as a sex worker to tell the story of Alice, a twentysomething webcam model whose life comes apart when she’s locked out of her account and replaced by a doppelganger with possible paranormal origins. But instead of trying to figure out the many ways that her old job informed the story, Mazzei was instead subjected to Hollywood executives who were as sleazy as they were skeptical. 

“We’re in a professional setting, we’re in a boardroom, and instead of asking me about the script or the story or about me, they’re asking me about the weirdest sexual act that I’ve ever performed,” she tells Playboy. “They would assume that I didn’t write the script, and I said, ‘No, I studied literature in college, I’ve been writing my entire life, I’m a writer.’ But they couldn’t see me as a writer—they could only see me as a cam girl.”
Mazzei, now 27, started camming in her early 20s, not because she needed to overcome an urgent financial situation, but because she wanted to. Like her on-screen counterpart, Mazzei enjoyed both the daily minutiae of the job and the opportunity for genuine self-expression that it provided. But some of the people in her life didn’t always see it that way and assumed that she was being exploited or victimized. “Do you really need money that bad?” they’d ask her, often wondering why a college-educated girl who’d had success in other fields would willingly choose to be a sex worker.

One person who spared her that judgment was Cam director Daniel Goldhaber, Mazzei’s ex-high school sweetheart and a budding, Harvard-educated filmmaker, who had previously directed her cam videos to help unlock their cinematic potential. “Not only am I really proud of the work that I made, but the second I started working in it, I started consuming porn differently,” Goldhaber says of his early foray into adult entertainment. “I started getting really irritated at the way so much porn is cut. I started noticing the aesthetics of pornography in a way that I’d never thought about them before.”

After feeling like they’d reached a creative plateau, Mazzei and Goldhaber had the idea to make a movie set in the world of camming. Initially, they didn’t know exactly what shape it would ultimately take, but they knew that they wanted to destigmatize the public’s perception of sex work. “That was the main goal long before we had the plot or the idea, even before we knew it would be a genre film,” Mazzei says. “That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to show a sex worker and have an audience rooting for her, which is rarely, if ever, done in media.”

In Alice, Mazzei and Goldhaber subvert the Hollywood sex-worker template by giving her agency. She loves her job, and she’s damn good at it, too. “They’re often stereotypes,” Mazzei says of the way sex workers are depicted in film and television. “Like the ‘stripper with a heart of gold.’ They’re not multi-dimensional characters. They’re props or objects that are either the butt of a joke or used to tell some morality story about some innocent girl falling in the deep dark hole of pornography, when that’s not what it’s like at all.”
One of the ways they went about destigmatizing sex work was by building empathy for their protagonist, which, according to Goldhaber, is the biggest single thing that sex workers are denied in the media. “We’re living in a moment where, in the states, our government just passed two bills that have made sex workers’ lives much more difficult and much more unsafe, so legalization or decriminalization and having the proper institutional support for sex workers is very important,” he says. “But what is equally important is social destigmatization. I have friends in Montreal and Berlin who are sex workers, and those are places where legal support for sex workers is there, but even so, with the social stigma, it’s still really difficult, and it’s still less safe.”

In their search for Alice, Mazzei and Goldhaber were stonewalled by agents who refused to show their clients the script, out of fear that it was far too risqué and potentially career-ending. It wasn’t until Blumhouse got involved that they scored a meeting with The Handmaid’s Tale’s Madeline Brewer, a suggestion made by Goldhaber’s father after he saw her in an episode of Black Mirror. But even with Blumhouse’s stamp of approval, Brewer’s manager was hesitant to show her the script.

Brewer admits that she had her own reservations about signing on. “Before I read the script and was given the synopsis, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’" she tells Playboy. “If this is done incorrectly, if it’s just soft porn, then this is career-ending.” It wasn’t until she actually sat down with Mazzei and Goldhaber that Brewer decided that she didn’t want anyone else to play Alice. Part of what appealed to Brewer was that the story was imbued with the kind of authenticity that could only come from someone who had lived in that world. “Telling a story like this can’t be done without the voice of a sex worker,” the 26-year-old Brewer explains. “Otherwise, it would be exploitative and too Hollywood and very male gaze-y, and we wanted to avoid that all costs.”
This film is about a cam girl, but it could so easily be about anyone with a social-media presence. We all have this curated self that we put online, and we all crave that validation of likes and upvotes.
Mazzei scripted the anonymous texts in Alice’s chat window and interviewed her former colleagues about their own experiences. And while she was never actually locked out of her account by a digital copy, she did suffer from the same anxieties that plague anyone who presents a version of themselves online.

“Whenever you’re a persona online, there’s this question of, ‘Do these people like me, or do they just like this persona?’ and a lot of those anxieties in Alice are heavily drawn from my own experiences,” she says. Mazzei and Goldhaber hoped that by exploring what it means to live a life online through the lens of camming, and ultimately having that life compromised, they could tap into something that would resonate with anyone who’s ever a social media account. “This film is about a cam girl, but it could so easily be about an Instagram model or a YouTube star, or anyone with a social-media presence. We all have this curated self that we put online, and we all crave that validation of likes and upvotes.”

Goldhaber agrees. “The internet is a place where you can go to express yourself, to connect with other people and to perform,” he says. “Those virtual identities are really corruptible and really fragile, and these little avatars that we put out in the world are often the more real version. So we really wanted to showcase that the existence of digital avatars have changed the way that we look at our own sense of identity and the identity of those in our communities.”
Though Mazzei is credited as Cam’s writer and Goldhaber its director, the duo stress that making the film was an inclusive, collaborative and communicative process, an ethos that ran across the entire cast and crew. “Isa was deeply involved not just in the writing of the film, but in the direction and editing as well,” Goldhaber explains. "We wanted to strip the male gaze out of the film, and she was there making sure that was happening all the time." That spirit was also evident In talking to the duo, whose sexual politics are deeply aligned. Both resent the way sex workers are held to a higher moral standard when it comes to their chosen career, and made a point to position the job alongside other, more traditional professional pursuits. ”I think we always demand of sex workers that they be completely empowered by their work, or otherwise they’re being exploited, and we don’t do that for anyone else,” Mazzei says. “We don’t go up to a waiter and say, ‘Is this job empowering you? Does this job make you feel OK?’ At the end of the day, sex work is work, and we wanted to show it that way."  

Goldhaber says they looked at films like Black Swan and Whiplash as texts that explore what it means to be passionate about something, and the toll that it takes both physically and psychologically. “They’re these narratives about great artists sacrificing their psyches and bodies for their work, and nobody looks at them and says, ‘Man, there’s a lot of downside to drumming and ballet.’ When you’re working really hard to achieve something in any industry, and especially the creative industry, you’re going to run up against things about those industries that are difficult.” And while it’s clear that Alice clearly takes pride in her work, they didn’t want to sugarcoat her experience. “We’re saying, ‘These are some of the things you have to deal with,’ but this is also a place where you are expressing yourself, where you are having this opportunity to work in this incredible field and where Alice is making incredible art out of it at the same time,” Goldhaber explains.
“I think the problem is that so often in media, we either super exotify and glamorize sex work, and we show it as some sort of out of-this-world glamorous experience, or it’s this inherently exploitative and victimizing experience,” adds Maizel. “But it can be creatively fulfilling, it can be glamorous—it can also be disempowering at times, and it can be empowering at times. It’s a nuanced career just like any other one, and understanding that instead of falling into these pitfalls of stereotyping is so important if you want to make an ethical film about sex worker.”

Brewer was also crucial in the film’s collaborative process, especially when it came to determining what purpose nudity would serve in the film. It was important to all three that Alice’s nudity came from a place of character, not from a place outside the story. “There’s a scene at the end that was scripted that she’s fully naked, and we were just like, ‘No, it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t serve the character, and it doesn’t serve her objective in the scene,'” Brewer says. “'She’s not on cam right now. Her focus isn’t to get tokens—it’s to get her show back.'” Brewer saw the opportunity to play Alice as way to confront her own issues with body dysmorphia. “I was not going to assign it to her. That wouldn’t do her justice because she’s not like me in that way. It forced me to push it to the side and focus on the work and focus on the character and who she is and check my own bullshit at the door.”

Prior to filming, Brewer had no relationship with the cam world, but admits to being a convert and even follows a handful of cam girls on social media. “I just find them to be completely fascinating," the Orange Is the New Black alum says. "They engage with their bodies and their occupation in a way that I don’t and that I don’t feel comfortable with, and I admire them for it because it’s a level of bodily agency that I sometimes don’t feel like I have.” Like the filmmakers, it’s Brewer’s hope that this film forces people to see cam girls in a whole new light, especially when it comes to Mazzei. “She has such a brilliant mind and such a strong voice. I just really hope that people start to listen to what she has to say.”

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