As you fumble around one night on your computer, one-handed, a small pop-up window suddenly appears on your screen. In it, a young woman lounges languidly on a bed, running her fingertips up her hindquarters. Occasionally she leans forward, clicking a long, painted nail on her keyboard, and delivering a drawling “thaaaank yoouuuu.”
This, of course, is a cam girl. For the uninitiated, she is more than a little confusing. Who is she? Where is she? What is she doing, and who is paying her to do it? In his new documentary, Cam Girlz, filmmaker Sean Dunne seeks to answer these questions; to reveal the untold story of who these women are, how their worlds function, and what they mean for the rest of us.
Through a series of brief vignettes, Dunne’s film follows 19 very different women during their workdays. Some are tall and willowy, others are zaftig and petite. One is married with children, one is over 60 years old, and many are inked and pierced. The movie itself looks like a VICE documentary that’s been treated with an Instagram filter; it’s beautiful to watch, but edgy enough to penetrate even the most ironic of worldviews.
And penetrate it must. Dunne's subjects have found both financial stability and sexual confidence through their work, and are putting into practice one of third-wave feminism's most highly contested constructs: That their bodies are theirs to do with as they wish, including generate profit.
“I think I didn’t fully understand what it was that they did,” says Dunne, who works with a creative team based in both Los Angeles and New York. “You’re watching porn and, like, all of a sudden there’s a pop-up and there’s some weird bedroom somewhere, and something that you can’t really explain is going on…So I started asking myself all these questions, and then it’s just like, ‘Oh duh, our next movie is about cam girls. Of course.’”
Most of Dunne’s subjects spend about eight hours a day in front of their computer screens. They dance, chat, strip, masturbate, and — in some particularly inspired cases — execute performance art, as customers ply them with tips. They attract money and fans more for their hustle and creativity than their looks; one of the more popular girls (above) plays acoustic guitar in the dark. Another exquisitely bold young lady dances in silence, dressed as a mime. A third performs alongside a Beetlejuice puppet who ejaculates blood.
Dunne, a 33-year-old filmmaker from Brooklyn with a hipster fade and cutting-edge facial scruff, has created a niche for himself by spotlighting America's underprofiled, underestimated subcultures. One of his first films, American Juggalo, documented the Insane Clown Posse's fanatic fan base. Dunne won Best New Director at the Tribeca Film Festival for his follow-up, Oxyana, which explores a small town in West Virginia whose residents have fallen victim to prescription painkiller addiction.
In Cam Girlz, Dunne's empathy for fringe communities speaks quietly to viewers who harbor lingering beliefs that sex workers are damaged, coerced, beset with daddy issues, or simply not the brightest crayons in the box.
“I had preconceived notions about porn and cam girls and the types of women that did it,” says Dunne. “I might have even been slightly — even just in my own head — a slut-shamer in some way. I think it had to do with that tendency to want to help them. And then you’re around it, and you gain an understanding of it, and…that's a really condescending way to look at somebody's profession. You do not need to be worried about these people.”
After all, these are ladies who have set up online video streaming accounts, created personal brands and marketing strategies, scheduled their own work hours, and filed taxes as business owners — all so they can do sex work.
“They’re pioneers,” says Dunne. “They’re using the internet to create businesses and build up retirement funds and all these things that you don’t think of pornographers, quote-unquote, as doing. They’re behaving just like any other small business owner — and they’re doing it all without society’s blessing.”
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