It’s really difficult to remember the earlier days of the internet at times: the dial-up speeds, the AOL chat rooms, the GeoCities web pages that made questionable use of Flash graphics. Even then, it was true that the internet was for porn…except of a more pixely, low-resolution variety. This week’s film follows a webcam girl from the late ’90s, and it’s quite a fascinating world. And surprisingly empowering in some ways, though, as with porn, its appeal is a deeply subjective topic.
A young woman living with her sister begins to make her own way by working as a webcam girl in the late 1990s.
In the late ’90s, Sabrina barely makes a living as a phone sex operator. With two siblings to look out for, a young daughter, and a live-in boyfriend, the shared one-bedroom apartment feels tiny. What’s more is that the family matriarch has been unwell in the hospital for some time…and those bills are adding up.
To help keep the family afloat, Sabrina suggests that her 19-year-old sister Tiffany answer a job ad for an internet model gig–nudity required.
With Sabrina’s help, Tiffany is hired on the spot by brother and sister duo Chuck and Vicky. When asked for her name in the chat room, Tiffany gives the name Jezebel. There are few rules in the chat room beyond no nudity (except in private sessions), no onscreen penetration (which can yield a prostitution charge), and no personal contact information (for safety and financial reasons).
In the free chat room, Vicky and Tiffany dress in bikinis or lingerie and type flirty messages to their spectators, waiting for one to pay for a private room. Once in a private room, Tiffany is meant to keep the person on the other side of the screen logged in for as long as possible. Vicky does show Tiffany many of the tricks of the trade–none of the sex acts performed onscreen are real, from playing with sex toys to spanking.
The pay is decent, and, with help from her sister, Tiffany learns quickly how to get the most of her clients. She begins to genuinely have affection for a fetish client, Bobby, who responds well to seeing feet and being scolded or ignored. Tiffany even opens up enough to tell Bobby after she’s been to her mother’s funeral, and to give him her PO box and phone number.
It isn’t long before Tiffany has saved enough money for her own apartment. However, things begin to unravel when a client calls Tiffany the n-word in the chat, and everyone merely tells her to grow thicker skin. Soon after, Chuck calls out Tiffany for ignoring Bobby in a private chat room, despite this being one of his fetishes.
With an offer to move on to the adult film industry, Tiffany isn’t too devastated when she is fired. But when Chuck and Vicky reflect on how much money Tiffany is bringing in, will she return…with demands of her own?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
I really enjoy how quiet and ordinary this film feels in many respects. There are elements of Tiffany’s work as a webcam girl that seem creepy or unsettling, and there are certainly exploitative people and businesses in this realm. However, the focus is on Tiffany and the development of her confidence and power rather than the gritty spiral out of control pattern that films with similar themes typically follow. In the work Tiffany does, it’s not so much what she does that’s important so much as whether she has a say in it. Part of Tiffany’s power is in her willingness to label herself Jezebel (quite literally), as well as her reclamation of the word.
While Tiffany’s journey provides the main story line, the relationship between sisters is also essential. Sabrina introduces her sister to the world of sex work, and this is more or less in line with any other sort of job referral. Her experience as a phone sex operator means Sabrina has an understanding of sexual power, as well as the ways in which sex work from a distance can mean greater control. She is there to offer advice and words of caution. Sex work is another way to earn money, which our characters and the film treat with pragmatism and a lack of melodrama.
My biggest complaint about this film is the lack of structure that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What will happen when Tiffany finally meets Bobby? Will she follow in her sister’s footsteps and pursue a long-term arrangement with him? And what was with Tiffany’s fantasy about one of the other webcam girls–was it exclusively male gaze-y? Because of the nature of this film as sort of a slice of life story, so many questions remain!