Reel Women: ‘King Kelly’ and the Indictment of Women Raised on Social Media
In its first 15 minutes or so, 'King Kelly' appears to be a grating portrait of an obnoxious cam girl, but stick with it long enough and you'll find an indictment of our current generation and the way modern young women are shaped by the social media that has raised them.
Oddly, 'King Kelly' makes a great double feature with the subject of my last column, 'Sexy Baby.' In that documentary, a 13-year-old girl posts suggestive photos of herself even though she's aware of the detrimental capacity of social media on young women. By the end of the documentary she becomes quite vocal about the lapsing divide between her internet persona and the real her, at a time in her young life when she's doing the most self-discovery.
'King Kelly' tells the story of that girl if she were less self-aware, more shallow and gave into her internet persona, foregoing any characteristics of a true self. Kelly is a cam girl -- the kind of girl that pops up in a small window on a pornography site and entices you to pay her to engage in various acts for your, um, enjoyment. Like most cam girls, Kelly has a loyal following of a handful of guys who reward her handsomely for performing solo-sex acts on camera. Her on-camera persona is a caricature -- the idea we have in our heads of these types of women (and often, according to several pieces I've read on the internet, these perceptions are false): she talks in a little girl voice, all sugary and innocent, pouting and biting her lip; she puts on the fake porn star moans and sighs. She uses a baby voice to prey on men's innate attraction to helpless young women. She is everything wrong with women and the way they behave and she uses this persona -- on camera and off -- to get men to give her everything she wants. She is a petulant child.
But the problem with Kelly is that the cameras are never off. The film is told through the lens of her and her best friend's iPhone cameras, which are always recording, even when Kelly's ex takes his car back from her, which happens to be loaded with a trunk full of drugs that she's supposed to deliver to a local dealer. And while that serves as the driving action for the film, leading Kelly to meet an online lover who happens to be a state trooper and sending her on a drug-fueled rampage with her friend, that's not the stuff that's most interesting.
'King Kelly' has a point: like Gregg Araki's films of the '90s ('Nowhere,' 'The Doom Generation'), 'King Kelly' is annoyingly vapid, but that vapidity mirrors its central character and has something to say about our current generation. Think of women in their late teens and early 20s who have always had the internet. These women who, as they were exploring themselves throughout adolescence, have always had social media and the act of documenting everything in their lives on a daily basis to act as the figurative and literal lens through which they show themselves to the world. The film doesn't necessarily condemn social media, but it does shine a harsh light on a generation raised on constant internet interactions.
We create a persona when we engage with others online -- whether it's on Twitter, where the 140-character limitation inspires us to either become more witty versions of ourselves or to indulge in multi-tweet laments about our personal lives; or Facebook, where we can post personal details and banal day-to-day activities, sharing our locations and complaining about our love life or lack thereof; or Instagram, where we post photos of the food we eat, no matter how unappetizing those filters often make it appear. We have all done these things at various times in our life. It seems more acceptable to take the superficial approach (posting food pics and sharing witty insights), but there is a generation behind us that has only ever known social media as an outlet for the good and the bad.
And Kelly is that person revved up to 11. There is no boundary between her personal life and her online persona because she has no sense of identity when the camera isn't on. She is all fake and superficial and driven by her Id -- that most primitive part of our consciousness that's all desire and irrational want. It makes for compelling entertainment, but no one wants to be that person and no one wants to be friends with that person. But here we are in the modern age, where young women are being raised to blog, tweet, and update their Facebook and Tumblr pages with every thought they have. What makes someone like Kelly possible is the way that social media gives us the ability to create our own networks and communities of "friends" (some real, some we never have or will meet) -- the people whose interests most align with our own and who enable us, through their own posts or their responses to ours, to continue living our most private lives online and very publicly until we no longer function without a computer or smart phone.
Look, technology is great. Most of us have healthy relationships with social media. But there's no escaping the truth that teenagers are being nursed and nurtured by the internet, and someone like Kelly, who doesn't know how to function socially without switching on the cameras and her online persona, isn't that far off from reality. We can try to analyze why girls like Kelly turn out the way they do -- it could be fear, self-loathing, or utter delusion with the world around them -- but it all comes back to the way she's trained herself to live this life online.
And like the teen girl in 'Sexy Baby,' Kelly finds hateful comments on a video posted by her friend, with her online "friends" calling her a slut and a whore and making fun of her sexed-up internet persona. Some of the friends are joking, but derogatory comments such as those spring from a kernel of truth, or at the very least, what society has taught us to deride as indecent. Superficial or no, those comments sting. And yet Kelly, like the girl in 'Sexy Baby,' soldiers on, unwilling to compromise who she is for the sake of others -- and that's probably the only admirable quality she has.