How is technology shaping our desires? What bodies and faces populate our screens? What’s left of the flesh in virtual spaces? Biz Sherbert addresses these and other questions in her essay, following human and non-human actors who have adopted successful strategies to stimulate and nourish the fantasies and wishes of users. In a world in which it becomes increasingly necessary to perform in front of a camera for the benefit of others watching on their screen, camgirls have successfully positioned themselves as cultural icons. Their practices, strategies and aesthetics provide more than a lesson in online pornography as a business. They reflect the state of our libidinal economy, posing the question, at times even explicitly: Is this art?
People first started talking about how the internet changed the way we look in the mid 2010s. The term “Instagram face” emerged to describe the flawless, homogenized appearance of what Jia Tolentino described as “professionally beautiful women” in her 2019 essay on the phenomenon. The faces Tolentino wrote about just a couple of years ago already look outdated— still plump and signaling perfection but austerely optimized and un-erotic compared to the online fantasy face of today. This updated face is more neotenous and elven—an increased quotient of cuteness brings it closer to that of a female anime character than Kim Kardashian (generally considered the template for Instagram face 1.0).
Scrolling through my TikTok For You page, I see this face often. I find myself slowing down to stare at a girl with a thin, long neck, saucer eyes turned up toward her temples, and a narrow, pearly nose. Her face is heart-shaped and cherubic, just like her mouth, and her cheekbones are high but full. Her beauty stays invariably picturesque as she smoothly moves through facial expressions that match the lyrics of the song she’s lip-syncing. She has a bone structure that elicits engagement, whether it be likes, comments, shares, or follows — all valuable signals that tell the algorithm to show her content to more people.
The face I’ve described could belong to any algorithmically pretty girl on TikTok, or it could belong to the algorithmically pretty girl of the whole internet—Belle Delphine (had she not been banned from the app). Delphine, called “the platonic ideal of an e-girl” by Vice, is living proof that if you look enough like an anime girl, you can collect the spoils of the internet. At just 21, Delphine is already a cyber-cultural icon—rising to fame in 2018 through her distinctive pastelized cosplay, NSFW trolling, and notorious ahegao face (an exaggerated facial expression used to signify orgasm in Japanese pornography). She’s most famous for selling her bottled bath water, but she also makes money off her huge online following the old fashioned way—by selling naughty pictures to her fans. In the final week of 2020, Delphine made her porn debut, posting a homemade sex tape on her subscription-based OnlyFans page, where she now allegedly makes over a million dollars a month.
A few doors down on the web lives a character who looks a lot like Delphine—the same petite frame, milky skin, wide eyes, and candy-candy hair. Her name is Melody, and like Delphine, she’s a high-earning digital sex worker. Only Melody is really digital; she doesn’t just look like an anime girl, she literally is one. Melody (short for Projekt Melody) describes herself as “hentai AI”—she’s a 3D-rendered, anime-style virtual avatar who live streams herself performing erotic acts for tips. And while virtual influencers are on the rise globally, Melody claims to be the first to have gone fully lewd.
Thanks to advanced animation software, Melody has the mannerisms of a human camgirl. She writhes to music, banters with her audience, and blows kisses to big tippers—all in real time. She even uses an internet-connected vibrator that viewers control with donations—a toy popular with flesh-and-blood cammodels. And there probably is a flesh-and-blood body behind Projekt Melody, too. Someone, presumably a woman outfitted in advanced motion sensor technology, likely “puppeteers” Melody, making the movements her fans see on screen and voicing the moans and giggles they pay to hear.
As far as camgirls go, Melody was a viral sensation, gaining tens of thousands of followers in her first few days streaming on Chaturbate in early 2020 (she now has over 187,000 followers there and many more across her other online platforms). A host of anime and hentai fans quickly embraced Melody, establishing a forum on Reddit to eulogize her untouchable adorability, share fan art, and discuss all things related to the Projekt Melody universe. But a few concerned parties saw Melody’s quick rise to popularity as an omen of sinister times to come and expressed anxiety that human cammodels will be discplaced by idealized avatars who never age or look worn out.
Indeed, Melody has spawned a handful of copycats since her debut—doe-eyed cartoon women who bare all and bounce around in real time on adult websites. But it’s unlikely that there’s going to be an anime camgirl coup d’état of the adult industry any time soon, if only because the equipment needed to pull off such a project is expensive and technologically complicated (a body tracking suit alone can cost upwards of $30,000). However, the growing interest in this sector of pornography indicates that erotic attraction to digitally mediated avatars has become mainstream.
This is where the popularity of creators like Belle Delphine, whose desirability relies on her resemblance to lusted-after, intangible anime girls, comes into play. Even if you can’t afford to design your own hypersexy, high-tech avatar, it’s proven profitable to make yourself look as much like one as possible. It’s like a kawaii feedback loop: our documented desire for the Belle Delphines of the world (there are many) brings to the surface our attraction to the animated characters their personas and looks are based on. Once that appetite is stimulated, a natural line of progression leads to a cyberlust for something even closer to the source: a being like Melody, half real girl, half binary code waifu.
And the success of internet personalities like Delphine and Melody doesn’t just say something about the state of our libidinal economy, it also gives a glimpse into the future of cultural production at-large. Both figures are highly polarizing—the kind of creators about whom people often have strong opinions without closely examining what they’re actually doing. That’s because they’re, in an extremely online way, femmebot practitioners of a Duchampian legacy. You probably don’t consider what they’re doing art, but hasn’t that always been the point for enfant terribles?
When Delphine announced she’d be selling her bath water in 2019, the internet freaked out, calling her an e-thot, a genius, a grifter, a performance artist, and a downright troll. She was by no means the first to sell her used personal effects online—sex workers have been doing it for years—but the widespread attention and intense speculation surrounding Delphine’s bottled bath water elevated its status to “highly storied object,” reminiscent even of Piero Manzoni’s legendary Merda d’artista (translation: Artist’s Shit).
Artist’s Shit is a 1961 artwork that consists of ninety 30-gram tin cans Manzoni reportedly filled with his feces. Manzoni sold the tins based on the price of their weight in gold: $37 each in the year they were produced. That’s pretty close to Delphine’s initial listing of her bath water at $30 per dainty, pink-lidded jar labeled “Gamer Girl Bathwater.” Beyond starting price, Manzoni’s shit and Delphine’s bath water have a lot in common. Their titles read similarly, they’re both neatly packaged containers of (alleged) waste, and both appreciated in value over time despite being “worthless.” A can of Artist’s Shit sold for $300,000 at an auction in 2016 and one is in the permanent collection at the Tate. We don’t know if a jar of Gamer Girl Bathwater will be put up for bid at Sotheby’s in 50 years, but when it sold out a few days after Delphine listed it on her website, eBay sellers tried to resell what they claimed was her bath water for up to $15,000. And the true contents of both are ambiguous—a friend of Manzoni’s claims the tins are full of not shit but plaster. Likewise, the internet debated whether Delphine had actually bathed with the water she put up for sale, even seeking scientific opinion. That both investigations remain inconclusive only builds the objects’ notoriety.
Conceptually, both objects are comments on the relationship between commodity and the human body. But Manzoni was an artist and so Artist’s Shit is art, and Gamer Girl Bathwater is a product and Delphine is, well, a really famous gamer girl. Even so, does such context really matter much anymore? Perhaps one answer lies in Melody’s Youtube video “Is Hentai Art?” She gives a 13-minute lecture on the subject, concluding that art is defined by its ability to elicit emotional response. So, if hentai stirs something up deep within the viewer, maybe it’s not just porn, it’s art—at least according to Melody.
With Delphine’s Bathwater, which has an undeniably pornographic aura, the intimacy sublimated into its alleged production was probably the draw for earnest buyers—a yearning for a connection deeper than what the screen affords, even if just through murky tap water that may or may not have touched their objet petit a’s body. If they wanted something for expressly sexual purposes, they could’ve purchased Delphine’s softcore photos, which probably would’ve gotten the job done faster. But Gamer Girl Bathwater possesses a valuable and viscerally human essence that can’t be communicated digitally, and it also gives it a depth that places it closer towards the porn-turned-art category as Melody defines it. Afterall, isn’t desiring someone so much that you want to own a piece of them, if only a few skin cells, a kind of emotional investment?
Of course, these classifications are made based on the logic of whoever’s behind Projekt Melody, a party with a monetary interest in milking hentai for all its worth. But in an environment where crypto-art fetches $69 million at Christie’s, and artists are rushing to digitize their work, it makes sense that avant-garde, or just highly entrepreneurial, actors of the art world would think about digitizing themselves too. Or at least start getting comfortable in the grey area between virtual and flesh—the neighborhood Melody reigns over and Delphine’s lucrative territory borders. But it’s a dusky, lawless region. Once you build your own endlessly modifiable half-ghost in the shell, it’s hard to keep track of what exactly you’re selling and what it’s really worth.