Locked up and blue
August 7, 2008 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Men in Women-in-Prison [Films]
"This dynamic — of eroticized male exclusion from, and investment in, female relationships — was the defining feature of a handful of women-in-prison films from the 1970s. In these movies, female sisterhood, generally in the face of oppression, is itself fetishized — feminism is turned into a kind of masochistic male wet dream. How this unlikely cathexis occurred, and how it functioned, is the subject of this essay."

Director Jack Hill responds, The only things I do want to take unequivocal credit for on the record are Bobby [Roberta] Collins' lines, "Get it up or I'll cut it off," which invariably brought down the house; and "Hah! Now I'm in my own natural element," when she falls into the mud, which, strangely, didn't even get many laughs. And then, a lot of Sid Haig's business, of course.
posted by carsonb (23 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
So this is about boyzone-ing about no-boy-zones?
posted by orthogonality at 12:20 AM on August 7, 2008

The head-shaving scene from Caged.
Trailer for Chained Heat 2.
posted by carsonb at 12:37 AM on August 7, 2008

Whoops, correct Trailer link.
posted by carsonb at 12:38 AM on August 7, 2008

Neocon chicks in chains.

Also, this will not end well.
posted by longsleeves at 12:52 AM on August 7, 2008

I went through a women-in-prison films phase many years ago. One thing's for sure: male prison guards do not fare well in these films.

I'd recommend The Big Bird Cage and Scrubbers.
posted by stinkycheese at 2:38 AM on August 7, 2008

*shanks longsleeves*
posted by stinkycheese at 2:40 AM on August 7, 2008

*orders stinkycheese to cruel female warden's secret punishment chamber*
posted by longsleeves at 3:30 AM on August 7, 2008

Like many men, I like me a men in women-imprisoned-in-men movie, myself. Rib Cage was one of the better ones. It's the word "film" I don't like. Icky.
posted by pracowity at 3:54 AM on August 7, 2008

How big is the overlap in the Venn diagram of guys who are big fans of women in prison movies and guys who want to watch as their wife is impregnated by another man? CREEPZONE.
posted by Daddy-O at 5:11 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Very interesting essay. For those who don't want to read the whole (practically book-length) thing, here's the heart of the historical argument:
What is the difference between B melodrama and sexploitation? Both are, broadly speaking, popular schlock. Their emotional appeal is similarly naked and similarly crass. Neither has any pretensions to high art. They are, in fact, the same thing — with one key difference. Melodrama (or romance) is aimed at women; sexploitation (or porn) is aimed at men. Sylvia Sidney kissing her doomed husband through the bars in Ladies of the Big House (1931) is meant to make the female hindbrain spasm; Brigitte Nielsen in a leather corset in Chained Heat 2 (1993) is meant to have an analogous effect on men. The genre is the same; only the gender of the audience has changed.

The thing is, genre and gender share more than just a Latin root. The two define each other. Romance wouldn't be romance without women; men would be very different creatures indeed without porn. Thus, the transformation of women-in-prison films is more than just an alteration in genre conventions — it's a gender fuck. And the natural accompaniment to gender fuck is camp.

The pivotal film in the transition from female to male audience is Caged (1950), perhaps the only women-in-prison film that makes a sustained bid for high-art cred. It does so in a time-honored way — by leavening its melodrama with social tragedy, producing a kind of existential weeper.

For Caged, then, camp is a pivot, around which the film turns from a narrative of corruption to one of liberation, from gritty problem drama to flamboyant farce, from melodrama to sexploitation. The tipping points are so obvious that upending the structure becomes almost irresistible. And, indeed, few filmmakers in the genre have bothered to resist. Over the decades, writers and directors have lined up to expose the dank underbelly of Caged in all its camp, sexy, occasionally feminist glory.

The result has been one of the most aesthetically underwhelming genres in American film. Caged is, as it turns out, a lot more carefully constructed than it appears on first glance. You can certainly flip it over, but in doing so, the pieces go subtly out of whack, and instead of a beautiful piece of craftsmanship you’re left with a pile of crap.
Bonus for making it to the end: a discussion of Tarantino's contribution to the genre, and why it made reviewers uneasy.
posted by languagehat at 7:01 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with LanguageHat -- I read the whole essay and found it fascinating. I had always thought that women-in-prison movies were all about the lesbian fantasy angle, but -- wow -- I'd never seen the masochistic angle. It's much more complex than I'd thought.

And I don't see why this discussion won't end well, longsleeves, as long as it doesn't devolve into a "LOLthreesomes" slop.
posted by lleachie at 7:22 AM on August 7, 2008

This is a really thoughtful and well-researched essay. I had no idea that women-in-prison movies could be so..deep.
posted by biscotti at 7:36 AM on August 7, 2008

TV - Prisoner - Is it a monster? Ernest Craven, Blackmoor’s evil and corrupt Governor.
posted by tellurian at 7:51 AM on August 7, 2008

As a result, Caged Heat has the dubious distinction of being the most, if not the only, overrated women-in-prison film in existence

this man is insane, it's a very good movie
posted by matteo at 7:58 AM on August 7, 2008

Great essay, but he lost my faith a bit with this paragraph:

So I like the latter Marie because I read feminist theory and am generally a sensitive new age guy. But I also like her because I'm just a guy. Marie at the beginning of the film is too good, too obviously focused on her husband, her baby, and her own plight, to be a satisfactory object of desire — she's beautiful, but inaccessible. By the end, though, she's come down off her pedestal, and so can be an object not of romantic love, but of lust. Which is to say that men like to see women corrupted; loss of virtue makes women sexier.

I would prefer he simply confer visibility and look-worthiness on the non-virtuous, cinema's central moralistic principle, and build from there. The 1:1 relationship of debauchery and sexuality is familiar, but unfounded by his argument, and this reads a little like a leap directly to "well, men are like this and I would know lol. There's something this essay could bear to repeat about male viewership's dependence on generic and presentational cues for the development of arousal, and what those are, as evidenced by the reception of Marie throughout her transition.

The issue of availability to bear the look as object is, IRL, denied by society's removal of women from the public sphere into either domesticity or prison. Pulling back that curtain and creating a fabulous voyeuristic erotic imaginary is what these films do. Therefore It's worth pondering why there aren't more desperate housewife gilt-cage straight-up exploitation films. Damn would I love to see some X rated Sirk.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:17 AM on August 7, 2008

Also? I'm having a hard time reading the snippets of dialogue, like

"I don't want to do things for Grear anymore. I'd like to do something for you. I need a friend."

"You son of a bitch! You're rotten, Harry. You know why? 'Cause you're a man. All men are filthy! All they ever want to do is to get at you. For a long time I let them get at me. That's why I'm in this dump. But no more, you hear me? I'm not going to let a man's filthy hands touch me again!"

"Besides, you can't rape me. I like sex."

without employing the voice of Jerri Blank.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:32 AM on August 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

I found it interesting that Berlatsky refers to camp rather frequently but always without acknowledging its potential. Even in his response to the comments of Jack Hill - who, in his philosophical aside, criticizes western dualism - Berlatsky remains strictly binary, perhaps necessarily, given a second-wave feminist analysis.
posted by xod at 12:00 PM on August 7, 2008


Not sure if this fits in this thread, but it's damn close.
posted by JBennett at 1:56 PM on August 7, 2008

How this unlikely cathexis occurred, and how it functioned, is the subject of this essay.

I read this, and I was all like, "Duh, camp, right?" Right.

I was disappointed there wasn't even a hint of how the 60s/70s subgenre related to the briefly-popular sadistic Southern sheriff genre, a la Macon County Line.
posted by dhartung at 11:05 PM on August 7, 2008

The author of the original essay responds to parts of this thread (specifically xod and Ambrosia Voyeur) on his blog.
posted by Hartster at 4:42 AM on August 8, 2008

Interesting. Thank you, Hartster, for pointing this out.

In his response to my comment he states, "I think gender matters, and I think camp tends to be about gender, not opposed to it."

I disagree. By virtue of blurring gender into a third term or by exaggeration into caricature, camp often, very willfully, undermines the binary construct of gender.

The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one's sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. . . . Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn't: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms. For obvious reasons, the best examples that can be cited are movie stars. The corny flamboyant female-ness of Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo; the exaggerated he-man-ness of Steve Reeves, Victor Mature. The great stylists of temperament and mannerism, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Edwige Feuillière. "Notes on Camp" Susan Sontag

It's a minor point and perhaps only a distraction from the central themes of his essay, which I enjoyed. And, of course, if pursued, it would entirely redirect the essential, psychoanalytic logic of the essay.
posted by xod at 8:53 AM on August 8, 2008

Oh, neat!

To clarify his confusion about my first paragraph's meaning: I am trying to examine a little more closely the relationships between virtuousness, sexiness, and onscreen/offscreen visibility itself. There's an argument to be made (by the morals of the era of Cinema's inception or by Mulvey, perhaps) that any woman on screen is automatically a debauched object of desire, so my question is about how sexy Marie was to begin with. From the sound of the essay, almost not at all. I'm curious about how her embodiment of domesticity so effectively neutered her latent appeal as visible sexual object, especially as it contrasts with her butchy sexuality later on! And yes, I know that's a question that demands more textual analysis, which your essay as a whole does not require. Just curious.

I also enjoyed the essay a lot, Noah. Thanks for interacting.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:34 AM on August 8, 2008

Therefore It's worth pondering why there aren't more desperate housewife gilt-cage straight-up exploitation films.

AV, mavbe the relentless porn trope of the pizza-delivery-plumber-gardener-pool boy ... accounts for some of this domestic deficit.
posted by xod at 11:31 AM on August 8, 2008

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