Who is that comely, vicious gal plotting mayhem from the shadows? Why, the dyke of 1960s pop culture, of course.
“Lesbians have their variations from one group to another. There are those women who are cultured and refined who sneak away to some dirty bar in order to find a trampish-looking woman to make love to. Some women break up homes, forsake children for the love of another woman. Then there are the teenage lesbian or baby butch. They roam the big city streets in large gangs assaulting everyone who falls within their path. Some of the weapons they use run the gamut of fists, lead pipes, chains. Many of these girls eventually end up as drug addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes . . . Regardless of what the lesbian does or where she goes, her life is a very difficult one. She, like her male counterpart, leads a very lonely and despairing life.” (Chained Girls)
Welcome to the amusing and disturbing world of lesbian pulp! The preceding was a quote from Chained Girls (1965), a black-and-white film I discovered thanks to the Something Weird Video collection. It stands as a classic example of sexploitation films, and yet as a lesbian-themed exploitation film, it is also heavily indebted to the explosion of lesbian pulp fiction novels in the 1950s and ’60s, qualifying as a type of lesbian pulp film.
One of the ways authors and filmmakers of this conservative era avoided obscenity charges when dealing with homosexual subject matter was to couch their exploration of sexual deviance in scientific terms. Chained Girls writer-director Joseph Mawra uses this tactic, creating a film that is part pseudo-documentary and part pure pornography. Hence quotes from Freud and serious statistics compiled from medical journals are liberally interspersed with gratuitous shots of topless women rolling around on top of each other. The film’s stated purpose is to define the lesbian for the general public, for both “preventative education” (“Only through understanding the facts can we keep lesbianism from becoming a serious social problem”), and, more to the point, sheer titillation. Chained Girls begins by asking in an authoritative male voiceover: “Who and what is a lesbian? Is lesbianism a disease or a natural occurrence? Is lesbianism reserved for only a few people, or is it a common happening? How do lesbians live? Are they happy with their lives?”
In this film, as in most 1960s descriptions in both high and low culture, she is diseased, narcissistic, immature, violent, predatory, insecure, exciting, promiscuous, and perhaps most consistently, elusive. For as the narrator says: “The majority of lesbians, though they might slightly modify their dress or hairdo, are indistinguishable from the majority of women with whom one would naturally associate.” The film is remarkably vague and contradictory despite its supposed mission to clarify. It states, for example, that lesbians can be cured with medical assistance one moment, then denies that possibility. It then attempts an exhaustive and “impressive” list of occupations where lesbians may be found, but ends by ominously adding that they really might be anywhere.
Hence lesbianism is presented as a kind of invisible threat potentially lurking in the most unsuspected places – a not uncommon metaphor from the paranoid McCarthy red-scare era. The film goes so far as to maintain that “quite often the boundaries of female homosexuality are so vague, that women slip into lesbianism without realizing that they’re lesbian.” So not only is your neighbour or coworker a potential pervert, but so are you, even if you think you’re normal. This unnerving Gothic fear is key to many representations of homosexuality from the time.
The cultural paranoia surrounding homosexuality is clearly spelled out in the climactic scene of the film, which purports to be a dramatization of what occurs at a lesbian’s “coming out” party. With insinuations of witchcraft, several women sit around a large conference table to decide the fate of the new debutante into their “love-cult” of “the daughters of Sappho.” What follows is a violent gang-rape.
This final violence appears inevitable with lesbians, echoed in other 1960s lesbian-themed sexploitation films, such as Peter Woodcock’s Dominique: Daughter of Lesbos (1967), where the last scene also depicts a group of witch-like lesbians sitting around a conference table deciding the fate of someone, although this time it is a straight male rapist and his punishment is castration upon a cross.
Chained Girls is both hilarious and outrageous in its ignorance. Its promotion of excessive lip-licking, for example, as a reliable index of lesbianism, a kind of 1960s gaydar, is outright laughable, whereas other tropes, such as the scene of one dyke murdering another in a jealous rage, shirts torn open to reveal plenty of cleavage of course, prove more unnerving. Many view these types of exploitation films as mere trash, and yet as the anthropologist knows, sorting through the trash of a culture can be extremely telling. The trash that is Chained Girls provides a fascinating if unsettling look back at mid-century America’s cultural paranoia on this subject. It’s one dumpster that’s definitely worth picking through.