Jack Hill’s The Big Bird Cage (1972) is a woman-in-prison sexploitation extravaganza, which means that it’s got lots of T, lots of A, some erotic mud-wrestling, and at least one supermodel running about nude while slathered in lard. And yet, despite such inducements, for me the most sensuous part of the film didn’t involve any bare skin at all. In a scene right at the beginning of the film, socialite Terry Rich (Anitra Ford) walks into a nightclub in which Blossom (Pam Grier) is performing. Terry pauses in front of the stage with her (apparently wealthy and/or influential) boyfriend beside her. Blossom grins at the boyfriend (who stands there looking awkward) and then more emphatically at Terry, who, after a second, gives a half-amused, half-appreciative smile in return, and sways two or three times to the beat.
It doesn’t seem like much, but that instant just oozes sex. It probably has something to do with the spectacular, form-fitting red dress that Anitra Ford is wearing, and something to do with the fact that both she and Pam Grier are extremely charismatic performers. But more than that I think the voluptuousness is located in the interaction between the two; the way Terry so nonchalantly dismisses the outclassed boyfriend, and instead opens herself, with detached deliberation, to Blossom’s voice and movement. It’s a moment of feminine cool and feminine knowledge; a distillation of all those high school dances where the girls shook it for each other on the floor while the guys nervously hugged the wall.
In other words, the power and the sexual charge in the scene comes from two women connecting with each other. This isn’t all that unusual in male-oriented entertainment; there’s lots of lesbian porn for guys, obviously. What is less familiar, though, is the insistence with which the scene deliberately excludes men — whether it be the boyfriend or, by extension, the male sexploitation viewer. Terry doesn’t want to be Blossom; rather she is enjoying being with Blossom. In contrast, my investment in the scene is not just a lust for the protagonists, but a lust to be them; to gain access to a power and knowledge specifically inscribed in female relationships, which is unavailable to men, and thus all the more desired.
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.
Virgin Femme, Butch Whore
As most commentators on the genre have noted, women-in-prison films changed dramatically over the decades. In the thirties, forties, and fifties they were high-drama, weepy B melodramas; in the sixties and later they were sexploitation sleaze.1 That’s a pretty unusual transformation. What happened?
To answer this question, it’s helpful, I think, to ask another. 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.2 It does so in a time-honored way — by leavening its melodrama with social tragedy, producing a kind of existential weeper.
The film’s plot focuses on Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), a pregnant, painfully innocent young woman whose husband involved her, over her objections, in a minor robbery. While Marie is behind bars, two women struggle for her soul — the virtuous warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Morehead) and the brutal matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson). Harper is victorious: the vulnerable neophyte of the opening becomes, by the film’s end, a bitter, hardened woman.
Caged is meant to be an attack on the cruel and arbitrary prison system. In particular it is concerned, as Anne Morey points out, with the way in which that system fails as “an agent to return women to domesticity.”3 Prison is meant to punish and rehabilitate those who violate society’s mores — and yet, at the same time, it stifles the domestic and maternal impulses it claims to uphold. Marie’s husband died in the robbery, and the prison seems determined to strip her of his memory. When she enters the institution, she is forced to take off her wedding ring. Later, the state takes her newborn child and places it up for adoption. Prison is a sustained assault on womanhood, and in despair Marie watches her purity and goodness leech away. “If I have to fall back in,” she tells her parole board in desperation, “I’ll be like the others! And I’m not like them!”
Indeed, initially Marie is not like the others. With her delicate movie-star good looks, gorgeous blond hair, concern about her appearance (she asks for a comb for her mugshot), and weepy vulnerability, she is decidedly femme. Virtually every other major character in the cast is, just as decidedly, butch. From the 6’2″, massively built menace of Harper to the no-nonsense, professionally be-suited Mrs. Benton; from the hatchet-faced, gaudily garbed con who hovers protectively over Marie as the two are inducted into prison, to the sternly acerbic doctor who snaps “Another pregnant one!”; from the homely Kitty (Betty Garde), who tries to recruit Marie for a shoplifting ring, to the handsome vice-queen Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), who tries to recruit Marie for something else — this women’s prison has enough testosterone to intimidate a linebacker.4
There are a couple of other femmes in the movie. One is upper-class, pampered Georgia Harrison (Gertrude Michael); her time in prison drives her insane. Another is Marie’s friend June (Olive Deering). When June fails to get her parole, she is devastated, prompting the callous and, it is implied, lascivious Harper to comment, with some anticipation “all repeaters act queer when they’re flopped back.” That evening, June commits suicide. The message is clear; in prison, you go butch or you die.
June chose the latter; Marie, slowly but inexorably, chooses the former. After her own parole is denied, she is accosted in the prison yard by the newly arrived Elvira who, with a leer, asks Marie her name. Marie responds, for the first time in the film, with self-confident aggression: “I’m a big girl and this isn’t my first year away from home. If I said no to Kitty, I’m sure not going to say yes to you.”
From this point on, Eleanor Parker, the actor playing Marie, starts to harden her voice, clip her diction, and carry herself with a swagger — shifting from female innocent to gangster moll. In quick succession Marie demonstrates a talent for shoplifting (heretofore, in accord with the hapless femme stereotype, she had demonstrated no talent whatsoever), and starts to wear trousers rather than skirts. She does make one last effort to regain her femme identity — she discovers a kitten and keeps it secretly as a pet. In caring for it, her voice even returns, momentarily, to its softer register. But then Harper discovers the creature and tries to take it away. Marie responds with fury, actually fighting and driving off the enormous matron — out-butching the butch. In the melee, however, the kitten is killed, and Marie is dragged off for punishment. Against the warden’s explicit orders, Harper shaves Marie’s head. As Mayne points out, this is presented as a rape.5 But it is also the ultimate act of butchification. When Marie returns from her time in solitary, sporting a crew-cut, pants, and a sullen stare, she looks more like a pissed-off adolescent boy than a glamorous movie star.
As Marie becomes more butch, she also becomes more sexually available. To us, heir to a long-standing partnership between militant lesbianism and militant feminism, this seems exactly backwards — shouldn’t Marie be less sexually available to men as she becomes less feminine? In the ’40s and ’50s, though, things looked somewhat different. At that time, domesticity was seen as the norm, and all deviations from it were lumped together. As a result, “lesbian,” according to Estelle B. Freedman, at that time ” connoted both maleness and a lack of feminine virtue.”6
Freedman points out that the butch/whore prison lesbian was usually defined as black. There are no African-Americans in Caged; nonetheless (or perhaps as a result) the stereotype transfers seamlessly to the lower-class white women in the film. This is most evident in the character of Elvira Powell. As we noted above, Elvira’s chiseled good looks mark her as butch even by the standards of this cast. She is, in addition, a “vice queen” — which is to say, a Madam. In the film, Elvira’s duel identities, as butch and whore, explicitly complement each other. When we first see her, she is talking to Harper (who she has bribed) about the poor quality of women in the joint. “So help me,” she complains, “I never saw such an old-looking bunch of bags.” It is then that her eyes fall on the newly butchified Marie. Thus, it is at the moment that she first starts to become masculinized that Marie is also first presented as a possible prostitute. She rebuffs Elvira, of course — but the hard-edged tone seems only to wet the Madam’s interest. With an appreciation both lascivious and professional, Elvira turns to Harper and comments knowingly, “She’s a cute trick.”7
Elvira goes on to court Marie by giving her a Christmas gift — a rhinestone-studded compact with lipstick. At first, Marie refuses the gift. Just before her second parole hearing, however, a group of female prison-reform do-gooders visits the cell. One of them is very young and richly attired. She is shocked by what she sees in the cell, and especially by Marie, who walks up to the bars and stares her first in the face, and then (as the camera pans deliberately over the visitor’s dress) up and down.
The visitor, in her terror, her vulnerability, and her attire, is femme. Indeed, her expression is more than a little reminiscent of Marie’s when the latter first entered the jail. Marie now, however, is very different — she is hungry, hard, and desperate. Her gaze at the other woman is certainly one of envy . . . but, given the butch-femme dynamic, I think it can also be read as one of lust. She wants what the visitor has, but she also wants the visitor. Her transformation into predatory prison butch has been completed — and, having embraced one kind of deviance, she can embrace others as well. When she turns from the visitor, it is to implicitly, and finally, agree to trade her services to Elvira in return for the latter’s help with the parole board. Marie goes to Elvira’s bunk, picks up the rhinestone compact, and uses it to apply the lipstick.
Mayne points out that in an earlier scene, when the enormous Harper wears a frilly dress, the effect is actually to “emphasize her previously established butch identity.8 Something similar happens here with Marie. Applying make-up should be femme — but the decisive, even violent way Marie does it only highlights her butchness. Lipstick can’t give her back her naiveté or her softness; to be Elvira’s girl is to abandon girlishness forever. When, in the next scene, Marie receives notice of her parole, she looks sharp-edged, beautiful, tough — but not femme. As she leaves the prison, she gets back her wedding ring and throws it in the trash . She then marches out to a waiting car. Once she is seated inside it, a man gets in with her — and as he does, he rests his hand for a moment on her knee. The gesture is both comradely and suggestive; she is one of the boys and owned by the boys, both butch and whore. Prison has destroyed her purity and her femininity. End of moral.
But what moral exactly? Obviously, the film intends us to feel horror and sorrow at Marie’s fate. That horror and that sorrow is predicated on Marie’s transformation; for it to work, I as a viewer have to see Marie’s progress in the film as tragic. The Marie at the beginning must be better — more sympathetic, more admirable, more (in various senses) desirable — than the Marie at the end.
In fact, however, Marie’s corruption is a much more ambivalent process. Personally, for me, the whiny, self-pitying, victimized femme Marie of the opener is both tedious and irritating. The sharp, butch Marie of the end, on the other hand, is enormous fun to watch — Eleanor Parker seems to be having a lovely time, and the role has some of the smart, sexy swagger of the great ’30s screwball comedy heroines.
Part of the reason that I prefer the latter Marie has to do with my sympathy for feminism — especially second-wave feminism. As Tania Modleski writes,
Feminism has emphasized from the beginning the oppressiveness of the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality and the institution it supports — that of the nuclear family. The family is the structural unit keeping women economically and physically dependent on men; separating women from other women . . . The special difficulties faced by lesbians under such a system are analogous to those of a prisoner who has escaped incarceration and, being “at large,” faces more extreme punitive measures than many of the more docile inmates.9
From a feminist perspective, Marie’s initial status as domestic naïf is no good thing. After all, it is Marie’s husband who insisted on robbing the gas station; it is Marie’s stepfather who refuses to take her in and so destroys her chances at parole; it is male politicians, we are shown, who keep Harper in place, turning the prison into a hell. The women themselves recognize their oppression, repeatedly insisting that “if it wasn’t for men, we wouldn’t be in here”; June goes so far as to tell Marie, “You’re lucky your husband is dead.” The all-women environment of the prison can, from this perspective, be seen not as corrupting but as consciousness raising — Marie learns modes of living other than domesticity, and even other than compulsory heterosexuality. Her increasing competence and self-confidence is a sign of growth. Of course, at the end she remains under male control, having exchanged the exploitation of domesticity for the exploitation of capitalism and sex work. She faces, as Modleski says, “more extreme punitive measures than many of the more docile inmates.” Women, as feminism has long acknowledged, often have limited options. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to be victimized with open eyes, and to trade what you’ve got at the going rate.
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.
As this demonstrates (and despite the best efforts of anti-porn crusaders like Andrea Dworkin), feminism and swinging male hedonism have often found themselves in uncomfortable proximity, if not exactly in alliance.10 This is because both feminists and hedonists, for very different reasons, reject traditional female roles within patriarchy. Thus the appeal to both of predatory butches, iconic women who exist outside the economy of marriage.
In a straight reading, the predatory butch is coded as a villain. But a perverse reading, feminist or lascivious, is also available — and this tension between straight and perverse generally manifests as camp. Thus in Caged, we first see Harper in her room, which is garishly femme. The room is festooned with frilly hand-made items sewn by the matron’s “girls,” and Harper herself reclines on a sofa-bed, reading a magazine titled Midnight Romance while luxuriously feeding herself candies from a box. When Marie enters, Harper offers her a chair, and, as she takes it, looks her slowly up and down. The scene is claustrophobic, menacing, and ostentatiously ridiculous. Marie is clearly freaked out, and we share her discomfort — the domestic setting emphasizes Harper’s deviance and her threatening distance from “normal” womanhood. At the same time, it is easy to see the scene as a camp parody of domesticity itself. Placing the gigantic, butch Harper in a scene of domestic bliss rather explodes the bliss in question, opening up, instead, other avenues of pleasure and fulfillment (as Harper’s hungry appraisal of Marie seems to indicate).
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.
In Chained Heat 2 (1993), for example, Alex Morrison (Kimberly Kates) is an innocent tourist framed for drug possession while visiting an Eastern European country. She duly goes off to prison, where she is turned from naïf to dominatrix and, finally, to revolutionary. The progression is, of course, improbable, but it is also surprisingly, and indeed gratuitously, unmotivated. Alex is an unsullied innocent at first; then, suddenly, and with virtually no change of expression, she’s an experienced sex-worker toying with Brigitte Nielsen; then, with a similar lack of affect, she’s gunning down trained soldiers and strangling tough butch lesbians with her bare hands. Through it all, our heroine remains as responsive as a bundle of wet rags; no matter what unlikely shape the plot molds her into, she remains damply drab. Partially this is the fault of Kates, who is an impressively unresponsive actress. Mostly, though, it’s just the filmmaking, which knows that prison should have some effect on the protagonist, but can’t seem to figure out how or why.
Part of what sinks this film and its kindred is the inability to figure out how to accommodate feminism and sexploitation simultaneously. Caged did the trick by submerging and sublimating both. When the two themes are made explicit, however, their contradictions become harder to contain. Chained Heat 2 tries to turn its heroine into a dominatrix in an effort to fetishize female power, but the effort is so embarrassingly unconvincing that the film almost immediately forgets it has even made the effort.
Jess Franco’s 99 Women (1969), on the other hand, just chucks the feminism — all suggestions of female independence, power, and virtue are here expunged. The evil butch warden, Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge), acts as pimp and thrall to the warden of the male prison Governor Santos (Herbert Lom); her high-minded would-be replacement, Leonie Carroll (Maria Schell) is completely naive and ineffectual. The inmates take the worst qualities from each; they submit with disempowering aplomb to any handy phallus, and they are wearyingly stupid. Zoe (Rosalba Neri), the inmate who passes for a predatory butch, is actually just a standard porn male accomplice — she is conventionally movie-star hot, and she leaps to assist when the Governor merely intimates that she should help him rape Marie. Marie, equally obliging, offers token resistance and then enjoys the experience. Subsequently, she becomes so enamored of Zoe that she believes the latter’s baseless slanders of Warden Carroll. Having decided, out of sheer pigheadedness, that the new warden will be worse than the old, Marie and a couple of other inmates escape, taking advantage of Caroll’s idiotic decision to remove the night guards. The inmates, of course, run into a random man, who takes over the expedition — one of the escapees sleeps with him, while the chronically oversexed Marie brings herself to orgasm just by watching. Unfortunately, the guy’s sexual prowess is more impressive than his tactical know-how, and everyone is either killed or captured. Despite some final hypocritical flourishes, this is, I think, figured as a happy ending. The Governor’s admonition to Carroll — “once let the girls think you’re soft and you’re finished” — is both validated and endorsed. Women require discipline, torture, and fucking. 99 Women turns melodrama into pornographic misogyny by the simple expedient of treating its female characters with systematic contempt.
Related to the problem of reconciling sex and feminism is the difficulty with the third term, domesticity. The image of feminine innocence, tied to domesticity, remains in these movies; both Alex in Chained Heat 2 and Marie in 99 Women are innocent, in that they are naive, vulnerable, and have committed no crime. Yet this innocence has little appeal, or even character, in itself. It’s a plot device, which carries no emotional weight; the films do not even seem to believe in it. Franco’s Barbed Wire Dolls (1975) is an extreme example — the movie starts off with a long torture sequence, in which a woman, nude and chained like a dog, is beaten and villified. Her status as torture victim is thus all we know about her; she exists only in her brutalization. This is, of course, misogynist, but it is also dull. You can’t defile a cipher. Caged understood this; latter-day women-in-prison films do not.
With one interesting exception. The made-for-TV Born Innocent (1974) is a decidedly effective and coherent women-in-prison film. This is precisely because it does not invert Caged as sexploitation. In fact, despite some overheated marketing, Born Innocent is, like its predecessor, simply a melodrama. The protagonist, Chris Parker (Linda Blair), like Marie, starts out full of promise and hope, but is embittered by her time behind bars, finally embracing crime and at least by implication, sexual deviance (Chris’s final act in the film is to exchange a cigarette with the prison’s most visible lesbian). Even the more explicit elements — like the gang-rape with a plunger handle — are played as much as possible for shock and disgust, not titillation.
The most important alteration is telling, though. Chris is not a 19-year-old woman but a 14-year old girl. When Caged came out, people found it reasonable to see a grown, pregnant woman as a blank slate who could be transformed utterly in a relatively short period of time. Twenty years later, viewers and filmmakers found that scenario a lot less credible. Born Innocent’s solution — to use a child instead of a woman — was brilliant. But it was of limited use for exploitation filmmakers who, much as they might like to, were simply not allowed to start showing 14-year-old breasts. As it was, Born Innocent was controversial enough to prompt a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court. So, instead of following its lead, most women-in-prison movies continued to use protagonists who were innocent in theory, boring in fact, and able to take their shirts off for the camera if they had to.
Green, Pretty, and Different
Most women-in-prison exploitation films have, historically, sucked. The reworking of Caged for men has produced such consistently uninteresting results that one wonders why the genre didn’t die out long ago. And, in fact, it almost did. Through the ’50s and early ’60s, women-in-prison was mostly melodrama. Then, through the ’60s, it changed to sexploitation — and virtually disappeared, especially in the United States. The themes of domesticity and innocence that had powered the weepies were still, uncomfortably, at the heart of the porn, and nobody, it seemed, could quite figure out what to do with them.
And then, as he often did, along came Roger Corman. Corman thought there was still juice left in the genre and assigned the enormously talented Jack Hill to prove it. The result was a huge success titled The Big Doll House (1971). Filmed in the Philippines for budgetary reasons, the bright jungle setting and exotic locale are a decided departure from the drab black-and-white world of the ’50s prison melodramas. Otherwise, though, it’s clear that Hill has seen Caged a time or two. Marny Collier (Judy Brown) is a femme pretty girl beginning a prison sentence. She is thrown into the cell with a group of inmates who are significantly more butch than she is — Helen Grear (Pam Grier), a tough lesbian; Bodine (Pat Woodell), a tough revolutionary; and Alcott (Roberta Collins), who’s just tough. The prison is run by sympathetic warden Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer), but the prisoner’s lives are made a living hell by the sadistic matron Lucien (Kathryn Loder). In the tradition of many prison films, though not Caged, there’s also a kindly physician, named, in this case, Dr. Phillips (Jack Davis). And another femme inmate is provided: Harrad (Brooke Mills) — who is, of course, weak and insane.
So: femme newbie, butch inmates, good warden, evil matron: all familiar enough. Yet the differences start to show up immediately. Collier is definitely “green scared . . . and pretty,” as Grear lasciviously puts it. But though she’s femme, she’s not innocent. During the unpleasant entry process, she snarls at the matrons, and then half snarls, half flirts with the uncomfortable doctor — who, considering his innocence, his slight build, and the fact that it’s his first day too, is arguably less butch than she is.
Moreover, Collier has actually committed a serious crime. She murdered her wealthy husband, partially in self-defense, but mostly in a jealous argument over which of them would get to fuck the houseboy. Collier is, in other words, already jaded, untrustworthy, mercenary, and familiar with sexual perversion. Femme for her isn’t (or isn’t only) weak; it’s a survival strategy. In one of the obligatory shower scenes, she comes on to Alcott, stepping up behind her and soaping her back: “I don’t want to do things for Grear anymore. I’d like to do something for you. I need a friend.” Alcott replies by trying to toughen her up, or butchify her. “Forget it, Collier. I don’t take care of anybody and nobody takes care of me. I just watch out for myself. You should do the same.”
Words to live by . . . not that Collier does. There is no transformation; femme to butch just isn’t happening, either as corruption or as salvation. Instead, Collier remains the same person in the joint as she was outside it, always looking for someone, anyone, to protect her. You can brutalize Collier, threaten her, and teach her how to use a gun — she’s still the same pitifully sniveling suck-up. When Lucien tortures her, she calls in a high, whining voice for Bodine; when she finally gets away from prison at the very end, the best she can figure to do is hitchhike, sticking out her thumb and her pretty ass, throwing herself on the kindness of a (male) stranger — who hauls her right back to jail. It’s not inspiring, maybe, but at least it’s not Pygmalion. Marie in Caged isn’t a moral actor; she’s just clay. Collier’s decisions are almost uniformly bad, but at least they’re her own. The movie does her the courtesy of treating her as a (not very successful) human being, rather than as a problem or a moral.
Hill, then, treats femme as human. He does the same with butch. In part, this is Pam Grier’s doing — even in her first film, she is an outsized and distinctive screen presence. But it has a lot to do with the script as well. Grear is a predatory butch lesbian, but she’s also allowed to have depth and complexity. When we first see her, she is presented as a stereotype; mean, possessive, and horny. She treats Harrad, who is a junkie, as property, kicking the clearly ill woman out of the lower bunk so that Grear can keep an eye on Collier instead (“I like being on top,” she notes.) Yet, over the course of the movie, it becomes clear that, despite her roving eye and general bitchiness, and despite the fact that, like most addicts, Harrad is intensely irritating, Grear really does seem to care about her. It is Grear, it turns out, who supplies Harrad with heroin; she does this by trading information to the sadistic guard, Lucien, for smack. Dealing with Lucien for any reason is, it is quite clear, both unpleasant and dangerous; Grear’s motivation has to be quite strong to take such a risk. Moreover, when Harrad goes into withdrawal, Grear is — erratically but noticeably — distraught.
Even more complex is Grear’s relationship with Harry (Sid Haig), a man who makes deliveries to the prison. In exchange for items from his cart, Grear, who was a prostitute on the outside, lets Harry fondle her through the bars. This relationship is not a simple transaction — just as Grear seems to have feelings for her women, so Harry seems to have feelings for his. He is the only character who calls Grear by her first name, Helen, and the usage seems affectionate. Grear, then, is, in relation to Harry, forced into the position of a femme. Collier, at least, fully appreciates the irony — she watches Harry fondle Grear’s breasts with an intense, lip-licking mixture of arousal and vindictiveness.
You could, I suppose, see this as a patriarchal parable: Real Men Make All Women Femme. This isn’t a very convincing reading, however, mostly because, while Grear may be provisionally adopting a femme role, she still comes across as way tougher than Harry could ever dream of being. In the first scene between the two of them, Harry offers her a bootlegged letter for a feel. Grear acquiesces, Harry gives her the letter — and Grear discovers it isn’t for her at all but for Bodine. This, understandably, pisses Grear off, and she gets right in Harry’s face: “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!” Harry shrugs it off nonchalantly enough, but it seems clear that if Grear were on the other side of the bars, she’d kick his balls up through his goofy cowboy hat.
The violence and aural volume of Grear’s response may be butch, but the content is more questionable. In fact, Grear is parroting one of the two great clichés of sexploitation lesbian fare: the idea that women turn gay because men treat them wrong.11 And if you wonder what the second cliché was, no worries — Grear gets to that as well. Latter in the film, Grear offers to sleep with Harry, ostensibly in exchange for smack. Harry likes the idea, but has noticed a flaw in the reasoning — or, as he says, “Forget it, Helen. I know you dig girls.” Grear responds by moving his hand to her genitals and earnestly explaining: “I’m not this way because I want to be. It’s this place. Pretty soon a girl gets strange desires. And it creeps up on you like a disease. But it’s curable.” “What’s it take?” Harry asks, to which Grear responds, “A real man. Like you.” Her admiration for him may, however, be somewhat mitigated by the fact that, while she voices it, she is simultaneously driving him to his knees by crushing his fingers in her cunt (“It’s like a vice!” he whimpers.)
Grear is buttering up Harry to trick him into helping her escape; it’s a put-on. But the fact that she’s so clearly spouting bullshit tends to call her other claims into question. Here, Grear insists that the absence of men drove her to lesbianism. Earlier she said that it was the presence of men that did it. Both statements can’t be true — and so, perhaps, neither of them are. Men don’t explain Grear’s lesbianism; in fact, there is no explanation. The camp, overdramatic clichés cancel each other out, and what’s left is a small but respectful silence.
That silence, it seems to me, is at least in implication, feminist. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” one of the founding documents of feminist psychoanalytic film theory, Laura Mulvey argued that the patriarchal cinema was organized around castration anxiety: the fear of feminine difference, which also stands, it seems to me, for a fear of feminization — of not being enough of a man. For Mulvey, this difference of women, which threatens men with loss, can be managed in two ways. The first is voyeuristic sadism, in which women are directly controlled by men — their difference is denied because it is the male look that acts through them, turning them into objects. The second means is fetishization, in which some part of the woman is endowed with erotic power — difference in this case is denied by making the woman herself secondary to a male-associated magic rod (the phallus) which is epoxied to her.
Mulvey argued that these choices were inherent in narrative cinema, and that the only way to break free of them was by dispensing with character and plot altogether. That’s been a controversial contention, and Mulvey herself has walked it back to some extent. In any case, it seems to me that in The Big Doll House, Jack Hill has figured out an ingenious way to use narrative to acknowledge, rather than disavow, difference. Grear’s first explanation of her lesbianism is delivered in a context of sadism — she is fondled and humiliated against her will as a whole leering cast of characters looks on. Her second explanation is delivered in a context of fetishization; her cunt is treated as an irresistible, almost unnatural force. Either one of these scenes alone could dehumanize Grear, turning her into a victim or a monster. Together, though, they undermine each other. Grear may be exploited, and she may have sexual power, but neither of those things define her. There is some part of her character, an uncaptured space, which exists outside any particular portrayal.12
This isn’t to suggest that the characters in The Big Doll House are positive feminist icons. On the contrary. Collier’s entire weak, hypersexualized, pitifully sluttish personality is all too familiar. So, for that matter, is Grear, whose blackness is part and parcel of the racialized, sexualized image of the predatory butch. They’re creatures of the male imagination. And yet, just as with real women shaped by patriarchy, the actual mechanisms that form the women in Doll House are always, at least to some extent, opaque. Why is pretty, delicate Collier weak, while the (physically) equally pretty, equally delicate Alcott is strong? Why does Bodine become a revolutionary and Harrad a junkie? As Grear says, “Who knows?” Difference is a mystery, and it is precisely this mystery that Caged and its analogs refuse. We know why everyone in Caged is in prison — because some man led them astray. They might as well be interchangeable zombies . . . as indeed, the prisoners are in Jess Franco’s Ilsa, the Wicked Warden (1977) . At the end of that movie, a group of deformed, animalistic inmates tears the evil warden apart with their teeth, while an amateur male movie-maker gleefully records it all from an adjacent room. This vision of undifferentiated feminine flesh painfully reshaped in accordance with male desire applies equally well to the cannibalized Ilsa and the butchified Marie. In its simultaneous evocation of disgust and lust, it pretty much defines misogyny — and Doll House will have no part of it.
Masochist in the Mask
If Jack Hill has some respect for women, he seems to have none for men. We only ever see three or four male characters in The Big Doll House, and none of them could be considered impressive specimens. Dr. Phillips is well intentioned but completely ineffectual — his feeble sincerity is no match for his infatuation with the warden, who stonewalls him effortlessly. Harry is, as we’ve seen, pitiful; he has never, we learn, despite all his talk, had sex with any of the women in the prison, and is reduced to fantasizing that, someday, one of them will rape him. Fred (Jerry Franks), Harry’s assistant, is second banana to a nobody, hanging on Harry’s words like some 12-year-old out playing with the big kids — did you ever do it with ‘em, Harry? Didja? Didja? Huh? His lameness is only made more obvious by the fact that all his dialogue appears to be dubbed.
The Big Doll House doesn’t just introduce us to these wretches; it goes out of its way to humiliate both them and the male audience for which they act as surrogates. Harry’s torture by Grear’s cunt — a literal pussy-whipping — is the least of it. In one scene, Fred is delivering some supplies in the prison. He walks through a corridor, and is almost knocked over by a screaming woman reaching at him through the bars. His (sexual) vulnerability thoroughly established, he then stops at the next window and, through the glass, sees Alcott in the shower. She notices him at once, and begins soaping her breasts suggestively as the background music kicks into a funky lascivious strut. Fred is, here, in the position of the (male) audience member, who like him is enjoying Roberta Collins’ physical attributes and suggestive, come-hither stare. At the same time, Fred is presented in an extremely unflattering light; we get repeated shots of his nose smooshed up absurdly between the bars like some parodic dildo. Alcott’s stare may be masterful, but his certainly is not — he is so queasily desexualized that his want comes across less as lust than as a kind of misshapen childhood greed, a sense only strengthened by his repeated nervous glances over his shoulder for mommy . . . er, I mean the guard.
Unprepossessing as Fred is, Alcott wants him. We know from earlier conversations in the film that in prison “more than anything else” she “miss[es] having a man.” Moreover, Fred’s face appears just after the sequence in which Collier soaped Alcott’s back and offered to be her “friend.” Alcott did reject the offer, but when Collier leaves her alone, she closes her eyes and swallows — she seems, in other words, to have been aroused. In any case, whether because of long-standing frustrations or recent priming, Alcott decides that Fred is not going to get away. So she dresses, ducks into the kitchen, grabs a knife, and confronts Fred in the storage room.
The set-up here is total horror film — a perfect amalgam of female vampire and predatory butch. Alcott comes out of the shadows behind Fred, her voice dripping with suggestion and menace “Did you like what you saw, Fred?” Fred stammers ineffectually . . . at which point Alcott pulls the knife. “Come on, loverboy, get to work!” she snaps. Fred spasmodically tries to gain control of the situation, first by moving to kiss her (no time for that stuff!”) and then by pulling off his shirt (“not the shirt, stupid!”) Sick of his shilly-shallying, she bring the knife down and, just off-screen, cuts his pants open as he emits a very unmasculine whimper. Other unmasculine things are happening as well, it turns out, and Alcott’s face goes even more impassively deadly as she tells him, with perfect conviction, “Get it up or I’ll cut it off!” The terrified Fred begs, “Look, could you get rid of that thing! I . . . I can’t concentrate.” If Fred can’t do the job, though, Alcott seems to be able to; after a moment in which her left hand remains offscreen, she half-opens her mouth, draws the knife close to her lips and with a suggestively decisive jerk, tosses it away. Her left hand reappears, she pulls Fred in, and the two fall to the floor. Even at this point, though, Fred’s humiliation isn’t complete — Lucien almost immediately discovers them thrusting away. Alcott desperately tries to get Fred to finish anyway, but he’s not even man enough for that. Instead, ruined pants still hanging open, he scurries back to the truck to tell Harry about his exploits.
Women-in-prison sexploitation films are infamous for voyeuristic scenes of nudity and torture — for sadism, in other words. The encounter between Fred and Alcott, however, is a fantasy of male infantilization, castration, impotence, and humiliation. It’s not sadism, but textbook masochism.
Masochism is, in fact, the organizing erotic principle of Doll House. Certainly, there are lots of scenes of women being tortured. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that the intended male viewer is automatically or solely identified with the torturer. Instead, the viewer primarily identifies in the torture scenes not with the butch Lucien, who is doing the whipping, nor with the shadowy and masked male figure who watches in many scenes, but with the more feminine victim. This is natural enough — the victims are the protagonists. In fact, the movie takes care to only torture the inmates after they have already been established as sympathetic, so that we are worried about, and involved in, their fate. For instance, early in the film, Alcott seems pretty hateful; she taunts Collier’s distress and then joins Grear and the other inmates in stuffing the newbie’s head in the toilet. It is only later on, after Alcott has repeatedly demonstrated courage and compassion, that she is tortured by Lucien. The movie makes sure, in other words, that the fate of its victims is a matter not of joy but of suspense since, as Giles Deleuze notes, “suspense always places us on the side of the victim” and so is an essential technique of masochistic narratives.13
In her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover argued that men identify with the victims in slasher movies. Clover explains cross-identification as a kind of deliberate psychological deception. In horror movies, she argues,
“female figures are made to stand for, and act out, a psychosexual posture [victimization] that in fact knows no sex, but which for a variety of reasons that add up to male dominance, is routinely dissociated from the male. It is, in short, an operation which ensures that men can eat their psychosexual cake and have it too: experience the pain/pleasure of (say) a rape fantasy by identifying with the victim, and then disavow their personal stake on grounds that the visible victim was, after all, a woman, and that they, as spectators, are “naturally” represented by the visible male figures: male savior or sadistic rapists, but manly men however you cut it.”14
Clover’s book is very convincing when it claims that horror is based around an embrace of, and distancing from, masochistic feminization. But I don’t think this dynamic quite applies to Doll House. On the contrary, Jack Hill seems determined to make the links between masochism and feminization explicit. There are scenes in the film both of male humiliation and of female torture, and the two are ingeniously and unavoidably linked.
Perhaps the clearest example of the way Hill does this is in his second women-in-prison movie, The Big Bird Cage (1971), which I discussed briefly in the introduction. Early on in the movie, the protagonist, Terry Rich, is captured by a revolutionary named Django (Sid Haig), who threatens, rather jovially, to rape her. Terry responds in kind: “Oh baloney,” she laughs. “Besides, you can’t rape me. I like sex.”
Not a politically correct sentiment, obviously,15 and one which seems to have more to do with the particular flirtation between Django and Terry than with any generalized philosophical statement — Terry seems really to be saying not that she would like sex with anyone, but that she would like sex with Django in particular. In any case, Django doesn’t get to take her up on the offer; the police catch up to them, Django bails, and Terry is railroaded into jail as his accomplice. Terry does, though, get to test her molestability later in the film. After she manages to escape from prison, she is gang-raped — and she does not, as it turns out, like it at all.
However, there is a more appreciative observer. Rocco (Vic Diaz), one of the prison guards, catches up to Terry just as the gang rape gets going. Rocco is, like all of the guards in the movie, flamboyantly gay, and he is excited not by Terry but by her attackers. He smiles evilly, twitches his nose, does a characteristic shoulder shake, and declares ruefully, “Damn! Nothing like that ever happens to me!” But as with Terry, to ask is to receive — in the film’s denouement, Rocco is captured by the sex-starved women prisoners and himself gang-raped. Rocco, then, is deliberately feminized (through his swishy gayness, and through the parallel with Terry); deliberately victimized (through the rape) and deliberately linked to the male viewer (through his maleness, and through his position as observer in Terry’s rape.) Only a very determined viewer could miss the point: in the rape-fantasies provided here, men are the raped, not the rapists.16
Indeed, Hill seems almost to set traps for any would-be manly-man looking for a rapist or savior with whom to identify. This isn’t a matter of “implicating the viewer” — a wearisome canard that generally just means that the filmmaker wants to have his violence-against-women and eat it too. Rather, Hill goes out of his way to actively undercut any safe heterosexual male position on which his audience might alight. In Bird Cage, the sadists, such as the camp commander, are generally gay and/or Filipino — the film takes full advantage of feminizing stereotypes about Asian men. Django does seem a likely hero prospect — but he spends the majority of his time on-screen pretending to be fabulously gay in order to pass himself off as a camp guard.
In Doll House, the manly-man deficit is even more dire; as we’ve noted, none of the actual men qualify at all. The one exception is the mysterious figure in the mask, who may or may not be Col. Mendoza, the head of the secret police. The hooded man never speaks; he merely gestures to Lucien, who, at his bidding, lets down her long straight hair — sexualizing and feminizing herself — and gets to work. The hooded man, as dream-like, unspeaking watcher, who causes the scene of torture but does not affect its progress, is certainly a good analog for the sadistic male viewer. There’s only one problem — when the mask is finally removed, the man is shown not to be a man after all, but a woman — Warden Dietrich.
Dietrich is, moreover, not just a woman, but a mother. This is not to say that she has a child; in fact, whereas pregnancy is central to women-in-prison melodramas, it is almost never mentioned in women-in-prison sexploitation. Instead, Dietrich’s status is established partly through her age and physical presence — though she’s certainly not unattractive, she appears older and more zaftig than the other female cast members. Mostly though, we know Dietrich is in a mother role because of her icky Oedipal relationship with the physically slight and apparently younger Dr. Phillips. The doctor describes Dietrich glowingly early in the film as “a warm, caring person” — and when he makes his move, he does so by telling her, “You’re so much younger than I expected, and more beautiful.” Dietrich is actually unmasked in front of Phillips — a kind of primal scene in which we discover not that mom and dad are having sex with each other, but that they are the same person.
The conflation of mother with father is characteristic of masochistic fantasies — though nobody seems to quite agree as to why. One of the more influential theories, proposed by Freud, is that “the beating-phantasy has its origin in an incestuous attachment to the father [italics in the original.]”17 For Freud, then, the male masochist’s fantasy of being beaten by the mother is meant to conceal the desire for the father.
Gilles Deleuze, on the other hand, argues that this is exactly backwards: the male masochist identifies with the mother not to hide love of the father, but rather out of a hatred or rejection of him. Thus it is not the father who beats, but the father who is beaten.
The masochist feels guilty, he asks to be beaten, he expiates, but why and for what crime? Is it not precisely the father-image in him that is thus miniaturized, beaten, ridiculed and humiliated? What the subject atones for is his resemblance to the father and the father’s likeness in him: the formula of masochism is the humiliated father.18
In feminist readings, the “father” is often mapped onto patriarchal authority or masculinity itself. In this context, the question becomes, is The Big Doll House a carefully concealed love-letter to masculinity? Or is it a rejection of masculinity in favor of femininity and, perhaps, of feminism? And are these possibilities mutually exclusive?
Let’s take the first question first: is The Big Doll House a furtive expression of agonized homosocial longing? Certainly it is possible to read it this way. Many of the woman in the film have aggressive characteristics usually associated with men — Bodine knows her way around a machine-gun; Grear, the predatory butch, refers to herself as “old man” and acts towards Harrad and Collier as an abusive husband; Alcott is sexually frustrated, sexually aggressive, and sexually violent in a stereotypical male way; Dietrich explicitly takes the power and gender of a man. These characters are all physically attractive, variously nude, and fetishized. By lusting after these strong, masculinized women, then, you could argue that the male viewer is expressing his wish not to be emasculated, but to be enmasculated — possessed by the father. The last prison torture scene is, in this context, especially suggestive. Lucien hangs a cobra above Collier, and the audience is asked to contemplate a death by phallic symbol — an injection ordered by a man later revealed to be a woman that will make the feminine finally stiff.
The thing is, that scene with the cobra is just a little too pat. Jack Hill is a smart guy, and had, moreover, directed at least one explicitly sadomasochistic film in Mondo Keyhole (1966). There’s just no way he wasn’t aware of the phallic connotations in this scene — and if he knew they were there, then he knew they were ridiculous. Lucien lovingly describing the effects of the venom and then intoning in a funereal accent “it would be a sad thing for one so young to die so horribly,”19 the suspended snake being slowly lowered, Collier shouting for help in her girly-girl whine — it’s all completely over-the-top camp melodrama. It’s not celebrating or lusting after phallic power; it’s mocking it.
This scene, then — and, I think, the movie in general — fits much better with Deleuze’s interpretation of masochism. For Deleuze, the point of masochism is precisely to humiliate the father (or as we’re saying, masculinity) by goading him into extremes of absurdity. The masochist, Deleuze argues, “is insolent in his obsequiousness, rebellious in his submission . . .” In comparison to Freud, Deleuze better captures the excessiveness of The Big Doll House — the theatricality of the abuse, torture, and violence. When Alcott rapes Fred, it’s a joke both on him and on masculinity in general. As Tania Modleski says, “the humorous effect [is] achieved precisely by the incongruity of placing a woman in a position of authority, of substituting her presence for that of the law.”20
Modleski also notes that, when the Deleuzian masochist allies himself with the feminine, he is not necessarily allying himself with feminism. For Deleuze, as Modleski sees it, linking women and the law “has the effect not of empowering women, but of throwing the law itself into question . . .21 Certainly, Deleuze never considers for a moment what women might get out of masochism. His whole interest is in what’s in it for the guys. He wants to eliminate the father not to help the mother, but “to generate the new man.” This “new man,” we are assured, will look nothing like the old man — though on whether he will look like the sensitive new age guy, Deleuze is silent.22 Certainly in The Big Doll House the change tends to seem fairly superficial; an old phallus in a new hand. Bodine and company may save Collier from the cobra, but that doesn’t mean the cobra doesn’t get a victim, On the contrary, Lucien takes Collier’s place . . . and since Lucien is despicable, vengeance is justified, and the viewer is invited at last to find unabashed pleasure in the torture of a woman.
Dietrich’s fate is even more revealing. Captured and unmasked, she is tied down in the back of the truck. Then Alcott, who has stripped Harry nude and taken his clothes, demands that the deliveryman rape the warden. Harry is less than eager, but Alcott tears open Dietrich’s shirt, cocks the gun, and commands, “Action, big mouth!” — an oral reference particularly appropriate given the Oedipal nature of the rape. Harry swallows, doffs his cowboy hat, acknowledges Dietrich with a polite “Ma’am,” and then proceeds to mount her. Dietrich screams and thrashes in horror, but after a few thrusts, Harry gets into it, licking Dietrich’s face, feeling her breasts, and chuckling lasciviously to Alcott, “You’re not going to need that gun” . . . the implication being that Harry’s gun is working just fine.
In this extravagantly perverse scene, Harry gets to be both masochist and sadist; indeed, he gets to be a sadist because of the masochism. Alcott is humiliating him, but this humiliation is contractual — Harry had earlier asked for something in exchange for helping the women escape, and, apparently in fun, Alcott offered him Dietrich. Alcott is, therefore, in the masochist tradition, merely enforcing an agreement Harry entered into of his (more or less) free will.23 And in return for this humiliation, Harry gets to fuck not so much the mother as the father. Through a mockery of a contract, in other words, Harry rapes the main lawgiver of the film, who has been transformed from a mysterious, distant man into a hysterical, violated woman. In humiliating himself, Harry humiliates masculinity in general — and, by doing so, he contradictorily asserts his masculinity in particular. Alcott is the woman torturer who, in Deleuze’s formulation, states, “‘You are not a man, I am making a man of you.'”24 And, however stridently Deleuze denies it, the masculinity that the woman makes through humiliation looks an awful lot like the masculinity she made through birth. In any case, whether it’s the new man or the old man who’s raping you is a question of less than academic interest when you are the woman on the receiving end.
Melodrama in the Mask
Harry’s rape of Dietrich is a masochistic fantasy for a male audience; Harry is the subject and the women are, as Deleuze says, not people at all but merely “a realization of the masochistic phantasy.”25
And yet something else is going on as well. Sid Haig is an immensely compelling actor, but even his magnetism can’t hide the fact that Harry is not the main character in the film. At best, he’s part of an ensemble — in terms of screen-time and narrative development, Alcott, Grear, and Collier are probably all more important. Even in the rape scene, Alcott holds her own as a center of interest. It is she, after all, who thought up this perverse scenario, and she who, with vicious glee, instigates and watches it. If you’re going to get all Freudian, the rape could as easily be about her conflicted Oedipal issues as about Harry’s.
In fact, one of the most interesting facets of the movie is the ensemble nature of the cast. This is not unprecedented in the genre, though the speed and enthusiasm with which Collier is relegated to the status of just one player among many is unusual. Without the corruption narrative that underpins so much of the genre after Caged, Doll House can follow anyone it pleases, and so it does. The plot is built not around teleology, but around a series of shifting affections, grudges, bonds, and betrayals — around relationships, in other words.
To take only one example: in a scene midway through the film Alcott and Bodine are in the prison yard plotting ways to break out. They realize they will need the help of some of their cellmates, and Bodine says in frustration, “Outside of Ferina [Gina Stuart], I don’t trust any of them.” Alcott, remembering Collier’s come-on in the shower, counters that she knows someone who wants out as badly as they do. She then leads Bodine over to where Grear is lovingly combing out an apparently happy Collier’s hair. Grear stands and hands the comb to Harrad, snapping, “Here, creep, hold this for me!” Grear then walks off, and Alcott congratulates Collier on her blissful situation. Collier tries to strike her, Alcott gets Collier in a hold, and then Alcott and Bodine march her aside to get her help with the escape. Grear comes back while they are conversing and reacts with vicious jealousy, calling Collier a “little slut” and demanding that Alcott agree to a fight in the near future. A battle date agreed on, everyone disperses, except for Collier and Harrad. Collier plaintively asks, “What’s gonna happen to me if Grear wins?” Harrad responds with satisfied loathing, “That’s Grear’s decision . . . you’ve already sold yourself, Collier. From now on, you’re just property. How do you like it?”
This isn’t an especially long scene, but the relationships, all between women, are presented with remarkable nuance, conviction, and variety. There’s the close, trusting friendship between Alcott and Bodine and (though not explicitly depicted) between Bodine and Ferina. There’s the visible affection between Grear and Collier, barely concealing jealousy and hatred — and the antagonistic relationship between Grear and Harrad, which we know conceals at least some level of affection. There’s also the relationship between Collier and Alcott, which is supposedly just instrumental, but which Grear’s reaction suggests may be something more — Alcott, remember, may not have been entirely indifferent when Collier approached her in the shower, and I don’t think it’s an accident that, when Collier is being tortured by Lucien later on, it is Alcott who is most visibly upset by her screams. Finally, there is the relationship between Collier and Harrad, built around a shared fate and a shared contempt — which is also shared self-contempt. The perspective here is, moreover, multiple. This isn’t a good-guy/bad-guy scenario; we are asked to identify, at various points in the movie, with all of these women. Collier’s fear and anger, Alcott’s desire for escape, Harrad’s bitterness, and Grear’s jealousy are all justified and sympathetic.
A film built around multiple female relationships in which the viewer is encouraged to adopt multiple points of identification — that’s a good working definition of female-oriented melodrama.26 The Big Doll House is, from this vantage, an elaborate genre slight-of-hand; a story structured for women but marketed for men. The punch line is, of course, Dietrich’s unmasking, the revelation that the watching man is not, in his essence, a man at all. This trick works because the movie recognizes, and the woman-in-prison genre has been built upon, a thematic and spiritual link between (female-directed) melodrama and (male-directed) masochism. In both, pleasure comes out of identification with pain. Lost love and physical pain aren’t, after all, so different — and, indeed, The Big Doll House cheerfully conflates the two when, at the end, the mortally wounded Bodine, writes a last letter to her revolutionary boyfriend, complete with earnest voice-over, poignant upward looks, and heart-tugging prose (“My dearest Rafael, I know now that we will never meet again in this world . . .”)
Melodrama is different than masochism in many ways, of course. It emphasizes relationships rather than bodies, and it is a female genre rather than a male one. Because of this, it is much more easy to reconcile it with a feminist narrative . . . and Hill, at many moments, comes perilously close to providing just that. In The Big Doll House, the women break out by coming up with a complicated plan that requires mutual trust and respect. And in The Big Bird Cage, the message is even more pointed. Several of the women have escaped and are being pursued by the authorities. Carla (Candice Roman) is carrying the sole gun, and she points it at Lin Tsiang (Rizza Fabia), a woman they have just discovered is an informant. “You know the rules about snitches,” Carla snarls. “No!” Terry insists. “We’re free now. We don’t need to follow the rules anymore.” Freedom doesn’t mean just getting out of one cage; it means changing the way you treat each other, and replacing the law with love.
Of course, everything goes to hell; in The Big Doll House Harrad proves that you really can’t trust junkies at all, while the informant for whom Terry pleas in The Big Bird Cage gets eaten alive by dogs. Which isn’t to condemn the films, but merely to say that the women in them get to fill a whole range of roles. They’re sexy male-surrogates, blasting away with guns and wreaking horrible vengeance. They’re sexy male-fantasy dominatrixes, humiliating the guys to the delight of the phallus. They’re sympathetic victims. And they’re also something that looks a lot like real women, who have their own histories and their own desires, but still turn to each other for strength and support. At their best, the films give men an erotic stake in female liberation . . . without forgetting that there can be no liberation if there are no women.
Escape to Nowhere
The Big Doll House did inspire a number of imitators, often starring the same actors, or shot by the same studio, or set in the same Philippine location, or all three. Of these, Caged Heat (1974) is probably the best known. Directed by Jonathan Demme, it was, in most ways, a pale imitation. There is full female nudity, lesbianism, and voyeurism, but the more extreme permutations are downplayed. The torture is far less graphic, all grudges between inmates are easily transcended, and moral lines are clearly drawn — the bad guys are conveniently killed off by friendly fire so our heroines won’t have to murder unarmed hostages. Because of its reticence, the feminism and the T&A are never really integrated, and both come off as glib. To compensate for the movie’s weaknesses, Demme sprinkles the narrative liberally with cabaret references, Freudian dream sequences, and irritatingly self-conscious camera-work — a ploy that has worked wonders, at least with academic audiences. As a result, Caged Heat has the dubious distinction of being the most, if not the only, overrated women-in-prison film in existence.27
Less heralded, but more interesting, is Gerard De Leon’s Women in Cages (1971). The protagonist, Jeff (Jennifer Gan), is an innocent in the tradition of Caged; her boyfriend is a drug dealer who sets her up, gets her jailed, and then tries to protect himself by paying incarcerated junkie Stoke (Roberta Collins) to kill her. Sandy (Judy Brown), on the other hand, tries to help Jeff — not out of female solidarity, but because she’s been promised that she’ll be released if Jeff does testify. Prison in this film is a claustrophobic, paranoid nightmare (even discounting the evil butch warden), and when Jeff escapes, things only get worse. Stoke double-crosses her by leading her to a floating brothel — only to herself be betrayed, as they are both sold into a life of prostitution.
But . . . the cavalry arrives! The good-guy law enforcer shows up disguised as a sailor and closets himself with Jeff under the pretext of being a customer. He says earnestly, “Remember me?” to which she replies, more or less, “Oh, yeah, baby, we had a great time. We’ll do it again right now.” Especially given Jeff’s initial innocence, it’s a chilling moment — even more so than Marie’s corruption in Caged, as Jeff has gotten nothing in return for her exploitation. The good guy does manage to remind her who he really is and that he’s there to rescue her — at which point she, understandably, starts to weep, partially in relief, partially, perhaps, in humiliation. The movie then quickly veers off on a tangent, as good guy reveals himself to be a super-martial-arts expert and kicks the bad guys’ collective asses. Throughout this sequence, Jeff looks on nonplussed, as if something’s gone bizarrely wrong, and she’s wandered into the wrong movie. She does manage to escape, and all is well — but the last frame of the movie isn’t of her but of Stoke, who is still on the ship, still in a drugged stupor, and, indeed, still being raped. Even the wish-fulfillment hero just wants to catch the drug lord. He’s interested in the (bad) guys; women aren’t really his concern.
Where most women-in-prison movies make a strict division between the world inside and the world outside, De Leon suggests that there really isn’t much difference between one and the other. His prison walls are permeable; male power, or patriarchy, reaches easily through them. There is no space in which women can band together to resist oppression. It’s a bleak view but not anti-feminist — the women’s movement had a tragic vision as well as a utopian one. Indeed, Women in Chains is an almost perfect fusion of masochism, melodrama, and feminist critique, as betrayal in love merges seamlessly into sexualized violence and sexual exploitation.
Several other decent to excellent movies came out of this period: Terminal Island (1973); The Arena (1974); Black Mama, White Mama (1973); The Hot Box (1972). Looking back, though, what’s surprising is not how much influence Doll House had, but how little. In retrospect, the movie was perhaps too idiosyncratic to have a lasting impact; it depended a great deal on Jack Hill’s individual sense of humor, and his even more individual ability to treat female characters with dignity. Other than The Big Bird Cage, even his immediate followers avoided some of the most obvious homages — there are way fewer male rapes in the genre than you’d think. Caged, with its focus on innocence and corruption — often leavened, after Hill, with a touch of more or less hypocritical feminism — would remain a much more popular model.
Today, the women-in-prison genre is just about dead, commercially and aesthetically. Indeed, though there are many kick-ass women on-screen, there are very few movies marketed primarily to men that fetishize not just strong women but strong female relationships. In Hill’s movies, the mystical source of women’s sexual power is actually located in the way women bond with each other — which is also, if feminism is to believed, a real source of female power and resistance. The power of the fetish and the power of sisterhood are linked, and men are encouraged to seek sexual satisfaction through contemplating their own exclusion from, and marginality to, the more important female-female bonds. Few movies in the ’70s embraced this dynamic. Since then, it is almost unheard of.28
There is one exception I can think of to prove the rule. Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s marvelous half of the Grindhouse (2007) package, is a tribute to exploitation fare in general and, it seems to me, to Jack Hill in particular. Tarantino’s movie consists, in large part, of hot women talking to each other for a really long time and eventually beating the hell out of a whimpering “tough guy.” Perhaps inevitably, Death Proof was panned: male reviewers found the talk boring and the beating gratuitous, or unbelievable, or anything that could substitute for “kind of upsetting.” Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse offering, Planet Terror, with its more traditionally fetishized tough female action lead, its superstud action male lead, its string of big-budget action clichés, and its feeble “irony” for the hipsters, made everyone much more comfortable.
So it goes. Andrea Dworkin is dead, second-wave feminism is gone, and nobody wants to pay to be castrated anymore. Which is the movies’ loss. And women’s. And men’s.
- For example, Suzanna Danuta Walters, “Caged Heat: The (R)evolution of Women-in-Prison Films,” in Martha McCaughey and Neal King, ed. Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001, 107; Judith Mayne, Framed: Lesbians, Feminists, and Media Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 119. [↩]
- Among the critics who note Caged’s importance are James Robert Parrish, Prison Pictures from Hollywood: Plots, Critiques, Casts and Credits for 293 Theatrical and Made-for-Television Releases, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1991, 73; and Mayne, 119. [↩]
- Anne Morey, “The Judge Called Me An Accessory': Women’s Prison Films, 1950-1962,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 23:2 (Summer 1995), 80. [↩]
- My discussion of butch, femme, and Caged is indebted to Mayne, 119-128; and Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998, 199- 202. [↩]
- Mayne, 127. [↩]
- Estelle B. Freedman, “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915-1965,” Feminist Studies, 22:2 (Summer 1996), 399. Note that the butch whore hasn’t entirely disappeared as a meme in modern days; Jamie Lee Curtis’ prostitute character in Trading Places (1983) is at least one latter-day example. [↩]
- Anne Morey believes, for reasons which are unclear, that Elvira is not a prostitute, but is instead, like Kitty, the head of a shoplifting ring. (p. 86) It’s true that Elvira’s profession is never spelled out; surely, though, that fact is suggestive in itself. [↩]
- Mayne, 123. [↩]
- Tania Modleski, Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age, New York: Routledge, 1991, 13. [↩]
- Dworkin’s Right-wing Women (1978), for example, points out that the traditional marriage structures favored by conservative women are often less exploitive than the free-love whoredom promoted by liberal men in the name of sexual revolution. [↩]
- You can see the meme in Ginger (1970) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), to cite just two examples. [↩]
- My paraphrase of Mulvey’s complicated argument should probably be judged against the original; Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Patricia Erens, ed. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, 28-40. Linda Williams, “‘Something Else Besides a Mother'”: Stella Dallas and The Maternal Melodrama,” 137-162 in the same volume provides an extremely clear summary of Mulvey, and provides a feminist argument for the potential worth of some forms of narrative cinema. [↩]
- Gilles Deleuze, Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty, trans. Jean McNeil, New York: George Braziller, 1971, 31. [↩]
- Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992, 229. [↩]
- In his DVD commentary to Big Bird Cage, Jack Hill notes that “I’m not PC. Never was. PC is a bummer.” [↩]
- Some viewers were, apparently, determined not to get it . . . or at least nonplussed. In the DVD commentary, Hill notes that Rocco’s one-liner about wishing to be gang-raped never got the laughs it should have. Hill thinks the audience didn’t understand the joke, though it also seems possible that they understood it a bit too well for comfort. [↩]
- Sigmund Freud, “‘A Child Is Being Beaten': A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions,” trans. James Strachey, in Margaret Ann Fitzpatrick Hanly, Essential Papers on Masochism, New York: New York University Press, 1995, 176. [↩]
- Deleuze, 53. [↩]
- If this sounds familiar, it should; Quentin Tarantino lifted much of this episode for Kill Bill 2. [↩]
- Modleski, 155. Modleski specifically argues that the Deleuzian masochistic humor is not camp or parody, but is instead “militantly explosive derision.” Personally, I don’t find this distinction convincing. Camp can certainly be militant, explosive, and derisive. Moreover, what we’re talking about here is gender-bending in the interest of mocking traditional gender roles — which, to me, sounds like camp. [↩]
- Modleski, 69. [↩]
- Deleuze, 86. [↩]
- Deleuze, 79ff, talks at some length about the importance of the contract in masochism. [↩]
- Deleuze, 86. [↩]
- Deleuze, 37. [↩]
- Linda Williams, “Something Else Besides a Mother”: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama,” in Patricia Erens, ed. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, 137-162, discusses the importance of multiple identifications and female relationships in melodrama. [↩]
- Caged Heat is also probably the most written-about women-in-prison film. Among the lengthier positive assessments are Mayne 135-138 and David Gonthier Jr.; American Prison Films Since 1930: From The Big House to The Shawshank Redemption, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006, 49-56. I should add that, while it is not a great movie, Caged Heat is infinitely superior to later Demme efforts like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. [↩]
- Even ’70s exploitation movies that linked masochism and feminism tended to downplay female-female bonds. For example, the excellent I Spit on Your Grave has only one major female character, and the masochistic charge from the film comes from the intensity with which she hates and brutalizes the male characters, not from the way she ignores them. [↩]