I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

1970s Exploito-Feminism: Caged Heat

by Kathleen Furey
Oct. 16, 2011

The seventies were not a happy time in America. The Vietnam War was still dragging on, the country fell victim to an energy crisis, and unemployment seemed to go nowhere but up. The seventies were also a time when women were angry—they were angry in the work place, angry in their homes, just angry with the way things were in general. In 1974, Jonathan Demme picked up the socio-political unhappiness of the time, and teamed up with Roger Corman to make what is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the "women-in-prison” genre, Caged Heat.

Caged Heat was intended to satirize the women-in-prison genre, the plot usually involving a wronged woman being sent to a correctional facility that’s guarded by a very strict warden. The wronged woman and her fellow inmates plan an escape, while engaging in sexy and violent activities in the meantime. Caged Heat’s idea of satire was to make the warden a woman rather than a man. The inmates also don’t wear sexualized prison uniforms; they wear clothes that were trendy for the time. The exploitation is still in film — there's boobs and blood aplenty.

So, although the traditional elements of exploitation are in Caged Heat, how is it a satire? It isn’t a satire in the way that, say, a Christopher Guest film that satirizes Hollywood or sixties music nostalgia tours would be, but it is a comment on the socio-economic climate of the time. Again, women were very angry in the early seventies. The women’s liberation movement was beginning to kick off, but not much progress had been made. You had women who were trapped in bad marriages that they originally felt they “had” to have, and you had working women who were rarely able to get promoted past a certain point in their careers. Add in the fact that the country was in a recession, and the anger only intensified.

Thus, the prison setting is a great setting. Inmates confined in a space, paying the price for bad decisions they made, getting abused by the guards and the whole world around them. The only way they can express their anger is through violence and fighting -- they can’t grin and bear it the way functioning members of society can.

One pivotal violent scene is where the inmates attempt to rob a bank, only to find that a group of male robbers have already gotten there. Instead of backing off, the female escaped inmates beat the crap out of the male robbers before going into the bank to finish the job. Yes, it can be seen as women taking on “evil men,” but let’s think of the career women who were trapped under the glass ceiling. In real life, they were only beginning to fight back. In Caged Heat, these women were going for the jugular. They were pissed off, damn it! They had their freedom, and here were the men taking what they felt was theirs.

So what about the nudity? Did Demme mean for the nudity to be a symbol of vulnerability? Sex scenes as a metaphor for the power of female bonding? Those reasons are valid. After all, Caged Heat was meant to be a send-up of the women in prison genre rather than just another entry like Black Mama, White Mama (1973) or The Big Bird Cage (1972) Or, there’s the simplest explanation: Caged Heat had to keep the interest of men. Take away the excess sex, and you just have a movie about female bonding and unleashing their anger at society. The plot doesn’t exactly sound like men would enjoy it. However, by keeping in the exploitative elements, Demme and Corman get to keep their original audience, and actually wind up alienating the female audience although there is the element of female empowerment.

Overall, Caged Heat is a very mixed film. It claims it is a satire, yet stays true to the elements of the films it is satirizing. However, given the timing of the film’s release and what was going on in the world, it is safe to say that it is social commentary rather than straight up satire. And if you don’t agree with me, I’ll kick your ass.  

Kathleen Furey is a 2009 graduate of Binghamton University who may or may not have participated in some anti-establishment rallies during her time there. She currently runs (and shops for) the blog Furious Kitschy and is the community manager of LivLuna .