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

Naked Behind Bars: Women in Prison

by David Selden
Jan. 26, 2014

“Here women without men live only for the moment of freedom,” promises the trailer for John Cromwell’s, Caged (1950) summing up the kinky appeal of the women in prison film. For separatist lesbians, crazed nihilist drag queens, lecherous voyeurs (and even the morally minded), here were to be found, in vicarious microcosm, in noir shadow and occasionally in lurid Technicolor, the whispered secrets of the cellblock.

Caged as well as Vorhaus’ So Young, So Bad of the same year and Seller’s Women’s Prison (1955) glossed their prurient eroticism with moral concern but sex always lurked in the shadows of the big house. The melodramatic tone and barely suppressed hysteria was breathlessly photographed in deluxe black and white. Revived as giggling camp in the VHS 80’s, it was hard not to snigger at these illicit, late night TV kicks that had to compete with Prisoner Cell Block Hfor our attention but Caged was in fact no B-movie.

Starring Agnes Moorhead, whose career had begun as Citizen Kane’s mother in Welles’ masterpiece, the script for Caged had originally been put together with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in mind. It had been written by Virginia Kellogg based on a diary she had kept after having herself incarceratedi.

The authorities were not best pleased and subsequent to its release the film was banned by some U.S States, despite this Caged went on to be nominated for 3 Academy Awards, grossing as much as any movie released that year other than Father of the Bride.ii In short it was another Warner Brothers coup, an issue movie, when issue movies were what Warner did.

Hollywood had made movies that had dealt with women in prison before. Even prior to the imposition of the infamous Hayes code that proscribed what could, and what couldn’t be shown.iii In 1933, a year before films were to require certifying under the code, Barbara Stanwyck starred in Ladies They Talk About of which the New York Times somewhat stiffly remarked,

“It is in the prison scenes that the film provides some interesting drama. 'Ladies They Talk About' is effective when it is describing the behavior of the prisoners, the variety of their misdemeanors, their positions in the social whirl outside, their ingenuity in giving an intimate domestic touch to the prison, and their frequently picturesque way of exhibiting pride, jealousy, vanity and other untrammeled feminine emotions.”iv

With the thorough trammeling of all emotions imposed by the Hayes code, Hollywood pushed desire into the shadow and noir was born. With the lid screwed down tight, and with psychoanalysis at a high water mark in its cultural influence, the prison (male and female alike) became a none to subtle metaphor for repression.

Though ostensibly concerned with retribution and or redemption, the highly sexualized panopticonsv of the prison genre offered a lurid glimpse of a world that presumably many of its audience feared and many secretly desired. This was where the foiled femme fatales ended up after their crime spreevi. Maybe it was heaven, more likely it was hell but, “A dame with curves can always find an angle… even in jail.”

This was an era, however, when any behavior deemed sufficiently unladylike could find the perpetrator put behind bars or even institutionalised. In her posthumously published autobiography, Will there really be a morning?, the actress Francis Farmer recalls in harrowing detail her incarceration after her breakdown.

The success of Caged inspired a succession of copycats and with each successive iteration the formula grew cruder, the psychodrama more explicitly sexualized. Nonetheless the appeal of the women in prison film, and its box office appeal, was still an ambivalent one. To whom were they addressed?

Just as the men’s prison picture projects heterosexual anxieties, and fantasies, around the all male environment (if only to subordinate them to Darwinian displays of machismo)vii, heteronormative values in women’s prison movies may also be challenged but are frequently violently reasserted.

Subsequent to the relaxation and final abandonment of the Movie Production Code in 1967, the genre took a darker turn and this was in turn fuelled by the enthusiastic willingness of European directors to provide uncensored content, the fig leaf of “Art” largely negotiable according to the market. What had been previously been subtext, no matter how heavily underlined, now became explicit.

Like any genre, the success of the woman’s prison movie was due to a set of easily imitable rulesviii and by the 1969 Jess Franco’s blockbuster, 99 Women, in which the inmates were “forced to perform degrading acts that deprive them of their humanity” the formula was hardened into cliché, the genre had became blatantly pornographic and the addressed audience were clearly male, the directors seemingly punishing their female stars for their own desires.

Franco, as well as Mattei, Garrone and other disreputable Italian directors such as Solvay (Luigi Batzella), as well as Alain Payet in France, found ways to constantly raise the stakes, culminating in a series of increasingly lurid sexual psychodramas, exploring the pathologies of the European id with titles such as SS Experiment Love Camp, SS Camp 5: Women’s Hell, Gestapo's Last Orgy, Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg, SS Hell Camp, Fraulein Devil, Women in Cell Block 7, and Nazi Love Camp 27.

With their highly sexualized torture sequences many of these films, hastily produced for the grindcore market in the 1970’s were designated as “Nazi Nasties” in the 1980’six. Even today many are suppressed, nonetheless, if nothing else, they provide a startling commercial context for more widely seen films such as Liliana Cavini’s The Night Porter (1974) and Passolini’s Salò (1975)x.

Sensing there was money to be made, Roger Corman had also put his own spin on the genre sending Pam Grier to jungle jail (and on her way to stardom) for The Big Doll House (1971) and its sequel The Big Bird Cage (1972). Grier was also to appear in Women in Cages (1971), and Black Mama, White Mama (1973), the latter co-written by Jonathan Demme.

Demme had approached Corman with what was to be his debut film, Caged Heat (1974). Corman passed but Caged Heat was to go on to become one of the more memorable films of the genre, parodying its excesses and tweaking its sexual politics. From TV Guide’s review…..

“These women aren't passively suffering the indignities heaped on them by men; they take guns and rebel. Even the nudity, obligatory in New World's exploitation mill, is kept to a minimum and deglamorized whenever possible. Steele, a cult favorite for a number of Italian horror films by Mario Bava, does a wonderful turn as the crippled, demented warden. In one superb, spooky scene, she fantasizes while dancing with top hat and cane in a bathroom.”xi

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s Mattei persisted with Women's Prison Massacre (1985), Caged Women (1984), and Jail — A Women's Hell (2006) and Sergio Garrone inflicted Hell Behind Bars and Hell Penitentiary (both 1983) on the world. Both the Hong Kong film industry and the Japanese film industry made significant contributions to the genre and Hollywood was also busy producing The Concrete Jungle (1982), Chained Heat (1983) with Linda Blair, Cell Block Sisters (1995), Caged Hearts (1995), Bad Girls Dormitory (1985), Under Lock & Key, and Caged Fear (1991) not to mention countless films about tourists in distress in foreign jails and the output of a half dozen adult studios specializing in the hardcore BDSM market.

Parody, pornographic or otherwise, might yet be the genre’s ultimate fate. As early as 1975, at the nadir of the European genre’s kitsch Nazi fixation and a year after Demme’s Caged Heat, Divine was to appear as the Matron in Tom Eyen’s stage play, Women Behind Barsxiisuggesting that the ideas that Susan Sontag had outlined in her seminal essay Notes on Campxiii were able to constitute an alternative reading, a deconstruction and queering of the genre.

In 1986 Tom DeSimone gave us Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics in Reform School Girls and in 2003 there was Mary Woronov’s Prison-A-Go-Go!. The genre was to be parodied again by Cody Jarrett in Sugar Box (2009),with Tura Satana no less, and in Balderson’s, Stuck! (2010), with Karen Black and Mink Stole. These films imply with a knowing wink that if the iconography of control, and the rituals of its abuse, can be sexualized then they can also be appropriated, served up for ridicule and rendered absurd.


Caged and Framed: The Women-in-Prison film

Judith Mayn - Framed: Lesbians, Feminist and Media Culture. University Of Minnesota Press, 2000.

The Women in Prison Film, From Reform to Revolution 1922-1974

Oren Shai – Brightlights Film Journal

Women’s Prison (1955) Lewis Seiler – John Greco, Twenty Four Frames

Caged (1950) - Alan Rode, Black Mask

Sadiconazista – Sadomasochism and politics in the cinema of the 1970’s. - Marcus Stiglegger 2009

i “Kellogg’s article “Inside Women’s Prison,” published in the June 3, 1950 edition of Colliers, was timed to coincide with the release of Caged. It exposed the horrific conditions she witnessed during her undercover prison sojourn, including a young inmate collapsing in the kitchen and hemorrhaging from advanced syphilis, as well as routine practices such as solitary confinement, hair shearing, and immersion in cold water baths. Kellogg expressed contempt for the prison matrons, several of whom she asserted were on the payroll of organized crime syndicates:”

Caged (1950) Alan Rode – Black Mask




1. Impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful.

2. It must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter.

3. It must not be presented in such a way as to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.

4. It must be made to seem right and permissible.

5. In general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.

The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (1930-1967)

iv“The story is certainly on the violent side of drama.”

Ladies They Talk About (1933). New York Times, February 25th 1933.

v “In prison, surveillance is power and power is sexualized. Sex and surveillance, therefore, are profoundly linked”.

Sex & Surveillance: Gender, Privacy & the Sexualization of Power in Prison. Teresa A. Miller in George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal (CRLJ), Vol. 10, p. 291, 2000

vi “The most popular form of WIP [Women In Prison film] in the 1950s was the reformatory schoolgirl film, a reflection of the decade's boom in juvenile delinquency and the mass hysteria it inspired. Boys generally committed more violent crimes; girls were detained for moral crimes.”

The Women in Prison Film, From Reform to Revolution 1922-1974

Oren Shai – Brightlights Film Journal

vii Counterexamples to this in the men’s prison film genre would be Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950), Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) and Denis’ Beau Travail (1999).

viii  Most women-in-prison films employ the same stock characters and formulaic situations which have since become cinematic clichés. Such scenes usually include:

  • An innocent girl (or group) being wrongfully sent to a corrupt penitentiary or reform school run by a brutal and lecherous male or lesbian warden (who might also be running an inmate prostitution ring on the side)

  • An extremely humiliating group strip search

  • Lesbian sex scenes between prisoners and the guards, or the female prisoners being raped (or forced into prostitution) by male guards

  • Female prisoners being sentenced to extremely humiliating hard labor (such as scrubbing floors or digging dirt holes completely naked)

  • Fights between the prisoners (sometimes completely naked in the shower)

  • cruel beatings and punishment by sadistic guards

  • Female prisoners being sprayed by a firehose

  • The story usually concludes with a bloody uprising or escape sequence in which the villains meet with a grisly death.


ix A complete list from A to Z of the titles that constituted the list of “Video Nasties” can be found at Dark Angel’s Realm of Horror (and many of these titles can be found on YouTube).

x Laura Frost's book Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism (2002) (ISBN 0801487641) says that the genre is part of a problematic attempt to link political deviance (i.e. fascism, militarism, genocide) with sexual deviance (i.e. sadomasochism, homosexuality, transvestism, pedophilia). Nazisploitation - Wikipedia

xi “The viola-and-harmonica score by ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale is excellent.” Caged Heat at TVGUIDE

xii“The comedy is set in The Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, and the 10 woman cast includes a range of social and psychological "types." The prisoners include the innocent Heidi type who is eventually destroyed by the system and the street-wise tough girl who smokes a lot and has Camel cigarettes over her left breast and Lucky Strikes over her right. There is a Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DeBois type, a delicate butterfly belle. It seems she is still waiting for the streetcar and she uses lines from the Tennessee Williams play. All races are displayed here along with the evil queen of the jail, the matron, and her sidekick, whom everyone hates. In fact, the sidekick hates herself.”

Theater Rhinoceros is Presenting Women Behind Bars. Richard Connema

talkinbroadway.com 25th March, 2002

xiii (44.) Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

Notes On “Camp” - Susan Sontag, 1964.

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com