(TORONTO, ON) – In London, Ontario I was introduced to a group named Vagrancy Films whose purpose was to provide horror and b-rated film fans with hours of exploitation films and grindhouse trailers. Thanks to these bad boys I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, met the original cast of Evil Dead, and have watched films with unforgettable titles such as Robotrix, Birdemic, and Gone With The Pope. My fascination with the exploitation genre was fuelled by these regular screenings and also by a seminar course in my fourth year of university about Blaxploitation, the low budget “black exploitation” films in the 1970s made by and aimed for black audiences. These films seem cheap and cheesy, loaded with terrible one liners and comically loud pimp clothing, but are coded with a cultural reading that fosters a spot in gender, queer, and black studies.
While doing research for my course I watched Black Mama, White Mama (Eddie Romero, 1973) which is a loose remake of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958). Replace Sidney Poitier with Blaxploitation legend Pam Grier, Tony Curtis with leggy blonde Margaret Markov, and you’ve got a story about two women chained together escaping an all-women prison trying to reconcile their different goals and, less subtly, their opposing skin colours. While watching the film I was taking notes on racial binaries, but couldn’t help being intrigued by the depictions of the prison which is an aggro-lesbian-rape-fest. Looking into the film I discovered yet another exploitation sub genre (there are many – from nunsploitation to Nazisploitation) that begs discussion: women in prison (WIP) films.
WIP films have a specific formula. Typically, wrongly accused innocents are sent to an all-women prison run by lesbian sadist guards who force the inmates to endure hard manual labour in minimal clothing or perform sexual favours to avoid said labour, and subject the inmates to extreme humiliation and degradation usually by means of BDSM, beatings, and torture. The films are voyeuristic in nature as we watch unnecessary strip searches, playful shower scenes, and nude catfights. WIP films also share titles like Caged Heat (Roger Corman, 1974), The Concrete Jungle (Tom DeSimone, 1982), and SS Experiment Love Camp (Sergio Garrone, 1976) depicting an image of ruthless sexual containment which is even more apparent in the trailers:
Watch the trailer here.
Welcome to the “female’s jungle” where “caged passions ignite in carnal confinement and explode into violence,” where the “house of desperate women…MUST explode.” This discourse follows the male fantasy of female sleepovers but adds an extreme level of violence to provide a method of containing female libido and desire. Hyper-sexualized prison guards rape and haze inmates because as the trailer suggests, “they ache for a man, any man.” When women are contained in WIP films, it’s a disturbed orgy of fetishist desires and transgressive behaviours which paints the female libido and lesbianism as aggressive, irrational, and something that must be corrected. In the trailer for Black Mama, White Mama the female prison is described a “hellhole of twisted desires” and adds, “a thousand nights without men, a thousand reasons to kill.”
Watch the trailer here.
You see, it’s the lack of men that’s making all these women turn into sex starved, brutal, rapist lesbians! Thus comes the motivation of every wrongly accused or innocent female thrown into these prisons – escape the militant lesbians and return to patriarchal order, return to the arms of a man to stabilize vicious desires and ease back into civilization. In Mama, we have Karen reuniting with Ernesto to meet her goals for a political revolution, and Lee meeting her friend Leonardo because he has a boat to escape the island. When they finally rendezvous with their male counterparts, the audience is assured of the characters’ safety and the narrative can happily end.
Almost 40 years after the surge of WIP films, how is lesbianism portrayed in recent films? I am sure there are films out there with positive representations, but I would argue that more frequently than not we still see lesbians as the “Other”, as deviating from the norm and categorized as an abomination. Whether lesbian desire is surged by demonic spirits in Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009) or a result of a mental breakdown laced with hallucinations in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), there are endless narratives that place lesbianism as a monstrosity of the female libido and it becomes a by-product of horror and insanity. The voyeurism of make-outs and sex scenes asserts a male gaze that finds girl-on-girl action stimulating, but each narrative ends with a return to heteronormativity. If you need more evidence of this portrayal, check out the trailer for Brian de Palma’s most recent psychosexual thriller Passion on IMDB.
Can you think of examples which affirm or contradict lesbianism as an outlandish desire? Do you note similarities or differences in how homoerotic tensions/relationships between men in film are constructed?
Pixie is a Master’s Candidate in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management at Ryerson University. Her interests include film, philosophy, video games, and cultural studies. Connect with Pixie on Twitter.