A Lewd Reminder of How Tame Orange Is the New Black Really Is

Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, 40 this year, showed the radical political potential—and, yes, sexually exploitative side—of the women-in-prison genre.
New World Pictures

People tend to think of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, whose second season goes online Friday, as one of the innovative dramas that's defining a new golden age of television. The show could also be seen, though, as a revival of an almost dead, little mourned, and mostly forgotten genre: women in prison.

That genre’s last major renaissance was in the early 1970s, when a raft of women-in-prison exploitation films came out of the Roger Corman studio. The most famous of these turns 40 this year: Jonathan Demme's 1974 camp sort-of classic, Caged Heat. Viewed today, it makes Orange Is the New Black—a show widely praise for its diverse cast, risqué humor, and opposition to the prison-industrial complex—look tame and apolitical.

The biggest difference between the two works is realism. OITNB isn't exactly realistic—it deviates in numerous ways from the memoir on which it is loosely based. But the show does have a small-as-life vibe that is very typical of television. Episodes revolve around main character Piper accidentally forgetting to return a screwdriver, or seeing a feral chicken on the grounds of the prison. Absurdities are quirky rather than sweeping; character development is slow and intended to be psychologically believable. So while Orange Is the New Black is not always realistic, or meant to be realistic, but it is meant to create a feeling of realism—to suspend disbelief.

This is not so much the case for Caged Heat. On the contrary, the film is constructed as an obvious fantasy. The women in the prison don't even wear prison clothes; they're all wandering around in more-or-less revealing civilian garb, often with heavy and obvious cosmetics. Even beyond such lapses from verisimilitude, though, Demme deliberately constructs the film as a dreamscape. Many sequences portray the fantasies of prisoners and staff, shot with artsy lighting effects. Demme draws a number of parallels with cabaret performance, emphasizing the artificiality not just of dream as dream, but of film as film. One of the first scenes of the movie shows one of the women having a steamy dream encounter with a man through the bars; he feels her up (helpfully revealing her breasts for the viewer) while she responds enthusiastically … until she pulls out a knife, which she wields dramatically but ineffectually.

As this all suggests, lust is a big part of the reason for Demme's lack of realism. Though OITNB has some toplessness and a fair bit of sex, flashes of skin are all carefully justified by the narrative, rather than ostentatiously displayed for a male or (given the lesbian content) female gaze. Caged Heat, though, is about the fantasy, and that definitely includes the fantasies of the viewer. Shower scenes are frequent and remarkably full-frontal, and the film's lasciviousness is openly acknowledged and riffed upon. In one sequence, the crippled prison warden McQueen (Barbara Steele) visualizes herself in a slinky dress upbraiding the prisoners for being too sexual. Her moralism is presented as both hypocritical and as a consumable, lip-smacking sensual pleasure in its own right.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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