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.
Demme's reliance on fantasy enables the prurient—but it also makes possible the political. Orange Is the New Black is so enmeshed in the petty struggles and day-to-day interactions of its characters that it has little time for explicitly political statements: Even the pacifist nun never articulates a message of resistance during the first season. Backstory flashbacks present many of the women as sympathetic and caught in a web of poverty, but there is, for example, no articulated questioning of drug laws.
In Caged Heat, though, the embrace of sexual fantasy is also an embrace of empowerment fantasies—and of fantasies of solidarity. At first, these fantasies are only personal, as when Belle (Roberta Collins) risks her own safety to get food to her lesbian lover Pandora (Ella Reid) in solitary. Even here, though, the film is as politically adventurous as OITNB —Belle is white and Pandora is black, a sexualized, interracial, same-sex friendship that has (at least in its first season) no parallel in the Netflix series. Certainly, in 1974, presenting an interracial lesbian couple as heroic protagonists would have been a significant, transgressive statement, at least as daring as OITNB's admirable effort to sympathetically represent the transgender inmate Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox).
Caged Heat goes beyond individual representation as well, though. Jacqueline (Erica Gavin) and Maggie (Juanita Brown), after an initial wrestling match in the showers, become friends once they're both subjected to electro-shock therapy. They manage to break out of the prison with the help of another prisoner Lavelle (Rainbeaux Smith) who berates herself for running interference. "What did she ever do for me?" she says in frustration as she kicks the walls of her solitary cell. But that residual cynical realism is quickly refuted—Evelyn plans to return to the prison to rescue her friends. "You've got an impossible fucking dream!" Maggie spits. The impossible fucking dream is feminist revolution—achieved, with Maggie's help, in a hail of bullets and murdered prison personnel.
The prison break occurs just in time to save Belle from being lobotomized by the pipe-smoking, oleaginous Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller), who has already sexually assaulted her. Patriarchy, rape, and enforced docility are all deftly interwoven—and all, the film suggests, can be overcome by women joining with women and to imagine an existence outside the walls.
Forty years ago, even with its sleaze and violence, women-in-prison was a genre that at least flirted with audacious dreams. Perhaps freedom seemed more possible in the ‘70s than it does now, four decades further into both the U.S.’s incarceration binge and anti-feminist backlash. Or maybe exploitation cinema, with its aesthetic of excess, was just more suited to fantasies, of every sort, than the small-screen vision of television serial narrative. In any case, Orange Is the New Black has chosen to pursue less radical dreams than its predecessor—at least so far.
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