The Gender Differences Within the Prisoner Escape Genre

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Megan just wrote a thought-provoking piece about “Pop Culture’s Fascination With Captive Women.” She senses a shift in that genre:

[S]tories of captive women being produced now are not just about imprisonment; they are, more directly, about escape. The current iteration of the trope focuses on women who save themselves from their own imprisonment. They tend to be stories of triumph over adversity. They tend to be, in their way, feminist fables.

A reader observes a distinctly male version of that theme:

This genre exists for men, too: prison break movies. There was a whole TV series called ... Prison Break. Movies like Escape from Alcatraz, Shawshank Redemption, and Cool Hand Luke. [CB: My own favorite is Papillon and its perpetual escapes (the book was even better than the film).] One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a kind of prison break movie. Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is related, focusing on the last day of freedom for a man about to go to prison as he wrestles with the idea of just not showing up for it—a kind of preemptive escape.

In the male version, the main character is never imprisoned alone, but with other men, and is not imprisoned by a man, singular, but by The Man.

And his fellow inmates are as much a threat as his captors. The main character is typically wrongly accused, or let themselves go to jail to save someone else, or was sentenced to a hell that over-punishes them for whatever crime they committed.

As in the women-centered films and TV shows that Megan Garber cites, rape and brutal beatings are prominent in every prison escape story. [Examples include the (very NSFW) shower scene in American History X and too many scenes to count in Oz. The pawn-store scene in Pulp Fiction is a classic example of an informal prison.] Rapes and beatings are arguably the chief motivation of the protagonist to get the hell out, and the thing that makes audiences root for him. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Nicholson’s character most fears the lobotomy [scene here, along with electroshock therapy]—the brain rape that destroys identity, individuality, and will itself.

I know Garber is going for a feminist insight here by focusing on a spate of Captive Woman Escapes stories, but fears of being trapped and harmed are universal. They do seem to be expressed differently in film, with female and male variations. To me the interesting gender distinction between Captive Woman Escapes movies and Prison Break movies is this suggestion that, in some general way, women fear being trapped and harmed by a single controlling person, while men fear being trapped and harmed by an impersonal controlling system … except when they’re imprisoned by their Number One Fan!

If you have any more good examples of the Prison Break genre (a particular favorite of mine; another example includes the psychological escape at the end of Brazil), drop me a note: By the way, why aren’t there many Prison Break films and shows featuring women? That’s easy—not many women are in prison: “There were 113,000 women offenders incarcerated in state and federal facilities in 2010 compared to 1,500,000 male inmates.”

Update from reader Kenneth Ashworth, who points to a subgenre of prisoner escape movies that is almost entirely male, given the historical makeup of the military:

There’s a whole genre of POW escape movies, with the major example being The Great Escape. A Man Escaped is great. Von Ryan’s Express is cheesy.

And there are Chain Gang escapes: The Defiant Ones and O Brother Where Art Thou.

Don’t forget Escape from New York as a prison movie.