Somewhere beneath all the folderol of women-in-prison movies lurks an image of a woman in a situation like this one from Sex and Submission -- except that it's nonconsensual. The perfect women in prison flick should contain something a lot like it. But knowing how censored things are in America, I'm not holding my breath. (Pic is from a sponsor, Sex and Submission. They have a several excellent jailhouse scenarios in their library. Guess where you'll go if you click on the pic or this link?
As stated in the review of Caged Heat 3000, one of the keys to the appeal of women-in-prison films is the helplessness and vulnerability of the female prisoners, arousing the protection/predation response in people. On the one hand, we see a woman in chains, a woman behind bars, and we feel she is vulnerable, so we want to protect her. On the other hand, that same vulnerability, at perhaps a lower level of our psyche, makes us want to use her and take advantage of her - she is vulnerable, cannot resist, can be had by us. We can make her have sex with us against her will and get away with it. (I'm not saying this is a good line of thought, mind you, just that it's a natural human response to vulnerability along with the protectiveness.)
A lone female lies unmoving on a bed, surrounded by three male guards throughout the scene, her helplessness and vulnerability made clear in this scened from Caged Heat 3000. We vicariously enjoy the guard's power over her, or vicariously enjoy her submission and powerlessness before the guards. Too bad she's clothed and none of the chains in the foreground are attached to her. What the hell were they thinking, to come so close to a really powerful scene and then blowing it?
In the real world, which set of responses you respond to in those situations where others are vulnerable determines what sort of person you are. In the fantasy world of women in prison movies, we can enjoy vicariously exploiting the vulnerability of the women in prison, then enjoy vicariously protecting them as they are released/rewarded at the end of the movie. We can have our cake and eat it, too. That's why they call it movie magic.
In the ending to "Caged Heat" the jailhouse lawyer survives attacks by bad girls and is freed, promising to get her friend out of jail, too, and calling on her to hang on, allowing us to vicariously enjoy protecting them by liberating them.
Another key is that the women are in an institutionally submissive role -- like slaves, they are controlled and dominated by the authority figures around them, as well as by the more aggressive, powerful prisoners they share cells with.
As this cover from the Globe tabloid newspaper demonstrates, women in jail have experienced a huge fall from grace.
Finally -- and this is extremely important -- prisoners have had a huge fall from grace, sliding from the relatively protected environs of society to the lowly status of prisoner. On an official level their lives are regulated by uncaring or even actively hostile guards and prison officials, and on an unofficial level they are extremely vulnerable to violence, rape and degradation by these same guards and other prisoners.
Most WIP films don't really exploit the dramatic appeal of these elements, focussing instead on the by-the-numbers WIP elements -- the mass nude shower scenes, the jailhouse riot scenes, the lesbian rape scenes and the the jailhouse murder scenes.
The way you extract the maximum dramatic value from a WIP is take one, or at most two or three female prisoners and focus on their psychological state as they go from being free, middle-class, respectable women to prisoners struggling just to keep themselves from being raped and beaten constantly -- and struggling to keep themselves from being psychologically beaten by the system.
You focus on all the things that serve to beat them down, because prison can be viewed as one huge nonconsensual dominance and submission game, with the prison attempting to wrest submission from the prisoners, in this case by altering their viewpoint of themselves to be whatever the prison in the forms of guards, wardens, et. Al., want them to be.
So you start out with the strip searches and the body cavity search. And you don't portray it as impersonal and institutional. You focus on the people. (This is where the women's Women In Prison movies that show up on the Lifetime Sentence Channel excel.) They show the woman who was dressed nicely and surrounded by friends on the outside, now a naked woman bending over, legs spread (a powerful posture of submission) listening uneasily as the guard pulls on a latex glove and then close up on her face while she's grimacing as the guard probes her vagina and anus.
You don't dress the women in shapeless orange jumpsuits, however accurate that may be, and you don't give them the skintight jumpsuits that they get in Caged Heat 3000, sexy as they may be. You put them in very, very short, low cut, flimsy dresses that expose their breasts, butt and/or pussy if they aren't constantly adjusted, further heightening the prisoner's vulnerability. Thus a guard can force a woman to expose her butt to his view just by dropping any object on the floor and ordering her to pick it up. You put them in clothes that enhance their vulnerability. And some of them you have naked, both because it's sexually powerful imagery, and because it points up the fact that your protagonist might wind up naked, too. (And she should, if possible, for a time.)
You show the women forced to stand in line and behave submissively toward male guards, perhaps even kneeling before them in postures that indicate sexual submission, head to the ground, ass in the air, exposed by their short garments.
Real prisoners wear heavy chains, yet many women in prison films are unaccountably shy about using these powerful images of bondage and dominance.
You show women in chains wherever possible, and as often as possible, especially in public, most especially before friends and relatives -- something many women in prison films are strangely shy about doing. Most female prisoners are cuffed in front and wear belly chains, but it's better tohave them chained with their wrists behind them to increase their vulnerability. You have them chained in their cells, as punishment, and while walking among the other prisoners, as punishment. You show the other prisoners mocking and belittling the chained prisoners, as a chance to show their superiority.
Further, you show the chained prisoners forced to beg other prisoners to feed them at mealtimes, perhaps offering sexual services in return. Maybe you show a chained prisoner writhing in her bed at night, crying, unable to sleep comfortably with her wrists cuffed behind her back. You show her contortions at having to go to the bathroom in chains (something Susan MacDougal says happened to her during her imprisonment). You show the chained women forced to kneel before the guards, but having more diffuculty because they're chained.
A heartrending bit of bondage and humiliation from Lifetime Movie Channel stalwart "The Bambi Bambanek Story"
(One of the best "women in chains" scenes is in a movie that shows up on Lifetime, the Bambi Bambenek Story" (the one with Tatum O'Neal in the title role. Near the very end of the movie, after she's been recaptured after a successful escape, we hear the judge sentencing her to be cuffed and shackled whenever she leaves her cell. So we get a scene with her sitting and talking with her parents, and her mother has to ask her father to bring Bambi a straw, as she can't drink her soft drink without one because her hands are cuffed to a wrist belt. Simple, yet brilliant!)
This image from a European TV commercial shows female prisoners bound AND gagged ... the right direction to move in.
You show prisoners forced to endure visits from victims who berate them for what they've done and tell them that their prison sentence was entirely too soft a punishment, while their mind flashes on all the unofficial torments they've been forced to endure.
You show prisoners visited by former "friends" who were actually their enemies all along, taking the opportunity to belittle them relentlessly now that they are in prison, rubbing their nose in their fall from grace.
You show `noisy" prisoners who scream and yell or talk out of turn forced to wear leather gags. You show them forced to kneel and accept their gags. You show them walking silently among the other prisoners, enduring their taunts. You show them waiting to have their gags removed at mealtime, then waiting unhappily to have them put back on afterward. Kneeling, of course. Some of the more unruly prisoners might actually be chained AND gagged.
For an oral rape scene, you show the prisoner kneeling, trembling in fear as the hated gag is removed so that she can suck cock.
In fact, you might show one of your protagonists reduced to a naked, bound and gagged prisoner among relatively free prisoners, perhaps the free-spirited one who fights the sytem.
You focus on the psychological degradation of the prisoners under all this. You show the women before they're imprisoned as normal, middle-class women and then you show them slowly shriveling up or resisting under the domination of the prison system. Maybe you show one of your protagonists tearfully saying farewell to her family who gather round her to show their support.
Then you show her looking delighted when she gets mail from home. The guard notes this. Some time after when there's mail call, the guard tells her she's got mail but he isn't going to give it to her because of some trivial infraction of prison rules (towel improperly stored in cell). He then tells her she can persuade him to overlook it if she'll just pull down her panties and bend over with her butt near the bars and let him have a little. She refuses angrily. Over the next several weeks, she gets no mail, and finally, unable to stand the isolation from her family, we see her bent over before the bars at the front of her cell, and we see her emotional anguish as she rocks back and forth from the guard taking her from behind. Later, we see her reading one of a bunch of letters with tears running down her eyes, aware that she's prostituted herself for them.
You show a pretty new prisoner, a formerly vanilla housewife who's young enough to have tattoos and piercings, dominated and perhaps bound during sex by her older, dykier cellmate, and finding that she really enjoys sexual submission, afterward expressing love and affection and a desire to serve her new mistress, which so overwhelms the woman that she falls in love with her slave.
Having a relationship like this is really important to the sexual crossover appeal of women in prison films. Women's interest in women-in-prison movies lies in the area of humiliation and submission, and also "What I do if I were in prison?" fantasies. By presenting a full range of options, from becoming some prisoner's love slave to prostituting herself for candy or letters from home or whatever, to a helpless rape victim, to total defiance no matter what indignities are heaped upon one, we give the female viewers a smorgasbord of fantasies to choose from.
In this scene from Chained Heat 3000 we see a quick glimpse of two prisoners who've transformed their cell into quite the little love nest.
Now, this is just the ordinary course of prison life, you understand. The stuff that's normal and accepted. But prisoners who get put in solitary have visitors every night, and because they're gagged and bound while in solitary, they can't make any noise. They are totally helpless, isolated from any assistance at all. You might show one of them lying bound, gagged and naked in their darkened cell, suddenly awakened by the sound of her cell door as someone works the lock. She watches helplessly, her eyes wide over the gag, as the door open, spilling in light and the shadows of guards. One of the guards drops his trousers and she struggles to escape, but her chains make her struggles futile. We see a close up of her gagged face as she writhes in her chains with the guard atop her. Later, we see her kneeling naked and chained, eating from food in bowls on the floor while the guard who raped her stands around abover her and mocks her, saying, "Eat off the floor like the bitch in heat you are!"
The crowning touch, of course, would be to show the prison psychologists, counselors and volunteers helping the prisoners. Show the former sex slave girl being taught to knit, and later reveal that she has knitted herself a slave collar and cuffs to give to her lover to put on her. Show the defiant one in chains, her gag still around her neck, being counseled by the prison psychiatrist on how to cope with being chained like an animal 24/7. Let her scream "I am not an animal!" at the shrink while struggling in her chains and sobbing and the psychiatrist looks on helplessly, or in alarm, or maybe just takes notes.
And we mustn't leave out the importance of family visits for humiliating the prisoners, as their lovers and families talk about the real world and try to cheer them up, not knowing that that there's a guard waiting to have sex with her in exchange for letting her see her family. Show the young submissive's husband's surprise and relief at how happy and vital his formerly somewhat dull wife is doing in prison.
The contrast of these reminders of normal, middle-class life on the "outside" with the situation of the prisoners heightens the sense of degradation and helplessness enormously.
Thus you've given your audience huge helpings of vulnerable, helpless women being degraded, just what they're looking for. Now by having the women escape/take over the prison/draw attention to their cause/find some faith (a la Paradise Road) you give the audience their vicarious protection of the prisoners.
For my money, the best women in prison flicks are made for women, because they focus right in on the personal humiliation and degradation angle, a la the Lifetime Bambi Bambenek movie scene cited earlier with the shackled daughter who can't drink her soft drink as she talks with her parents.
The movie even starts with a nice scene, a flashforward as the former fugitive Bambi is extradited to the U. S. by Canadian customs officials. When the Canadian cops hand her over to the U.S. cops after they get off the plane, the U.S. cops drop a big duffel bag on the floor which turns out to be full of cuffs and shackles. They then put a waist chain around Bambi, cuff her hands and attach the cuffs to the waist rope and shackle her legs. Then they escort her through the airport so encumbered, with all the nicely dressed upper-middle class businessmen and families staring at her.
Or there's the soap opera scene where one of the characters, a nice woman wrongfully accused of murder, gets to see her family one last time before she's fried. She holds her baby one last time in her jail cell, her husband and children all around her. Mmmm, now that's soap opera. That is milking the pathos for all it was worth.
Really tasty. Lifetime understands humiliation. They don't call it the Victim Channel for nothing. This kind of sensibility combined with sexualization of the prisoners and a thorough understanding of the sexual dynamics of women in prison movies is what makes things work.
Women in prison movies aimed at women have a way of leaving this stuff out of the movie -- which is where the men's women in prison movies are ahead of them.
By the way, this image isn't from a movie, it's from a sponsor's site, Sex and Submission. It's one of several jailhouse fantasies they have done. They handle the sexual exploitation aspect of women in prison scenes about as well as it can be done, though they're a little (OK, very) weak on characterization. Click on the pic to visit their site, and see pics and high-res videos. Or click right here.
Unfortunately women's films and programming is afraid to explore the grittier side of prison life and doesn't sexualize its prisoners. They also tend to make prison seem so comfortable that a lot of single mothers struggling to work, raise their kids and make ends meet would probably find it kind of appealing. It's a place where women gather to talk, knit, do crafts and play games together, with occasional heart-to-hearts with a professional counselors who really understands their problems and sympathizes with them. This has an effect of undercutting the pathos of the humiliation and degradation the prisoner is supposed to be experiencing. And it's a big fucking lie about the way women's prisons really are.
The women-in-prison epic that has the best chance of really riveting people is the one that's willing to explore the grittier aspects of prison life and to sexualize the prisoners, and which also maintains that Lifetime Channel focus on the personal experience of humiliation and degradation of prison life. If you set the prison epic in another country, as in Prison Heat, in another time, as in Caged Heat 3000, you are freed of the constraints of "what things are like in real life" and can include whatever fantasy elements you like in the film. You can produce a women-in-prison film that will be incredibly successful and popular at the box office.
Return to the Caged Heat 3000 review
Return to the Totally Innocent Index page