Women in Prison, Girls behind Bars, Lesbians in Action*

[K] We have already discussed the trope of the lesbian nun, but even more numerous and notorious? The prison lesbian, butch warden, dyke behind bars, whatever you wanna call her. From The L Word and Bitch Slap to Gaga’s Telephone the lesbian prison inmate is seeing a kind of revival in contemporary media, but in honor of our Vintage Butches, I’d like to take this opportunity to explore the (exploitation) roots of this media stereotype in all its awful/campy/fun/degrading/sexy glory.

  • Ladies They Talk About (1933)

After Joan Crawford’s Paid (1931) and Jean Harlow’s Hold you Man (1993), Ladies they talk About is one of the first “Women in Prison”-movies and most famous as a star-vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck (who gets as gay as Hollywood would have it in the 1962 film Walk on the Wild Side), but if you look a bit closer, it becomes additionaly pretty infamous for starring the first prison-butch (at least, if we count only preserved films… there are rumours about a prison butch in a silent movie with Clara Bow, according to Richard Barrios’ Screend Out.) We don’t know her name, but we learn - upon first seeing her - that she ‘likes to wrestle” and that her late-hours are spent ‘exercising’ with/in front of her adoring femme - prison life wasn’t all bad, it seems.

  • Caged (1950)

Like Ladies they Talk About, Caged falls on the ‘respectable’ side of prison-movies (sometimes called ‘the best’ - I’ll let you decide that for yourself). Unfortunately, the butch in this case is an evil a**-hole and she isn’t even played by Agnes Moorehead, though she is in the movie and that just makes me sad… instead, Hope Emerson has the honour of introducing the menacing butch warden into cinematic history (and being nominated for an Oscar), while Agnes Moorehead gets to wear a bow-tie. This way we all win:

(In addition, there’s a more sympathetic butch among the inmates, Kitty, who remarks: “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think about guys at all. You just get out of the habit.” If you ever were in the habit in the first place…)

  • Woman’s Prison (1955)

Let’s turn the heat up a bit, shall we? With Woman’s Prison you not only get ‘Queen of the B’s’ Ida Lupino, but also finally a prison riot worthy of its name. Sadly, Ida Lupino’s Amelia van Zandt is a sadist that would even scare Caged's warden of horror, so her perversity (=subtextual lesbianism) might not be the most enjoyable depiction of gay women ever portrayed on the silver screen, but if you came here for that, this might not be the right genre for you anyway… (which makes me wonder: which genre is most kind to its queer characters? Any suggestions. Sorry, getting back to prison movies right away.)

                          Women's Prison #2 - Ida Lupino as Superintendent Amelia van Zandt

  • Girls in Prison (1956)

Yeah, we’re back to a prison movie, whose gay character is not the sadistic warden, yet she still has enough screentime to warrant a charcter name: Melanee.

Excitement! Another important difference between this flick and the others so far? (There’s an earthquake, but that might be a bit off-topic) The protagonist (Anne) is far from innocent - but unfortunately still not ‘rotten’ enough to accept Melanee’s advances, she’s afraid “It’s contagious”, though Anne’s short black hair implies something else entirely. Well, never judge a book by its cover. But always judge a film by its mud fight:

             

  • House of Woman (1962)

Taglines like “Innocents thrown in with female bully-boys”, might be exciting, but a bit deceiving in this case, since the lesbians you might except from a slogan like that are reduced to only one and even she ain’t prominent throughout the film - but we get off to a good start. Fighting about a picture of a guy that ‘the lesbian’ had ripped apart, this dialogue more than gives it a away:

"What’s Troy Donahue got that’s so special?" 

"Honey, you’re the kind that’d never know."

I bet, however, that she’d be the kind to know the appeal of the Women in Prison-genre.

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* I sure hope Google loves this keyword-heavy headline as much as I do

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