Orange Is the New Black returns June 17. The show has rightly earned praise for its nuanced, moving portrayals of female inmates of all stripes, and serves as a reminder of how far things have come in terms of images of incarcerated women on screen.
In appreciation of series creator Jenji Kohan and the cast and crew’s elevated take on the subject matter, we’re looking back at the bleak and often exploitative history of the strange “women’s prison drama” film genre.
The portrayal of women in prison can be split – as most of Hollywood can – into two periods: Pre- and Post-Code. “Code” in this case refers to Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines that were set in place in 1934. (Actually, the Code was adopted in 1930, though not enforced until four years later.) Since “sound pictures” were introduced in 1929, that meant a solid four years of profanity, drug use, promiscuity, violence and perhaps most shockingly, strong female characters.
Ladies They Talk About (1933), adapted from the play of the same name, starred Barbara Stanwyck as a member of a gang of female bank robbers. Portions of the film take place in San Quentin State Prison, and according to The New York Times, the film is “effective when it is describing the behavior of the prisoners, the variety of their misdemeanors, their positions in the social whirl outside, their ingenuity in giving an intimate domestic touch to the prison, and their frequently picturesque way of exhibiting pride, jealousy, vanity and other untrammeled feminine emotions.” Huh. Sounds kind of like OITNB, doesn’t it?
Another Pre-Code film from 1933, Hold Your Man has Jean Harlow spending time in a women’s reformatory, but it’s an interesting middle ground between Pre- and Post-Code films in that it portrays immoral and criminal behavior early in the film and then shows its characters being punished for (rather than profiting from) their behavior. Post-Code, it was mandated that criminals always be shown getting punished or “losing” to law enforcement on screen.
As pulp and crime magazines grew in popularity in the 1940s, the women-in-prison genre became a recognizable trope with films like 1950’s Caged and So Young, So Bad.
These films quickly took on the exploitative and sensationalist tone that they would stay locked in for several decades, though Caged was actually nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress (Eleanor Parker), Best Supporting Actress (Hope Emerson) and Best Writing (Story and Screenplay).
So Young, So Bad had the unfortunate distinction of coming out a day after Caged and was quickly derided as an inferior imitator.
The prosaically titled Women’s Prison continued the slide of the genre towards B-movie-styled camp, starring a vamping Ida Lupino. It did, however, develop a cult fan base in the 1980s – following the ’70s string of exploitation films that followed the theme – and was re-released as part of a “Bad Girls of Film Noir” box set by Sony.
As Hollywood turned its eye towards World War II, filmmakers began turning out movies about female POWs, like 1944’s Two Thousand Women, about British women in an Occupied France internment camp, and Three Came Home, a 1950 film adapted from writer Agnes Newton Keith’s memoirs about her internment in North Borneo and a Malaysian island, Sarawak. (The latter was a critically-lauded success.)
Eventually, in the ’60s, film censorship laws lapsed to the point where films like 99 Women and Love Camp 7 (both from 1969) started to slip through. These films, both of which were banned in certain countries, were springboards into the graphic, sexually explicit exploitation films of the ’70s, like the notorious Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. (We can’t show you the trailers for any of these films.)
Pam Grier, who would soon dominate the blaxploitation genre with films like Foxy Brown and Coffy, actually starred in four women-in-prison films in the early ’70s: 1971’s Women in Cages and The Big Doll House, both of which B-movie king Roger Corman produced; 1972’s The Big Bird Cage and 1973’s Black Mama, White Mama. (Most of these films were shot in the Philippines for budgetary purposes.) Black Mama, White Mama is an outlier in this stretch of films for Grier – it was written by Jonathan Demme (who would eventually direct The Silence of the Lambs and a few other films you might have heard of), passes the Bechdel Test, and serves as a run-up to the Black Power heroines that Grier would go onto stardom playing.
1974’s Caged Heat is something of an anomaly in the stretch of ’70s women-in-prison films: Not only did ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale write its soundtrack, but it’s actually Jonathan Demme’s debut as a director. (Roger Corman again, produced.) The film was subsequently lauded as a subversive upturning of the genre, with TV Guide calling it “genuine feminist political statement in a milieu lifted straight out of the most misogynistic fantasies of men.”
By the late ’70s, the women-in-prison genre had become enough of a trope that it was lampooned on the Canadian sketch comedy series SCTV. (And yes, that’s Catherine O’Hara.)
That, however, didn’t stop Prisoner (or as it’s known in the U.S. and U.K. Prisoner: Cell Block H), an Australian soap opera, from running for an astounding 692 episodes between 1979 and 1986. It was one of the first breakthroughs for an Australian series in the U.S.
Meanwhile, check out Linda Blair, coming off The Exorcist, starring in Chained Heat, which apparently merited three sequels.
In 1987, Fox premiered an irreverent comedy called simply Women in Prison. Created by Katherine Green, it was set in the Bass Women’s Prison in Wisconsin (not a real prison) and produced by ELP Communications, which was a division of Sony that produced, among other shows, The Jeffersons, Diff’rent Strokes, Silver Spoons, Who’s the Boss and Married with Children. The show ran for exactly one season.
The genre mostly went underground (and in doing so, got more and more explicit and graphic) throughout the ’90s and 2000s (largely thanks to the internet), until we wound up with OITNB. Aren’t things so much better now?