in prison

Women in prison film

Women in prison film is a subgenre of exploitation film.

Their stories feature imprisoned women who are subjected to sexual and physical abuse, typically by sadistic female prison wardens. The genre also features many films in which imprisoned women engage in lesbian sex.

Perhaps the best explanation for women in prison films' notoriety is that it is a cinematized version of the "men's adventure" subgenre of pulp fiction. Nazis tormenting damsels in distress were perennial favourite subjects for the lurid, sub-pornographic covers of sensationalistic "true adventure" magazines such as Argosy in the 1950s and 1960s; the film seeks to be a more explicit version of the same sort of catfight sexual fantasy.

History of the genre

Hollywood made movies set in women's prisons as early as the 1930s such as Jean Harlow's Hold Your Man but generally only a small part of the action took place inside the prison. It was not until the 1950s with the 1950 release Caged starring Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead and 1955's Women's Prison with Ida Lupino and Cleo Moore that the whole storyline of the film was set in correctional facilities.

Women in prison films developed in the 1930s as melodramas. Young heroines were shown the way to a righteous life by way of the prison. Under the influence of pulp magazines and paperbacks, they became popular B movies in the 1950s.

The film that kicked off the genre in a new direction was Jesus Franco's 99 Women, which was a big box office success in the US in 1969. Since the 1970s they become a specialty product of pornography. Women in prison films have more to do with sexual fantasies than real prison life.

The most well-known examples of the women in prison film are perhaps Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat. Actress Pam Grier starred in a number of films in the genre, such as Roger Corman's The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and Women in Cages. There is also the notorious Reform School Girls in 1986, with Wendy O Williams.

European cinema too had its share of the genre with titles like the Frauengefängnis (1975) and Sadomania (1981) by Jess Franco.

In Japanese cinema, Meiko Kaji starred in the Sasori (Scorpion) series of women in prison films, directed by Shunya Ito and adapted from manga.

A number of these films remain banned by the BBFC in the United Kingdom. Among them are Love Camp 7 (rejected in 2002) and Women in Cellblock 9 (rejected in 2004), on the grounds that they contain substantial scenes of sexual violence.

The lesbian theme in these films also seemingly influenced mainstream films as Chicago (2002) and Strangers with Candy (2006).


  • Clowers, Marsha: Dykes, Gangs, and Danger. Debunking Popular Myths about Maximum-Security Life. as pdf
  • Mayne, Judith: "Caged and framed. The women-in-prison film", Framed: lesbians, feminists, and media culture, ed. by Judith Mayne. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. (Main Stack PN1995.9.W6.M359 2000)
  • Morey, Anne. "'The Judge Called Me an Accessory': Women's Prison Films, 1950-1962", Journal of Popular Film & Television. 23(2):80-87. 1995 Summer.
  • Rapaport, Lynn: "Holocaust Pornography. Profaning the Sacred in Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS", Shofar. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 53-79.
  • Waller, Gregory A.: "Auto-Erotica. Some Notes on Comic Softcore Films for the Drive-in Circuit", Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 17, Issue 2, p. 135, Fall 1983
  • Walters, Suzanna Danuta: "Caged heat. The (R)evolution of women-in-prison films", Real knockouts. Violent women in the movies, edited by Martha McCaughey and Neal King. 1st Ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. (Main Stack PN1995.9.W6.R454 2001)
  • Williams, Melanie. "Women in Prison and Women in Dressing Gowns: Rediscovering the 1950s Films of J. Lee Thompson", Journal of Gender Studies, 11(1):5-15, 2002 Mar

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