Unlike the male prison film the default of prison pictures , the WIP genre has been marginalized as much as its subject — the criminal woman. Rather than being set free, the incarcerated woman passes from one form of oppression to another. In the following essay, I propose to explore the way these conventions were utilized to manipulate social commentary within the WIP genre.
This essay attempts to track the development of the WIP film in the United States, from the s to the s, in order to determine its approach to social problems and their proposed solutions — from reform to revolution. In doing so, I hope to challenge the common perception of the WIP genre as purely exploitative and to reestablish its legitimacy.
Often held to a higher moral standard, a woman who has sinned was viewed as far more depraved than her male counterpart. Domestic trades such as sewing and laundry were taught in order to prepare women for proper reintegration into society. With the audience aware of form and thematic structure, these conventions are refined and parodied in the late cycle. Values of reform dominate the early cycle ss , existential despair and the failure of reform in the mid cycle s , and community-based revolution in the late cycle s.
Although still popular in the form of made-for-TV dramas and straight-to-video releases, it ceased to exist as a cinematic genre. Also, most foreign entries will not be explored as they represent different sets of values, mores, and social problems. Films such as The Inside of the White Slave Traffic and Traffic in Souls attacked the symptom — the victimization of women — not the institution. The s were a turning point in the U. Aligned with the ideological conflict between the patriarchal order and the new sexual mores, the female convict made her debut.
Such an ideological crisis occurs when strictly defined gender roles — roles that give a logic and a sense to sexual difference — break down. DeMille tackled the mores of the Jazz Age in his silent offspring of the social problem film Manslaughter. Young Lydia Thorne Leatrice Joy rejects domesticity in favor of a hedonistic lifestyle. Her reckless behavior lands her in prison. Manslaughter is the earliest available example of an American film to dominantly feature women in prison.
It introduces the duality of the fallen woman — as her future husband says, he loves the girl he thinks she could be, not the girl she is.
She reunites with her lover, whom she could only dedicate herself to after denouncing her previous lifestyle. The experience proved traumatic. She asked to be released after three days.
In Manslaughter, he juxtaposes sequences of modern jazz parties with huge spectacles of Roman orgies. In he commented on his tour-de-force of Roman violence, Sign of the Cross: An evident shift in social concerns occurs between Manslaughter and The Godless Girl — the first exploited sex and criticized social mores; the second exploited violence and turned its critique toward the institution.
The movies of the early cycle were fairly straightforward in their message: They do not exist as a uniform genre, instead setting up the building blocks later to be expanded on during the mid cycle. Revolving around guilty women, they reinforced the notion that their crime, as well as their reform, is tied to men. The prison has no reformative effect on Nan; it only makes her bitter and vengeful. Indirectly, her imprisonment leads her to reform through marriage.
The institution needed a reformer. Ann, an independent, career-driven woman, has no time for love. She represents the clash between the masculine attributes of independence and the feminine urge for domesticity — as one lover tells her: Resistance to change costs Ann her job. The prison of desire, of praise and success for myself. Women Prison Reform in American, The sexual stereotyping of women and domestic training remained the same in female prisons for most of the 20th century.
The reformer became a staple of the WIP film. Betty Andrews Rochelle Hudson is sent to prison for a department store theft she did not commit. Comprised of old matrons, the prison staff is occupied with maintaining discipline by administering punishment. When a woman reformer, Mary Ellis Frieda Inescort , arrives at the prison, she is greeted with skepticism by both the resistant staff and the hardened inmates.
Mary allows the women to regain their individuality by letting them exert their external femininity through makeup, nice clothing, and interactions with men. Betty, hardened, without faith in the system, leads the opposition but softens up when a male reporter enters the picture.
Her eventual reform is due to a combination of her love interest and the new, feminine, prison. Dot Faye Emerson is sent to prison after being caught as an accomplice in a bank robbery. Unlike Nan in the original film, Dot is not a known felon, nor does she use sex to manipulate men. She is portrayed as a victim thrown into the prison institution. Both Convicted Woman and Lady Gangster portray an institution closer to a kindergarten than a prison.
The matrons tower over the inmates, who act like children toward each other. With the men off to Europe, women migrated away from home, looking for work, gaining newfound freedoms, and losing the influence of family and community. Even in films where reform was successful, the visual form and narrative extremities frame it as ironic.
This cycle stresses an existential depression and despair. An almost prophetic review in the New York Times for the picture Women in Prison, directed by Lambert Hillyer, proves this change inevitable: And then the villains will triumph, and who knows what will happen to the morals of our youth?
Unlike WIP films before it, Caged was confined to the institution. The film begins with Marie Allen Eleanor Parker arriving at the prison and ends with her release. For the duration of the picture, the audience is confined with her.
The viewer of the WIP film experiences the prison through the eyes of the new inmate. In Caged the reformer is helpless against the vicious, politically appointed head guard, Evelyn Harper Hope Emerson. Marie has been sentenced as an accomplice to a robbery her husband committed. The loot amounted to five dollars. As the film progresses, Marie is gradually stripped of her femininity, from the external — losing her makeup — to the internal — losing her newborn baby.
The prison masquerades as an agent to return women to domesticity, but in practice turns the good girl bad by masculinizing her. Her final act to masculinize Marie Allen is shaving off her hair, a symbolic rape that results in a look remarkably similar to the title character in The Passion of Joan of Arc Despite trying her best to resist bad influences, Marie repeatedly gets knocked by the system.
Desperate, she opts for a life of crime as the only solution. Her eventual release is shadowed by the sure promise that she will return. A comparison of press reviews reveals how WIP has been solidified as a genre with its own conventions. The evil matron, Harper, towers over the inmates like a giant among a group of kids. But unlike, for example, Lady Gangster or Convicted Woman, for the first time the inmates are depicted as mature women, which intensifies the reality of their abuse — they are not children in need of discipline, but women in need of humanity.
This is made possible thanks to the already established cinematic relationship between female inmates and guards. As opposed to Caged, the main character does reform thanks to the help of the prison doctor Howard Duff. Only the presence of a male character could facilitate reform, showing the failure of women in that field.
Boys generally committed more violent crimes; girls were detained for moral crimes. These films exploited not just teenage interests but the essence of being a teenager.
Female delinquency, primarily viewed as sexual, posed a challenge to censorship. The reform school allowed for a way to exploit female juvenile delinquency by containing it, avoiding the visual representation of their crimes.
Since women have failed as reformers, Dr. Jason arrives to help run the place. The female reformers are represented by Ruth Catherine McLeod , a social worker in the institution who gave up on reform in favor of compromise.
Jason become lovers does she change her stance and join his fight. The girls do reform through the acceptance of motherhood and femininity, but the cruelties they experience bring great discomfort. Williams notes that the later blacklisting of director Bernard Vorhaus and screenwriter Jean Rouverol suggests a more complex social commentary against tyranny and fascism.
The great resemblance in themes and images between the two suggests an emotional truth. They create an alternative, highly stylized world of stereotypes without jeopardizing the integrity of the material. The majority of s reformatory films practiced pure exploitation, often mixing genres in order to attract larger demographics.
Produced by Warner Bros. As a result, it highlights the tension between the mainstream and independent industries. She bore a baby out of marriage and refuses to point out who the father is. The matrons are tough and unlikeable, but not sadistic. The female reformer is present, but her effect on the plot is minimal. The Green Eyed Blonde unsuccessfully tries to mediate between the two. Despite the sugar-coated resolution, Betsy pays a debt probably owed by her male counterpart and her abusive mother.
We have them with us for a couple of years and then we send them right back to the same environment that brought them here in the first place. The biological approach, popularized by the Italian philosopher Lombroso in , maintains there are physiological reasons for crime. They pointed out the problem of differentiating the standard upon which women and men are judged. This tension threatens to tear the system apart. This is a prison.