Caged (1950) is a movie about women in prison. When it opens, we see new arrivals getting off a bus. One of them is played by Eleanor Parker, the protagonist, innocent of the crime for which she was convicted. After many harrowing and frustrating experiences, and unable to get herself paroled legitimately, she receives a parole by agreeing to become part of a shoplifting ring run by an inmate with political connections, who is herself serving just a short stretch. It is clear from a remark made by an old inmate, as well as the prison superintendent, played by Agnes Moorehead, that Parker will soon be back.
One of the repeat offenders, who arrives when Parker does, sees another prisoner she knows from before, scrubbing the floor. The first woman sticks out her hand, saying, “Give me some skin!” The second woman shakes hands with her, and then sticks her hand into a bucket of water and lye, pulls it out, and wipes it off. The first woman reassures her, “No guy’s given me a tumble in months.” There is only one way to interpret that scene. The first woman is a prostitute, and the second is afraid of contracting syphilis.
We expect to see Parker placed in a cell, but she is brought to a room full of cots instead. She asks if she can write her mother a letter, but the guard, played by Jane Darwell, says, “No, not while you’re in isolation. You gotta stay here until your blood test comes back, so for two weeks, there’ll be no mail, no visitors, no nothing.” There is a similar scene in Women’s Prison (1955), where new arrivals Phyllis Thaxter and Jan Sterling are put in quarantine for two weeks.
The reference to a blood test in Caged, along with a period of isolation, reinforces what we gleaned from the previous scene, that new arrivals are suspected of having syphilis. When I applied for admission to the University of Houston in 1964, I had to take a serology test. When I asked what that was for, I was told that it was to make sure I didn’t have syphilis. When I joined a fraternity a few months later, the other pledges and I were given a booklet, telling us what was to be expected of us. Under no circumstances, it said, were we to associate with anyone that had syphilis. I thought that was strange. How was I to know if someone had syphilis? After all, if you could tell just by looking, there would have been no need for me to have a blood test in order to be admitted to the university. I finally concluded that this requirement that we not associate with people that had syphilis was a circumlocution for telling us not to have sex with prostitutes. In other words, for most people in those days, the association between prostitutes and syphilis was so strong that the mention of either one would naturally bring the other to mind as well.
Of course, my doctor might have checked for signs of exposure to other pathogens in my blood. But going by what I was told was the reason for the serology test and what the pledge pamphlet cautioned us against, where it was syphilis and syphilis alone that was specified, it is clear that this disease was of central concern in those days.
In the scene described above, where a new arrival attempts to assure the inmate scrubbing the floor that she hasn’t been with a man in a long time, the prostitute is referring to the possibility of having gotten syphilis from a man. That is unusual. We figure she would have gotten it from a man, of course, but for most movies, once the disease had been traced back to a prostitute, that was the end of the inquiry.
In Dead End (1937), Claire Trevor lets her old boyfriend, Humphrey Bogart, know that they can’t be lovers again because she is “sick,” as a result of her being a prostitute. They had been talking in the shadows, but now she steps into the light and tells him to look at her. As he does, he pulls back with a look on his face of revulsion. Maybe the idea is that you can tell by looking if someone has syphilis, but she looked just fine to me. In any event, we know she must have contracted the disease from a man, but we don’t wonder who he was, and the absence of an explanation as to who gave it to her is not experienced by us as an omission. On the other hand, if she had said something like, “I got it from that brother of yours,” that would have shocked us.
In Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullets (1940), Edward G. Robinson plays the title character. At the beginning of the movie, we see him treating a young man who has contracted syphilis. The young man comes across as naïve and innocent, a lad who had a moral lapse one night and had sex with a prostitute. He says he is in love with a girl and wants to marry her, but Robinson says that’s out of the question. So, clearly Robinson does not want the disease to spread. And yet, he does not ask the young man who the woman was that he had sex with, as a first step in trying to keep her from giving syphilis to other men. His lack of interest in finding out who the woman was betrays an attitude on his part that there will always be prostitutes with syphilis. It’s just a fact of life. The best he can hope for is to find a cure for patients like the young man in this scene. Furthermore, he never considers the possibility that the woman in question may be as naïve and innocent as the young man in his office, a woman who needs treatment just as much as the man does. The fact that she has syphilis automatically means she’s a whore, not worth worrying about.
It is curious, however, that in all the movies I have seen about men in prison or on a chain gang, none have corresponding scenes to the ones in Caged. I have never seen a man disinfect his hand after shaking hands with another inmate, nor have I seen new arrivals put in isolation until their blood tests come back. Prior to the elimination of the Production Code in 1968, in movies made in America, it was assumed that the men in prison did not have syphilis. Logically, this makes no sense. Even if we start with the idea that prostitutes are the ultimate source for syphilis, prostitutes have sex with men, of course, and the kind of men that end up in prison are probably just the kind that would have sex with those prostitutes. It would only be reasonable to assume, therefore, that just as many men have syphilis as women.
And that assumption would probably be correct were it not for homosexuality. I was not able to find any statistics on the prevalence of syphilis in men as opposed to women in years past, but at the present time, men are many more times likely to have syphilis than women, owing to the rate at which this disease spreads among homosexuals. But during the pre-1968 period, in movies made in America, there was never any hint of homosexuality in movies about men in prison. The men were always assumed to be as straight as they were healthy.
But while none of the men in prison were imagined to be homosexuals, that was the first thing people thought of regarding women in prison. When Bette Davis was offered a part in Caged, she turned it down, saying she wasn’t interested in making a “dyke movie.” She automatically assumed that the movie would be about lesbians. There are no corresponding stories about male actors turning down roles in movies about men in prison. When Wallace Beery was offered a role in The Big House (1930), for instance, he did not turn it down, saying that he was not interested in making a “faggot movie.”
There is a theory in film criticism centering around the concept of the male gaze. The basic idea is that most movies cater to the heterosexual male. There have always been women’s weepies, of course, movies like Stella Dallas (1937), intended for a female audience, but these were the exception. Most movies were made with the idea of pleasing the heterosexual male, as evidenced by the way the camera would linger more on a woman’s body than on that of a man. Women and homosexuals might also enjoy these movies, but it was the heterosexual male that these movies were primarily designed to please.
Actually, this heterosexual male in male-gaze film criticism is a bit of a fiction, like the economic man or the prudent man, an idealized concept, but it will do. This heterosexual male prefers that the sex in movies be heterosexual, but he doesn’t mind if a movie features a little lesbian sex as well. As a general rule, however, he does not want to see movies about male homosexuality. An extreme example of this can be found in pornography. In a typical pornographic movie, most scenes will feature men and women having sex. However, there will usually be at least one scene in which two women have sex, because that way the heterosexual male gets to see two naked women instead of just one. But there will be no scene involving sex between two men. That can be found only in a subgenre of pornography, the male homosexual video. In an episode of The Man Show (1999-2014), a television show that parodied the heterosexual male, Jimmy Kimmel warns of the danger of accidentally wandering into the section of the video store featuring gay porn. As he is saying this, we see Adam Carolla apparently doing just that, screaming with horror as he looks at the picture on a video cassette. “A shock like that,” Kimmel cautions gravely, “can traumatize the penis permanently.”
And so, when movies were made about men in prison, they were suited for the male gaze. The heterosexual male did not want to see the men in those prisons being sexually attracted to each other. If anything, there would be an emphasis on an inmate’s love for some woman he hopes is waiting for him, as is the case for Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946) and Victor Mature in Kiss of Death (1947). But when that same heterosexual male went to see a movie about women in prison, he was open to the possibility of women having sex with each other, even hoping for such, although the Production Code was not likely to allow more than a hint of it.
The use of the word “caged” for the title of this movie about women in prison might have been intended to suggest that the women are being treated like animals, since it is animals that we put in cages. But it also fits with the concept of the male gaze, because the reason we put animals in cages is so we can look at them. It is not surprising, therefore, that the word “cage” appears in the titles of other movies about women in prison, such as The Big Bird Cage (1972), Caged Heat (1974), Caged Women (1980), The Naked Cage (1986), and Caged Fury (1990). And while the word “cage” is not in the title of The Big Doll House (1971), the posters for the movie show women in a cage, with the tagline, “Their bodies were caged, but not their desires.” Try to imagine that as a tagline for a movie about men in prison. In any event, there is no movie about men in prison that has the word “cage” in the title.
So, does the movie Caged have lesbian sex in it? No, it doesn’t, objectively speaking. But that doesn’t matter, because the heterosexual male wants it to be in the movie, and all he needs is an excuse.
First of all, unlike the two examples given above about a man in prison thinking about the woman he loves, no woman in Caged is dreaming of the day when she will be able to get back together with the man she loves, the one who is waiting for her. Typically, it was some man who led to an inmate’s downfall, and she despises him for it. “If it wasn’t for men, we wouldn’t be in here,” one inmate says. Eleanor Parker’s husband got her involved in a robbery that she had no idea he was going to attempt, and sweet thing that she is at the beginning of the movie, she probably would have planned on getting back together with him when she got out, but he was killed during the aborted holdup. That would have been unlikely, though, according to one inmate, saying of Parker’s husband, “If he was alive, he’d have another dame when you get out anyway.” One inmate killed her husband, while others were also there for murder, and one gathers that for them too, it was men they killed. They remind me those women singing the “Cell Block Tango” in Chicago (2002), the key line being, “He had it coming.” Given that these women have such animosity toward men, the heterosexual male can easily imagine these women drifting into lesbian relationships.
Second, the heterosexual male might be able to hang his hopes on some other bits of dialogue. When one inmate fails to get paroled as she was hoping, she starts showing signs of having a psychotic breakdown. One of the inmates expresses concern, but the head matron says, “All repeaters act queer when they get flopped back.” The word “queer” in this context clearly has the ordinary meaning of “strange” or “peculiar.” But undoubtedly it triggered a response in the heterosexual male looking for any sign of lesbianism among the women, for the male gaze hears as well as sees. An inmate tells Parker, “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think of guys at all. You just get out of the habit.” In other words, even where there is no resentment against men, a woman in prison will lose interest in them. That paves the way for interest in other women. At least, that’s the way the heterosexual male will interpret it.
The heterosexual male primarily wants to see lipstick lesbians, like the one in Girls in Prison (1956). In that movie, Anne is a new arrival. A pretty inmate named Melanee makes sexual advances, petting her and stroking her. Anne rebuffs her. Later, Melanee says she hates Anne, and another inmate makes a remark about a “woman scorned.” Eventually, Anne and Melanee end up wrestling in the mud, something I have never seen two inmates do in a movie about men in prison.
But the heterosexual male knows he must also be on the lookout for the bull dyke in such movies, and this leads to the third hint of lesbianism in Caged. Suspicion naturally falls on the head matron, referred to above, who is played by Hope Emerson. At six feet, two inches tall and weighing two hundred and thirty pounds, Emerson fits the stereotype of the butch lesbian. There is a scene in which she gets dressed up, telling the inmates she has a date with some guy named Pete. You might think that the heterosexual male would accept that he was wrong, that Emerson is just a big, heterosexual woman, but that would just go to show how much you underestimate the determination of the heterosexual male to see lesbians in a movie like this. I read a review in which it was claimed that Emerson was lying about having a boyfriend as a way of concealing her sapphic desires.
After 1968, things became more explicit in movies about women in prison, like those with the word “cage” in their titles or taglines mentioned above. Male homosexuality in the movies also became explicit, as in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Deliverance (1972), soon followed by movies featuring sex in a prison for men, a couple of the more well-known ones being American Me (1992) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). From what has been said previously, it might be thought that the heterosexual male would eschew such movies, but far from it. Paradoxically, the male gaze is determinative even in movies like these, for the homosexuality is not presented as something positive, but rather as something to be dreaded or feared. The heterosexual male feels sorry for John Voight in Midnight Cowboy, the way he is reduced to hustling homosexuals because he needs the money. The male rape scenes in American Me and The Shawshank Redemption add to the horror he imagines to exist in prison life. And after seeing Deliverance, he will probably turn down any offer to go on a canoeing trip, fearing that he might end up having to squeal like a pig.
As for syphilis, that was displaced by the onset of the AIDS epidemic, starting in 1981. Whereas syphilis could be treated with penicillin, AIDS was a death sentence in the early years of that disease, and then only after a long period of pitiful, physical deterioration. And whereas it was the female prostitute that was associated with syphilis, it was the male homosexual that was associated with AIDS. The movie Philadelphia (1993), while no doubt of much interest to homosexuals, still captured the attention of the heterosexual male, who could be grateful that he was attracted to women and did not have to go looking for sex in a gay pornographic movie theater like the Stallion Showcase Cinema.
The heterosexual male has come to expect a gay character in any movie he is likely to see nowadays, for that is a box that needs to be checked off. And while he could just as easily do without such characters in the movies he watches, he may even benefit from their inclusion. By magnanimously accepting a gay character in a movie, he will be able to convey to the woman who is his date for the evening that he is tolerant and broad-minded in such matters, traits that she is likely to find appealing in a man.
But this will be true only if the homosexuality in the movie is not presented as something erotic. In that case, he is likely to run screaming from the theater, just like Adam Carolla.