In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.
But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:
Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.
Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.
As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:
A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.
Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.
The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?
One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.
But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.