“Just being here is the punishment”. Power, Control and the Female Body in "Caged" (1950)

Hausarbeit, 2015

31 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction ... 3

2. Power, Control and the Female Body in Caged (1950) ... 5
2.1 Women-in-prison narratives, Caged and the female delinquent... 5
2.2 (Female) delinquency, power and disciplinary gaze ... 12
2.3 Power, control and the female delinquent's body in Caged ... 18

3. Summary ... 28

4. Bibliography/cited literature ... 30
Films and cinematic trailers ... 30
Posters/Images... 30
Literature ... 30

1. Introduction

“You weren't sent here to be punished. Just being here is the punishment! That's all”1. Superintendent Ruth Benton's remark about Marie Allen's prison sentence reveals a deep-seated perception of the punitive apparatus's claim of legitimacy, its purpose and its objective(s). In fact, her statement hints at the aspects of corporality of imprisonment in particular: deprivation of liberty, detention and coercion. In Caged, imprisonment is strongly characterized by corporal punishment, surveillance and (bodily) subjection. For that reason, this paper will discuss in which ways and to what extent the female prisoner's body is subjected to disciplinary modes of action and techniques in Caged and how they are related to the exercise of power and control within the punitive apparatus. Based on this thesis, I will discuss three main questions: How does Caged's narrative (re)produce perceptions of female delinquency? In which ways imposes prison coercion upon andcontrol over the female body? How, why and to what extent does the punitive apparatus make ‘use’ of the female delinquent’s body in Caged?

In the first part of this paper I will refer to narrative moments, motifs and genre conventions shared by the women-in-prison melodramas, give a short summary of Caged and discuss the cinematic production, representation and reproduction of female delinquency in the film by citing three major and influential readings of Caged within the research discourse. The second chapter will focus on Michel Foucault's concept of delinquency, as part of his cultural-anthropological studyDiscipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison2, refer to dressage and discipline as disciplinary ‘techniques’ and show how observation, surveillance and control over the female body are put into effect through the disciplinary gaze. Finally, the third part will deal with the way in which prison establishes a grasp on the female body, show how the punitive apparatus thereby creates docile bodies through training of behavior or work and finally conclude by discussing to which extent corporal punishment is used to intensify prison’s claims to exercise power and control over the female delinquent’s body in Caged.

Foucault's approach to „make visible the unseen“3 was the starting point for my analysis of Caged 's narrative and its implications for the relation between power, control and the female body: His study provided a theoretical foundation to analyze prison’s fundamental modes of action and to challenge Caged's cinematic representation of the punitive apparatus/the penitentiary as a ‘reformatory’. Foucault’s essential framework is thus extended to issues concerning the female prisoner's body while systematically referring to his notions of power and control and their implications for making ‘use’ of the (female) body. Moreover, my analysis draws on Jan Alber's work on the disciplining of the prisoner's body within the prison film genre and his systematization of “four types of the awareness of one's body"4 which laid the groundwork for my own methodical approach to the socio-cultural analysis of prison's disciplinary mechanisms (control, power, dressage, discipline, rehabilitation). My approach therefore implied that this paper does not provide a comprehensive analysis of Caged but rather selectively focuses on key scenes, (visual) motifs and narrative elements which exemplify how, why and to what extent the punitive apparatus makes ‘use’ of the female delinquent’s body.

Within the field of research the monographies and essays by Suzanne Bouclin, Jan Alber, Judith Mayne, Anne Morey and Suzanna Danuta Walters provided a useful basis for the discussion about the relation between power, control and the female body in Caged. While Bouclin presents a complex analysis of Caged's narrative and its relations to issues of power and control and reveals various perspectives on a critical legal reading around the construction of the female criminal in Caged, Alber’s works highlight the implications of imprisonment on the prisoner's body and mind by analyzing a wide range of contemporary prison narratives. By connecting Foucault's concept of delinquency and his reference to Bentham's conception of the Panopticon with the idea of gaze and visibility in Caged, Mayne provides a useful structural approach to interpret the movie's narrative with regard to disciplinary instruments such as hierarchical observation and continuous surveillance. Mayne also highlights issues of ‘femininity’ and the loss of ‘feminine virtues’ which are implied by Caged's subtext and also refers to key narrative elements of other women-in-prison movies. Furthermore, Morey establishes a relation between the punitive apparatus's agenda to rehabilitate the female criminal and its failure at reintegrating the female inmate into the domestic sphere and thus shaped the understanding of female delinquency with regard to aspects of stigmatization. Finally, Walters' essay emphasizes structural features of women-in-prison movies and continuities between them and identifies main narrative motifs such as the ‘unjustly incarcerated victim’. By using these research contributions and others I was able to discuss in which ways and to what extent the female prisoner's body is subjected to disciplinary modes of action and techniques in Caged and how they are related to the exercise of power and control within the punitive apparatus.

2. Power, Control and the Female Body in Caged (1950)

2.1 Women-in-prison narratives, Caged and the female delinquent

A number of ambiguous narratives have been established within the women-in-prison films/movies, a subgenre of the prison film5 which tries to portray and imagine the incarceration of women in prison in various ways. Either as a part of the (B) melodramas or the exploitation/sexploitation movies, the women-in-prison films do, however, not constitute a unitary genre but rather a “living mix of many genres”6: Starting in the 1920s with films such asThe Godless Girl (1929) or Prisoners (1929) „the genre went through a period of gestation until the release of Caged”7 in 1950, as Judith Mayne points out. Historically, the women-in-prison films of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s (e.g. Condemned Women (1938), Women's Prison (1951) or Girls in Prison (1956)), including Caged, might be considered as prototypical (social purpose) prison melodramas: These cinematic narratives express tensions and anxieties around the legal, cultural and economic shifts of the pre- and post-war era in the United States8 and constituted key narrative moments, motifs and genre conventions9. At the same time they functioned as the precursors to the exploitation/sexploitation women-in-prison movies of the 1960s and 1970s in particular which are marked by their stylization of (female) imprisonment as visual fantasies of sex, violence and rebellion10. However, the early (1930s to late 1950s) and post-melodrama women-in-prison films (from the 1960s on) share certain structural features: They move female characters, in contrast to the classical Hollywood narrative11, from the margins of the story to its center12, problematize broader legal, economic, and political apparatuses that operate to criminalize women and offer ways to imagine the violence of state and legal practices and the inhumanity of total institutions13. On a textual level, the rebellion against injustice (and implications to restore ‘justice’) and issues of power and control14 (such as oppression or transgression) arethe most stable motifs shared by women-in-prison melodramas and exploitation movies15, as Nicole Rafter and Suzanne Bouclin highlight in their studies. More specifically, the women-in-prison narratives attempt to “reveal the brutalities of incarceration while offering audiences entertainment and escape through heroic characters' resistance to oppression”16 and simultaneously imply that prison itself is a place of vice, violence, limitless corruption and injustice.

Caged is an ideological successor to earlier cinematic women-in-prison narratives as well as the starting point and reference point for subsequentwomen-in-prison movies in terms of narrative motifs, story elements and inherent patterns of interpretation. Caged17 was released in 1950 by Warner Bros. and deals with the experiences of nineteen year old Marie Allen (played by Eleanor Parker) in a women's prison at the beginning of the 1940s18. Besides being critically acclaimed and commercially successful, the film introduced prototypical narrative elements, formulaic scenes and key motifs19 to the women-in-prison movie genre20: Allen has been sentenced to up to fifteen years for unwittingly taking part in an armed robbery of a gas station (with her husband being killed). On her day of arrival, frightened Marie is forced to hand over her valuables (including her wedding ring), is given the number 93850 (cf. image 1, p.11) and has to undergo a physical examination. During the course of her imprisonment she eventually becomes desensitized and fully part of prison life21. The prison's brutal and sadistic maiden Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson) rules and terrorizes the inmates while superintendent/warden Ruth Benton's22 (Agnes Moorehead) progressive prison reform agenda and her struggle against Harper's terror fail. Interestingly, some of Caged's main narrative motifs and story elements (most importantly: ‘innocent’ women unjustly imprisoned23, hardened by an unjust system, all women end up the same in prison) fall back on patterns and tropes which were already introduced and established in earlier women-in-prison movies/narratives24, such as the 1938 women-in-prison classic Condemned Women, as Suzanna Danuta Walters emphasizes25. Ann Ciasullo summarizes the prototypical plot:

“Due to her involvement—typically unwitting, though sometimes not—in a crime, a young woman is sent to prison. Upon entering the hellhole, she must endure its ‘welcoming’ ritual: giving up her personal possessions; stripping, showering and being sprayed for lice; [...]. She is also quickly acquainted with the authority figures of the prison—superintendent, warden, and matrons—among whom exists a cruel, sadistic woman […] who will make the new prisoner's life hell. […] Over the course of the narrative, we witness the protagonist's horrifying prison experience…”26

Consequently, the plot's conclusion and therefore implication is equally predictable, as Judith Mayne points out:

“By the end of the film the heroine has learned bitter lessons about life; she is no longer innocent. She leaves the prison but is destined for a life of crime…”27

As discussed above, Caged's formulaic take on setting, storyline and motifs formed the basis for later women-in-prison movies, such as Women's Prison or House of Women (1962)28. These films mainly followed the successful formula which was developed in Caged and slightly adjusted or altered the prototype's shape: Girls in Prison, for example, places far more attention on the interaction among the female prisoners, whereas in Women's Prison the female inmates adjoin a men's facility29 and in House of Women, the inmates' young children are permitted to temporarily live with their mothers30.

Within the research discourse about Caged three major and influential readings of the film can be identified and each of these discourses helps to reconstruct the cinematic production, representation and reproduction of a specific type of criminal: the (female) delinquent31. One way of reading Caged and its underlying text(s) is to understand it as a social problem film32 that reproduces prevalent understandings of women's criminalization33. Jurisprudent Suzanne Bouclin argues that although Marie Allen's guilt (for being an ‘accessory’ to armed robbery) is established in the first scenes of the movie, “…any moral justification for her criminalization and confinement is continually called into question”34 throughout the film. Still, this is not limited to Allen: Even the crimes and motivations of minor characters such as Smoochie (a ‘common prostitute’) or June (a nurse who is ‘in’ for assisting an abortion provider) are rather presented as the result of desperate times, economic hardship or false promises35 than as being ‘real crimes’ committed by ‘true criminals’. With regard to Marie Allen, Caged therefore keeps intact the innocence of the unjustly incarcerated victim who still retains her ‘goodness’ and who gets hardened in prison, as Walters notes36. Crime and ‘true’ criminality are, as Caged's subtext implies, not inherently female; Crime is what is learned in prison, according to this reading ofCaged: When Marie observes lessons in ‘boosting’ in prison and (presumably) engages in prostitution at the end of the movie37 it is indicated that her criminalization truly started in prison, rather than before. The message here is that prison first and foremost fails to rehabilitate these women and also fails in its attempt to maintain and restore ‘femininity’ – ultimately represented in Marie's decision to engage in prostitution38. ‘True’ crime, and in this sense prison as well, is “…directly opposed to domesticity and maternity”39, while this assumption revitalizes the women-in-prison trope of the ‘fallen woman’40 and suggests that imprisonment cannot reform women but rather paves the way for a life of crime.

A second way of reading Caged which is frequently stressed within the research discourse is based on the premise that prison fails to reform and resocialize its inmates: Prison, as Anne Morey implies, is represented “…as an agent to return women to domesticity” but it “…fails at its task because it brutalizes and masculinizes both female inmates and female staff members"41. According to Morey's interpretation prison's ostensible project is to retool the female inmate for domestic life and hence reintegrate the prisoners into family life after being paroled42 – in other words, its aim is to rehabilitate the ‘fallen women’, to restore their ‘femininity’43 and to reintegrate them into the domestic sphere44. For that reason, prison life is supposed to be an imitation of ‘home’ and domestic life (female inmates' lives mainly revolve around food, laundry and cleaning)45. However, Judith Halberstam's remarks on women-in-prison movies reveal the ambiguity of this ideology: On the one hand, the female inmates have to lose their ‘femininity’ in order to adapt to prison life, its brutality and its ruthlessness46 which becomes apparent in Marie's metamorphosis from an innocent, naïve femme to a hardened, street-tough almost-butch47 in Caged. Marie's pure femininity and vulnerability at the beginning of the movie are diametrically opposed to matron Harper's overbearing masculinity48 and her violent terror49 or Benton's ‘unfeminine’, yet kind demeanor. On the other hand, this reasoning suggests that female criminality (which is both a precondition to and a product of prison life) erodes femininity50. When Marie Allen symbolically throws away her wedding ring and leaves prison in the back seat of a car accompanied by two men at the end of the movie, it is implied that this development is tragic and that the restoration of ‘femininity’ failed51, is almost inverted52. In Marie's case, this loss of femininity is linked to her entering a vicious circle of criminal acts and imprisonment, indicated by Benton's statement “keep it active, she'll be back”53 when asked by her secretary what to do with Allen's file, in the finale of the movie.


[1] Caged (1950), Dir. John Cromwell. Perf. Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Ellen Corby and Hope Emerson. Warner Bros. (USA), Film. Available at: https://archive.org/details/Caged1950 (Date of access: 04/12/2015), TC 00:14:10-00:14:25min. Please note that all time codes (TC) and time specifications refer to the version of Caged (1950) which is available at “the Archive” (https://archive.org).

[2] Foucault, Michel (1975/1995): Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York: Random House.

[3] Foucault, Michel (1980a): Prison Talk. In: Michel Foucault (ed.): Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and other Writings, 1972-1977. Hertfordshire: Harvester Press, p. 37-54, p. 50.

[4] Alber, Jan (2004): Bodies Behind Bars: The Disciplining of the Prisoner's Body in British and American Prison Movies. In: Monika Fludernik and Greta Olsen (ed.): In the Grip of the Law. Trials, Prisons and the Space Between, p. 241-269, p. 243 and p. 249-260.

[5] In this paper, prison films or rather women-in-prison films as a genre are characterized, according to Jan Alber, as “…fictional films […] which are set mainly in a penal institution for men, women or adolescents, and which take the experience of imprisonment and its consequences as a primary theme. [...] The majority of prison movies centrally engage with the experience of imprisonment. [...] the core of the narrativity of prison movies lies in the mediation of the inmates' experience of imprisonment." (Alber (2004), p. 245-246).

[6] Bouclin, Suzanne (2009): Women in Prison Movies as Feminist Jurisprudence. In: Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 21, p. 19-34. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1866026 (Date of access: 14/10/2015), p. 22-23.; Also see Walters, Suzanna Danuta (2001): Caged Heat. The (R)evolution of Women-in-Prison Films. In: Martha McCaughey and Neal King (ed.): REEL Knockouts. Violent Women in the Movies. 1st ed. Austin, Tex.: Univ. of Texas Press, p. 106-123, p. 107.

[7] Mayne, Judith (2000): Framed. Lesbians, Feminists, and Media Culture. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, p. 119.

[8] Cf. Bouclin, Suzanne (2007): Caging Women: Punishment, Judgment, Reform, and Resistance in Women in Prison Films. Winnipeg, p. 36.

[9] Cf. Bouclin (2007), p. 37-38.

[10] Cf. Rafter, Nicole (2006): Shots in the Mirror. Crime films and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 172.

[11] While at the same time, the women-in-prison movies also tend to reproduce many of the misrepresentations and characteristics of the classical Hollywood narrative, see Bouclin (2009), p. 24 and Faith, Karlene (1987): Media, Myths and Masculinization: Images of Women in Prison. In: Ellen Adelberg und Claudia Currie (ed.): Too Few to Count. Canadian Women in Conflict with the Law. Vancouver, B.C., Canada: Press Gang Publishers, p. 181-219, p. 193.

[12] Cf. Mayne (2000), p. 127.

[13] Cf. Bouclin (2009), p. 21.

[14] Cf. Bouclin (2007), p. 38.

[15] Cf. Rafter (2006), p. 168.

[16] Bouclin (2009), p. 20.

[17] Caged 's script was adapted from the story Women Without Men written by Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld, see Bouclin (2009), p. 27 and Bouclin (2007), p. 95-96.

[18] For a detailed and comprehensive summary of Caged (1950) see Bouclin (2007), p. 86-94.

[19] Main characters (prison heroine vs. evil warden/superintendent), key narrative moments (friendship/loyalty, the build-up of tension, a prison riot/escape) and formulaic scenes (‘new fish's’ introduction to prison, ‘welcoming rituals’), see Bouclin (2007), p. 37-38.

[20] Cf. Morton, Jim (1986): Women in Prison Films. In: V. Vale und Andrea Juno (ed.): Incredibly Strange Films. San Francisco, CA, Eugene OR: RE/Search Publications, p. 151-152, p. 151.

[21] Cf. Halberstam, Judith (2002): Female masculinity. 4th ed. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 200-201.

[22] Benton's character, a sympathetic feminist warden and progressive prison reformer, is supposedly based on superintendent Mariam Van Water's (1887-1974) career and life. See Freedman, Estelle B. (1996): The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915-1965. In: Feminist Studies 22 (2), p. 397-423, p. 408-410.

[23] Cf. Faith (1987), p. 185-186.

[24] Including stereotypical characters such as a white, mostly middle or working-class protagonist, a well-meaning/tough-but-fair warden, a nasty guard etc. See Bouclin (2007), p. 37.

[25] Cf. Walters (2001), p. 109.

[26] Ciasullo, Ann (2008): Containing "Deviant" Desire: Lesbianism, Heterosexuality, and the Women-in-Prison Narrative. In: The Journal of Popular Culture 41 (2), p. 195-223, p. 197. Also see Walters (2001), p. 107-108, Bouclin (2009), p. 23-24 and Mayne (2000), p. 115

[27] Mayne (2000), p. 115-116.

[28] House of Women is, to be precisely, a remake of Caged starring Shirley Knight (playing innocent and pregnant Erica Hayden). Cf. Walters (2001), p. 111.

[29] By adding notions of heterosexuality/heteronormativity to a genre which is otherwise frequently linked to issues of lesbianism and homosexuality, cf. Mayne (2000), p. 129.

[30] This adds a dimension of motherliness and ‘femininity’ to the representation of the female convicts, see Mayne (2000), p. 130-131 and Walters (2001), p. 111-112.

[31] The Foucauldian term “(female) delinquent” and its multiple notions are discussed in chapter 2 in detail.

[32] Cf. Mayne (2000), p. 119.

[33] Cf. Bouclin (2007), p. 72-73.

[34] Bouclin (2009), p. 27.

[35] Cf. Bouclin (2009), p. 25-26, p. 30.

[36] Cf. Walters (2001), p. 112.

[37] Marie Allen is finally ‘recruited’ by “vice queen” Elvira Powell, leader of a crime/prostitution syndicate, at the end of the movie, is paroled and (presumably) engages in some sort of prostitution. See Bouclin (2009), p. 31.

[38] Cf. Bouclin (2009), p. 33.

[39] Morey, Anne (1995): "The Judge Called Me an Accessory": Women's Prison Films, 1950-1962. In: Journal of Popular Film and Television 23 (2), p. 80-87, p. 85.

[40] Cf. Bouclin (2007), p. 51, Bouclin (2009), p. 99.

[41] Morey (1995), p. 80.

[42] Cf. Morey (1995), p. 81.

[43] According to Annette Kuhn this is a reference to the classic Hollywood narrative of the 1950s which attempts to recuperate women to their ‘proper place’ (home, domesticity, family). See Kuhn, Annette (1982): Women's Pictures. Feminism and Cinema. London: Pandora Press, p. 34-35.

[44] Cf. Morey (1995), p. 82.

[45] Cf. Morey (1995), p. 83.

[46] “Femininity, in prison, is simply a luxury the women cannot afford…” (p. 201), cf. Halberstam (2002), p. 201-202.

[47] Cf. Berlatsky, Noah (2008): Men in Women-in-Prison: Masochism, Feminism, Fetish. Ed. by Bright Lights Film Journal. Available at: http://brightlightsfilm.com/men-in-women-in-prison-masochism-feminism-fetish/#.Vg6N9ZfBaay (Date of access: 28/10/2015), paragraph 20-21.

[48] Cf. Faith (1987), p. 186-187.

[49] For violence and punishment are, in this pattern of thought, inherently masculine and corporal.

[50] Cf. Halberstam (2002), p. 202.

[51] Cf. Alber, Jan (2007): Narrating the Prison. Role and Representation in Charles Dickens' Novels, Twentieth-Century fiction, and Film. Youngstown, N.Y.: Cambria Press, p. 8-9.

[52] Although Marie Allen obviously falls into the hands of a male economic arrangement (prostitution ring), her transformation might as well be understood as a deconstruction of traditional gender roles (by carving out choices on her own within conditions of constraint), see Bouclin (2009), p. 21-22, Alber (2007), p. 9, Morey (1995), p. 85 and Berlatsky (2008), paragraph 23.

[53] Caged (1950), TC 1:35:40-1:36:15min.

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“Just being here is the punishment”. Power, Control and the Female Body in "Caged" (1950)
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
SE - Teaching American Popular Culture
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Caged, 1950, power, control, gaze, delinquency, delinquent, Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, female body, excess, dressage, discipline, rehabilitation, prison, Panopticon, women-in-prison, women in prison movies, exploitation movies, women's prison, melodramas, Marie Allen, Eleanor Parker, Evelyn Harper, Hope Emerson, Ruth Benton, Agnes Moorehead, femininity, WIP, homosexuality, prison lesbian, Elvira Powell, Kitty Stark, social body, corporality, punishment, criminality, otherness, fallen women, disciplinary apparatus, Jeremy Bentham, normalization, disciplinary techniques, surveillance, John Cromwell, docile bodies, detention, age of sobriety, female criminalization, penal system, penal labor, Camp
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B.A. Thomas Schulze (Autor:in), 2015, “Just being here is the punishment”. Power, Control and the Female Body in "Caged" (1950), München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/320146


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