Of the women-in-prison films I’ve seen, I think Women in Cages is, at least on the surface, the least feminist. The main characters are all motivated and manipulated pretty much throughout by men, and the sisterhood which comes at the climax of most of these movies is here thoroughly undercut by paranoia and backstabbing. The main character (Jefferies, I think is her name) is rail-roaded into prison for a crime her boyfriend committed (and she’s completely innocent, not to mention naive, unlike the protagonist in Caged Heat.) And she doesn’t free herself; instead, she has to be rescued by the good guy.

On the other hand, Terminal Island is easily the most feminist film in the genre. Directed by Stephanie Rothman, one of the few female exploitation directors, its set in a near future, when California ships its murderers to an island to save on prison costs. The criminal community thus established is violently hierarchical, with a white man at the top, a black stooge to enforce discipline, and women as slaves/prostitutes who get systematically raped on a schedule. A group of rebels (led by a couple of black men) offer a more communal social model; they free the women, and together overthrow the overlord and establish an egalitarian, back-to-nature society in which all men and women are equal. End of parable.

In fact, both of these movies are quite good in their ways. “Terminal Island” has remarkably steady acting for the genre; Rothman seems to get the best out of everyone. Bobby, the evil white dictator, is a fun part, and the actor conveys his essential looniness and instability without going totally overboard and chewing the scenery. The second in command is good too; you can see him asking himself over and over why he’s listening to this nutcase, without ever quite having the courage or brains to dump him. The women are good too; a political radical shows everyone how to make bombs, but doesn’t ever resort to the kind of speechifying you expect from that stereotypical character; the new arrival to the island (a black woman) is very believably attracted to two of the rebels, and their rivalry over her is handled mostly off-screen, and without too much fuss. All in all, it’s remarkably thoughtful and deftly handled. The version I saw (the only one extant on DVD, I think) had profanity and nudity removed, but even so, you can tell that this movie’s heart wasn’t in the exploitation bits; it’s a remarkably restrained effort.

“Women in Cages” is, on the other hand, deeply seedy, with Pam Grier as Alabama, an over-the-top lesbian matron who enjoys whipping and torturing prisoners. But though it’s not exactly what you’d call subtle, it isn’t exactly dumb either. The chip on Alabama’s shoulders, it turns out, has to do with her miserable life in segregated America (the movie’s set in the Phillippines). Her relationship with one inmate, Theresa, is abusive but not loveless; certainly, we sympathize with the resourceful and caring, if doomed, Theresa as much as with anyone in the movie.

One thing I’ve been thinking about with these movies is whether, or why, a movie gets perceived as feminist. Several reviewers have called Terminal Island feminist (most notably Robin Wood), for reasons I’ve indicated, and I very much doubt anyone’s said that about Women in Cages (for reasons I’ve also pointed out.) But I’m not really sure that the first is actually any more radical than the second. Yes, Terminal Island shows a much more positive outcome, and pushes equality hard. But it seems to me that there’s more to feminism than just utopianism. The part of feminist critiques that I’ve found most engaging and inspirational myself tend to be the *critiques* — the stuff about how power works and how society is organized. Terminal Island is able to posit a utopia because it reduces that stuff to schematics; the society is pretty basic, and the big difference between the bad guys and the good guys is basically just that the good guys are decent people, while the bad guys are lunatic nutters.

In *Women in Cages*, on the other hand, women are oppressed and manipulated in ways that are more complex and more difficult to overcome. Roberta Collins (an actor who shows up in *all* these movies, it seems like! Every time you go into a cell in the Phillipines, there’s Roberta Collins! Where was I? Oh yeah….) Roberta Collins’ character spends the entire movie trying to kill Jeffries because she’s been promised a fix and a release if she prevents her from testifying against her drug-lord boyfriend; all Collins gets for her considerable trouble is betrayal and misery. Juanita Brown (who’s also in all these things) tries to help Jeffries — but, again, only out of self-interest, since *she’s* been promised she’ll be released if Jeffries does testify. As for Jeffries herself, her best moment in the movie comes at the end; she’s broken out of prison, only to be led by Collins’ character to a floating brothel, where Jeffries’ ex-boyfriend forces her to whore herself. But…the cavalry arrives! The good-guy law enforcer shows up disguised as a sailor, and closets himself with her under the pretext of being a customer. He says earnestly, “Remember me?” to which she replies (more or less), “Oh, yeah, baby, we had a great time. We’ll do it again right now.” It’s a chilling line, since it shows that she’s not only being repeatedly raped, but is forced to pretend to like it, and even connive in it (something which never happens in Terminal Island, where everyone, men and women, know that the rape is rape). The good-guy does manage to remind her who he really is, and that he’s there to rescue her — at which point she, understandably, starts to weep, partially in relief, partially, perhaps, in humiliation. The movie then quickly veers off at a tangent, as good-guy reveals himself to be a super-martial-arts expert and kicks the bad guys’ ass. Throughout this sequence, Jeffries looks on more-or-less nonplussed, as if something’s gone bizarrely wrong, and she’s wandered into the wrong movie. She does manage to escape, and all is well — but the last frame of the movie isn’t of her, but of Roberta Collins’ character, who is still on the ship and, indeed, still being raped. Even the wish-fulfillment good guy doesn’t really care about women, it seems; he just wants to catch the drug-lord; the plight of the women on the ship isn’t really his concern.

That’s certainly a bleak and not-particularly-uplifting message. But I don’t know that it’s less insightful, or less feminist, than Terminal Island. In fact, the movies seem to work well together, one showing a feminist ideal, and one reminding you why getting there is a long, depressing slog.

I found an interesting interview with Rothman. I definitely want to see more of her films — though Netflix doesn’t have the Student Nurses, goddarnit….