Babes behaving badly. Chicks in chains. Sweeties in the slammer.
As a rule, movies about women in prison have been far from subtle. In fact, they’re part of what cinema buffs would call the exploitation genre.
Conceived by men, produced by men and directed by men, these low-budget flicks rely on a mixture of sex, violence and sensationalism. Realism is in short supply, and fever-dream campiness rules the day.
“WiP” films emphasize sadistic guards, dangerous gangs, lesbian encounters, graphic shower scenes and lots of girl-on-girl mayhem.
“I think it’s about erotica,” said Brandi Mizell, a former inmate at Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. “It’s about showing women in prison and men like that. When my stepdad came to visit, he was like, ‘Do y’all wear nightgowns?’ And I was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’
“It’s all about men wanting to see women all together in one place, where they don’t have a choice,” Mizell continued. “Even in the ’70s, they did exploitation films about women in prison, and they would all be, you know, with their shirts up and their boobs hanging out. They would just want to pile on each other because they couldn’t help it. I think it’s a man thing.”
In that context, “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix’s hit series about women in prison, seems like a revelation. The energy behind the camera is decidedly female; the show was created by Jenji Kohan of “Weeds” fame and based on a best-selling memoir by Piper Kerman.
Stories are told from a woman’s point of view — bold, bracing and darkly comic — and women’s thoughts and feelings inform the dramatic action. Although the show might not provide a precise mirror of reality, it does include ideas and details that go way beyond WiP.
Think of them as an exploitation mini-primer, a lesson in B-movie history … and a compare-and-contrast point for “Orange,” which was nominated for 12 Emmys this year. Trophies in major categories will be handed out Monday, during a nationally televised ceremony on NBC.