Long before the days of Ellen DeGeneres, Go Fish and Rosie O’Donnell‘s haiku blog, fringe movies with titles such as Chained Girls and Caged Heat — what we now call "lesploitation" — were virtually the only place gays and lesbians could find themselves represented on-screen. While there is certainly plenty of material in these films that could be deemed offensive, in general the more outrageous a film was, the less judgmental it was. By today’s standards, even the most risqué of them are relatively tame.
The word "lesploitation" describes a film in which the use of lesbian imagery and content are used for commercial purposes. And though the lesploitation genre came about strictly as a cash-grab, exploitation films — including categories such as blaxploitation and sexploitation — served a societal purpose as well. Their production values were quite low, but they represented an alternative to mainstream Hollywood and were some of the few films that presented same-sex sexuality in a relatively positive light.
Exploitation movies often justified their lurid story lines by framing them with a moralizing introduction in pseudo-educational language. For example, the 1965 lesploitation classic Chained Girls purports to raise public awareness about the "complex problem" of lesbianism, beginning with the following introduction:
Who and what is a lesbian? Is lesbianism a disease, or a natural occurrence? Is lesbianism reserved for only a few people, or is it a common happening? How do lesbians live? Are they happy with their lives? And how does society view them?
This Wild Kingdom-like outlook reflects the time period in which the films were made, and watched in hindsight, they manage to be entertaining and offensive, progressive and archaic, titillating and revolting all at once. They are often shockingly bad, but they are also campy and queer, as well as incredible examples of the stereotypes that still plague lesbians and bisexual women in the media today.
Equal parts "documentary" and skin flick, Chained Girls is a prime example of filmmakers using the guise of "scientific study" to skirt censorship and get topless women on the screen.
Here, a narrator intones various "facts" about lesbians, whether it be cataloguing the various types (femmes, dolls, dykes, stompin’ butches, baby butches) or behaviors ("Many lesbians, as a rule, are heavy drinkers"). Then, the filmmakers actually provide displays of such behavior on-screen. It’s sort of a "Yeah, women making out with each other is so weird and wrong … let’s watch!" approach that is nothing short of hilarious.
There are ample mouth-droppingly ridiculous statements and sequences throughout the film, from "The dyke is a very selfish person who will fight … sometimes to the death!" to the "coming-out party," in which a bunch of "dykes" draw straws to see who will "initiate" the "deb." Helpful statistics pop up on-screen now and again as well.
Chained Girls makes some statements that are meant to be provocative and outrageous, but the reality is they’re unintentionally quite progressive for 1965. Some of the utterly shocking "facts" the narrator relates include:
- Lesbians are largely indistinguishable from other women!
- Lesbians can be found in many professions!
- Lesbians mingle within the bounds of society!
Why, lesbians almost sound — dare I say it — like normal human beings.
The film ends on a bit of a downer, though, as one of the "bull dykes" has to transform back into a "woman" when the Sapphic weekend comes to a close and the work week begins. As she stares at herself plaintively, the narrator reminds us that, like everyone else, lesbians are just searching for that someone who will love them for the rest of their lives. What’s a pipe-smoking, woman-loving woman to do?
We get an in-depth peek at the secret inner workings of lesbian society in Daughters of Lesbos (1968), as lesbians hold meetings featuring "good conversation and fine wine topped off with some wild sexual escapades."
Daughters of Lesbos leans far more toward titillation than Chained Girls does; here the narrator is a breathy, purring woman — not a guy who sounds like the school principal. She walks us through various ways in which women "become" lesbians, whether it be a reaction to a date rape, the result of being picked up by an aggressive lesbian while hitchhiking, or seduced while at summer camp.
Where the narration leaves off, the bongo drums and trumpets pick up as we see exactly what happens when these women get their lez on in all their full-frontal glory. This "strange" society isn’t all about sex, however — these women will stop at nothing to prove their superiority to men in every way. As such, Daughters of Lesbos climaxes with a bizarre scene of vengeance against a male offender, all in the name of "justice."
What lessons can you expect to take away from these educational lesploitation films? Here are just a few:
- Lesbians, with their cultish leanings and weird secret rituals, are kinda like witches.
- Lip-licking was the gaydar of the 1960s.
- Women can slip in and out of lesbianism without even knowing it.
- Lesbians only become lesbians after some cataclysmic event.
- Lesbianism can be cured.
- Lesbianism cannot be cured.
That really clears things up, doesn’t it?