Flying H Theatre Delivers Hilarious B-Movie Parody in “Women Behind Bars”
VENTURA – After a prodigious beginning--15 full-length plays in its first 20 months,
exploring some of the most provocative theatre of our times--Flying H Theatre jumps
off into a new direction with Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars. Eyen’s play is a loose,
full-steam-ahead comedy based on one the most quality-averse, tasteless, and overexploited
genres in world cinema: the women-in-prison B-flick.
A funny-enough concept in itself, but in the hands of Founder and Artistic Director
Taylor Kasch’s direction and a large, able cast, this production is hilarious.
Flying H Theatre Group 6368 Bristol Road Ventura, C 93001 www.flyinghgroup.com Brenda Evans, Juliana Acosta and Sandra Demogenes, Photo Credit: Larry Swerdlove
A funny-enough concept in itself, but in the hands of Founder and Artistic Director
Taylor Kasch’s direction and a large, able cast, this production is hilarious.
Running till 1 August [exact times and info below] Women Behind Bars is essentially
one of the best cheap fun dates in Ventura county today.
Flying H brings its savvy sense of irony and savage fun to this goofy spoof of a genre
notorious for its incredibly terrible productions, laughably bad acting, and ample
displays of flesh. In the films, actors are typically cast in ridiculously overdrawn
stereotypes and placed in a predictable set of scenes and situations. Eyen manages to
skewer most of them, thus parodying something that is fairly ridiculous to begin with.
Never seen one of these movies? Not to worry, Flying H helps you out by screening
appropriate outtakes from actual 1950s movies on the back wall during many scenes,
a device that oddly adds to the complete whackiness of the proceedings.
Most all of the major character-stereotypes of the genre are here: you have the young innocent, played by *Megan McCorkle, framed and committed to hard time, raising the crucial question: Will she be corrupted or saved by the hardened Betties behind bars?
She is thrown into a twisted sisterhood lead by the big mama of the prison played by Flying H Managing Director and Co-Owner, Cynthia Killion; the incorrigible prostitute played by Kathryn Miller; and the dark, dope-dealing hustler played by Sandra Demogenes.
Joining them are the obligatory crazies: The maybe/maybe not crazy, but definitely odd, and always entertaining, Puerto Rican sister, played by Juliana Acosta; the Blanche Dubois delusional played by Brenda Evans; and Shelby Maloney’s “Ada” who takes the cell-block-crazed-chick idea to a hilariously surreal level of verbal zaniness.
There is the rarer, and almost exclusively American, character-type of the bible-belt lifer, played most ably by Nancy Solomons, who spouts scripture not quite as heartily as she lusts after female “chicken” flesh.
This menagerie is lorded over by Paula Maxwell’s perfectly inflected sexually bi-valent
evil prison matron. She is assisted in her evil doings by her transgender second,
Louise, played by a hulking Robert MacNeal wearing some bra architecture that looks
like some demented medieval engineering project, spoofing an entire history of
assorted prison matron accomplices. Noreen Ednave’s prison guard supports their rule
while wielding an automatic weapon almost bigger than she is.
An array of bit parts for males that interact with the prison population is handled by Johnny Avila. While this genre is noted for its terrible portrayal of women, to be fair, the men in this genre are rarely portrayed in a very flattering light either. It’s typically a genre full of the dregs of humanity across the board. That’s part of the fun: everyone gets to play the dark side. It’s also, as a genre, totally, ridiculously, non-PC. Cynthia Killion and Kathryn Miller Photo Credit: Larry Swerdlove Cheri pouring her heart out
Before I attended Women Behind Bars, I was cautioned multiple times that this play is
not typical Flying H fare; that they usually do plays with significant social
meaningfulness and import, that this play is not one of them. It’s just fun.
Which it is. On one level.
But on another level, all I can say is that Cynthia and Taylor can’t help themselves,
for this genre and doing ironic productions within it has a long history full of sexual
politics, and significant social issues.
Known in the current critical literature as the women in prison, or WIP [often
pronounced “whip”] genre, it has cinematic sources going back to the 1930s. The
films have at all times been driven by written sources. These include literary sources
going all the way back to the Marquis De Sade and Enlightenment pornography and
before. There have been resurgences during the Victorian era, the Great Depression,
and after World War II.
In fact, WIP stories have appeared as part of a backlash to every major pro-women’s
rights movement in the last 150 years. And, remarkably, have been co-opted via irony
and parody, even total transformation, by it’s social-political enemies each time. This
genre was one of the primary drivers in the growth of post-World War II pulp fiction
and the “pocket book” paperback publishing revolution in a tale of significant
unintended consequences. Something I will go into in more detail later.
In film, it has spawned a number of sub-genres, most notably the jungle prison escape
flicks often shot in third-world countries. As far as sexual imagery, WIP films have
included everything from mild late-night-style titillation to softcore to explicit sex,
especially in the third-world jungle sub-genre shot outside the control of legal
sanctions and major distribution networks, where one of the best examples is still
banned in many countries because the lead actress was only 16 when the film was
shot, even though she demonstrates considerable acting chops, especially for this
The foreign produced sub-genres are frequently plagued by really bad translations, or
even long passages without any subtitling at all, a situation exploited by Women
Behind Bar’s Noreen Ednave’s guard to hilarious effect.
In America, in the 1950s, these movies were known by a plethora of slang tags, such
as babes behind bar B-flicks, or BBB, pronounced “three-B” in the sense that they
were supposedly two grades lower than typical B-movies, or sometimes “Triple B”
flicks, later corrupted to “Triple D” flicks in reference to the ample cleavage usually
on display, and were commonly drive-in movie fare. Few people in America had any
idea there were cinematic precedents in the 1930s, literary sources, or foreign
In most cases, the 1950s productions were so awful, they were funny. Camp
possibilities were quickly recognized. Even before its hey day had run its course in the
late 1960s, deliberately campy satires had appeared. This helped fuel the genre’s
remarkable staying power with better-funded productions into the 1980s, eventually
morphing into a completely different beast by the time of Netflix’s massive,
streaming hit, Orange is the New Black, with solid acting, tight writing, and much
higher production values--not to mention completely different social and political
values and intentions.
One of the earliest American examples, Caged  which more or less started the
onslaught of American B-movies in this genre, features the plot parodied by Flying H’s
Women Behind Bars: a teenage newlywed is framed during a robbery and imprisoned.
The moral thrust of the movie revolves around her corruption in prison. To give some
idea how notoriously repetitive and cliched WIP movies are, within the next decade
more than 50 movies were made with this as the main or primary sub-plot.
Often, this innocent woman is also the only one who knows where the robbery loot is
hidden, a plot element expectation exploited and turned on its head in a very funny
sequence in the Flying H play.
Other near-obligatory scenes in the genre include a riot scene that is put down by fire
hoses tearing off already minimal clothing or revealing yards of transparent wet
shirting covering what would, in the 1950s at least, have been amply supported
cleavage that has inexplicably become bra-less during the riot; and a long group
shower scene usually highlighting a shiv fight. There is almost always a hand-to-hand
grappling fight or two, or three, where the wrestling is explicitly sexualized,
sometimes, in the more hardcore versions, turning into an outright orgy with full on
In short, a cinema originally meant for the male gaze. However, if men are the target audience for this cinema, oddly, they are rarely depicted in a very flattering light. Most males are either outright idiots, creepily evil, demeaningly weak, or slavish beasts, and all seem to be instantly incapable of rational thought processes in the mere presence of cleavage. While Flying H’s Women Behind Bars hints at this tradition, it goes nowhere near the realms of debasement typically depicted in the films. Sandra Demogenes, Shelby Maloney, Paula Maxwell and Juliana Acosta Photo Credit: Larry Swerdlove Ada in flames
In the Belly of the Beast
In the English-speaking world, particularly North America, 1950 to 1965 is usually
considered the hey day of lesbian noir pulp fiction. A primary sub-genre of this fiction
is the women behind bars, or WIP, novel depicting an erotically-charged women’s
universe unseen by the rest of the world, primarily published by Midwood Tower
publishers, and later by other paperback houses. Representative novels include
Degraded Women , Female Convict [1952, 1959], House of Fury , and
Prison Girl .
Written with a considerable amount of sex and explicit descriptive content regarding
lesbian sexual encounters, these books were illustrated by covers that were explicitly
designed to appeal to men and often written and illustrated by men. One of the most
influential designers was Robert A. McGuire, who set the standard of illustration now
highly prized by collectors, of the era’s soft-colored, innuendo-driven covers. Zimet
has published a visually compelling study of this art in Strange Sisters: the Art of
Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969, published by Viking Studio.
This fiction and its subsequent evolution and impact has been extensively analyzed in
the last couple of decades by a deluge of perceptive studies, some of it very well
done, including Austin Bergstrom’s “Untamed She-Cats in a Jungle Behind Bars:
Lesbian Prison Pulp Fiction and the Threat of Female Sexuality, 1950-1965,” and
Yvonne Keller’s “Was It Right to Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?: Lesbian Pulp
Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965,” where a particularly interesting
American social-political sub-text has been uncovered.
During World War II, in the American all-out war effort, women took part in every
facet of American public and industrial life. They flew airplanes, including the
biggest bombers, not in combat but from factory airfields to military bases. They also
built the airplanes, engineered freight trains, built ships and factories, worked
foundaries and steel mills, welded, hammered, and riveted. They ran finances and
banks and towns, schools and production lines. They could get a loan without a man
countersigning it and manage and own property. They policed and carried weapons
and learned how to shoot. Rosie the Riveter was an icon. So was the Bettie: the
tough girl who could live without men.
As long as the men were oversees killing Nazis, that is.
When the war ended, and the men came home, two problems arose. First, a lot of
men didn’t come home, so there was an imbalance for the war generation between
young men and women. Two, the women had flourished during the war and many did
not want to relinquish any of their freedom, rights, and in many cases, their war-time
There were also rumors of significant promiscuity and possible lesbianism on the home
front during the war years. The US government even conducted surveys of home-front
attitudes and activities on a variety of social issues, and found alarming levels of
sexual activity and a surprising new openness about it.
As the world plunged into the Cold War cultural conservatism of the post-War
Eisenhower era, America sought to re-establish the returning GIs into a solidly
“moral” society and build a new suburban America. Appropriate propaganda was in
order. That propaganda increasingly took the form of the paperback pocket book.
During the war, the American publishing industry invented a new, cheap, and easily
printed and distributed, niche, the “pocket book”, so named because it fit easily into
the standard GI-issue jacket pocket reserved for personal effects. Even GIs who had
not been particularly big readers before the war found the boredom and unsettling
aspects of military life sufficient motivation to read the government provided stories.
After the war these pocket books evolved into the post-war paperback. To appeal to
an ex-GI population hardened by war, use to prostitution, and in many cases already
exposed to more explicit European and Pacific traditions of pornography, it was
realized--in an era when James Joyce’s masterpiece Ullyses was still banned in
America-- that a broader and more relaxed moral code would have to be applied
selectively to the new paperback content. It couldn’t be too soft, it was thought, or it
might be belittled or ignored by the war-hardened GI.
The women in prison story, with significant lesbian sexual activity turned out to be a
particularly popular and lucrative genre for the content of these books.
There were especially compelling psycho-social forces driving this trend. As Bergstrom
summarizes, during this era:
“Not only were American women heterosexually promiscuous, but some were also
lesbians. Lesbian pulp narratives, with their loaded stereotypes and male gaze
orientation, speaks to the growing fears about female sexuality during the height of
cold war cultural conservatism. In the aftermath of World War II, with women in
typically male workplaces and thousands of GIs dead at the front, the idea that
women were not only sexual, but could be sexual without men was a powerful threat.
Narratives of lesbianism in women’s prisons captures this fear with particularly
Further, the prison theme, that is, a world where men were forcibly, and technically,
temporarily absent, was also able to simultaneously fuel and calm those fears by
reassuring the reader that this was a temporary and artificial situation. Thus these
stories were able to both present what was feared, a women-empowered lesbian
world, but also present it as a temporary situation, and more: present it erotically.
In these stories, once the woman left the prison and returned to normal suburban life,
she returned to heterosexuality. In the early post-War stories, the “true” lesbians
stayed behind bars, or quickly returned due to their evil ways if released.
In the increasingly socially conservative McCarthy era, the genre became a primary
propaganda tool for displaying the corrupting power of powerful women and
lesbianism in an attempt to get women who had jobs during the war to leave behind
careers and settle down, marry the GIs, and start families in the suburbs. In contrast
to this fate was born the cautionary moral tale of the innocent girl- who hasn’t even
committed a real crime, but has been framed-- who is committed to hard time and is
corrupted by the morally evil lesbian activities around her and turns bad.
The propaganda relied heavily on guilt by association and the corrupting influence of
one’s social environment. This ties into another concept dear to the Eisenhower era
propagandists based on the then new American awareness of the possibility that an
entire population could seemingly be corrupted and turned to evil by an appropriately
engineered social environment, as the German people had been by Nazism, and the
Italians by Fascism during the 30s. During the McCarthy era this concept was a key
piece in the McCarthy rationale for motivating American fear of Communism during
the cold war.
Thus the association with prostitutes, a common element in post-war women’s jail
populations, was considered a prime factor within the prison genre’s moral arch. The
innocent new inmate was exposed to a ruthless population of lesbians and prostitutes,
bent on corrupting any newcomer. Other activities considered deviant during this
period entered into the stories. Drugs and dope-dealing, rage [not considered
appropriately lady-like at this time], humiliation, insanity, and physical violence were
added to the mix. Ring-leaders inside the big house were sometimes portrayed as
Communists, thus showing Communists, prostitutes, and lesbians as equally depraved.
This also lead to an escalating portrayal of sexual debauchery, and the genre’s
author’s began to pull from all kinds of sources, particularly the Marquis de Sade, for
increasingly explicit depictions of what was considered by conservative American cold
war standards morally depraved sexual behavior.
A typical set of sensationalized stereotypes were developed to convey this message of
the evils of lesbianism and women’s empowerment and plots simplified to reinforce
the moral lessons.
The prisons were typically run by sadistic and sexually ambivalent or bivalent matrons
or evil, politically deviant male overlords. Or both: evil matrons with sexually
ambivalent enforcers working for a more hidden level of paternal power or governing
male. There is a whole sub-genre featuring Che Gueverra-like Communist
revolutionaries imprisoning innocent young girls for sexual slavery in support of the
Often there is a room, or someplace hidden, elsewhere, a “room 10” where further,
more secret debaucheries and humiliations take place, often with the warden or her
primary enforcer, a meme heavily exploited by Eyen’s parody in Women Behind Bars.
In the end, women who remain unrepentant and lesbian end up insane, commit
suicide, or meet violent deaths, or worse, are left for life in the hidden hell hole.
Plots centered around an innocent newbie, who is heterosexual before she is seduced
and corrupted by these lesbians. This is also the one recognizable plot arch
lampooned in Women Behind Bars.
Typical stereotypes in the prison population include a ruling bitch or mama, or two or
more competing mamas often of different races ruling competing sub-clans or
nations, in order to justify more opportunity for physically escalated encounters; a
sort of counter-ruler dominatrix-like darker woman, who also may rival the mama,
usually involved with drugs, often with extensive connections [read lesbian, drugdealing
associates] outside; a similar and parallel dark-haired sadomasochistic bitchbutch;
sometimes a totally kick-ass young hardcore butch, usually dark-haired; an
assortment of crazies, often with red hair; an assortment of “babes”: the very young
“chickens”, both femme and butch, desired and fought over by the older, ruling
women; and a lavish contingent of street walkers and whores, usually dressed even
more skimpily than the other inmates, often ruled by their own in-house madam who
counterbalances the ruling evil matron of the prison, but often as not is equally
sadistic and predatory. Examples of most of these types are lampooned in Flying H
Theatre’s Women Behind Bars.
The Irony and the Ecstacy
Back to the paperbacks, and here’s the kicker: for a variety of other reasons, the
paperback book industry had already established supermarkets, grocery stores, and
convenience stores as the most lucrative distribution points for their books. These
outlets vastly expanded their distribution and sales numbers. However, in the 1950s
Eisenhower era, women did over 90 percent of the shopping in these venues. Thus the
new books designed for men were distributed via channels primarily frequented by
women, and primarily bought by women.
At first that was considered OK, as the books were considered an effective
propaganda tool against lesbianism and possible deviant ideas that women might have
gained access to during their years of war-driven freedom and isolation. It was also
assumed that the covers and parallel marketing would so strongly appeal to only men
while alienating women to the point that women wouldn’t bother looking inside.
But women, and teenage girls, it turns out, did look inside. And started reading.
The irony and danger of this was soon recognized by American politicians. Congress,
whose sister committee to McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities
Committee, the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Current
Pornographic Materials conducted a wide-ranging investigation on the “pocket-sized
paper-bound books” industry and issued a report that found them “filled with sordid,
filthy statements based upon sexual deviations and perversions probably before
unfamiliar to the type of reader who now buys them.”
Worse, these books had penetrated the Eisenhower era’s sacred suburbia. In huge
Designed to appeal to male readers, and to convince returning GIs that lesbianism and
the powerful women’s order of things that prevailed upon their return from war were
only temporary, immoral, aberrant distortions of reality that would soon be corrected
and return to normal suburban standards, the new pulp fiction had created an
unexpected and contrary situation. A situation where much of the new pulp fiction
was bought, and eventually read, by female readers who were now reading about
erotic spanking, fisting, dildos, anal plugs, fetishes, femmes and butches. The word
“lesbian” had quickly entered common American usage. The female love that dare
not mention its name now had a name, a now very well-known name.
Further, that the stereotypes and many of the myths portrayed in this literature was
taken to ridiculous extremes and was thus open to parody or deconstruction was not
lost on many readers. Almost immediately the originally male-constructed, designed,
written and published propaganda was mimicked, almost cover by cover, by female
and some male writers and publishers to create a more or less bona-fide lesbian erotic
literature that appealed more directly to women.
A number of women writers over the years have since revealed that some of their first
or earliest encounters with lesbianism was through these paperback books. That the
portrayal of strong women, and the open display of justified anger in these books
inspired some of the early post-war feminists is now well known as well.
Eventually a more aware sexual-political consciousness took over, producing a new
sub-genre of lesbian paperback erotic-romantic pulp fiction typified by writers such as
Ann Bannon, with her I am a Woman, Odd Girl Out, and Beebo Brinker novels, with
cover art designed to appeal to women, though sometimes subtly parodying the much
earlier classic male-oriented cover art.
As for the McCarthy-era paternalists, their attempt at cementing the moral depravity
of lesbianism by associating it with prostitution and prisons also back-fired, ironically
creating a totally unintended effect: its logic of association as portrayed in this fiction
was frequently, if unconsciously, interpreted more in line with the extensive and, to
Americans, seemingly exotic, sex; thus deeply affirming the almost mythic aura in the
American psyche of the experienced lesbian who, like the ancient priestess prostitute
of the temple, possessed unfathomably deep sexual knowledge and technique, with
capacities far beyond the reach of any male.
The fact that the filmed version of this genre almost universally portrayed males as
idiots completely enslaved by the sight of female flesh didn’t help matters in this
regard. Repeatedly, audiences interpreted the lesbian women as the empowered
rather than the depraved.
And Now the Movies
The WIP movies follow suit from the pulp fiction on all counts with timelines
somewhat staggered off the paperback novel timelines by a couple of years, with
their hey day running from about 1953 to 1969.
Starting in America with the pre-code Ladies They Talk About of 1933, starring
Barbara Stanwyck, set in San Quentin prison, the genre picked up in the post-war era
with Caged , adopted from Virginia Kellogg’s Women Without Men. Highlights
include Women’s Prison , Girls in Prison , up to 99 Women , when
more ironic and subverted projects were already starting to dominate.
There is a brief renaissance with the rise of 1970s blackploitation and sexploitation
movies, with Pam Grier doing landmark roles in both genres including The Big Doll
House , a play on the term “Big House,” meaning prison, The Big Bird Cage
, a quasi-sequel to The Big Doll House, and Black Mama, White Mama .
This tradition more or less culminates with Switchblade Sisters in 1975, which was rereleased
by Quentin Tarantino in 1996 under his Rolling Thunder card.
WIP flicks continue into the 1980s with films like 1984’s Women in Fury and Slammer
Girls , eventually morphing into entirely different universes under the pressure
of European art-house and third-world explicit sex films on the one hand, and a
growing movement of women-scripted and directed lesbian filmmaking on the other
hand taking things in an entirely different direction culminating in the current Orange
is the New Black.
The movies only simplified and took the exaggerations of the pulps to more ridiculous
extremes, and for the most part, eliminated much of the sex and, especially, purged
the genre of the detailed descriptions and languaging associated with that sex. In
even the most explicit WIP movies, you are not going to hear or learn much about
fisting, sex toys, erotic spanking, or intricate technique. You will see a lot of drunken
shouting, wrestling, oiled cleavage, completely demented plotting, stupidity, and
Thank Flying H Theatre that you can pass on all this bad cinema and just go see all the fun at Women Behind Bars until the beginning of August. Brenda Evans, Cynthia Killion, Kathryn Miller, Nancy Solomons, Sandra Demogenes, Shelby Maloney and Juliana Acosta Photo Credit: Celine Anthonioz Line Up
Cast: Paula Maxwell, Megan McCorkle, Johnny Avila, Sandra Demogenes, Juliana
Acosta, Shelby Maloney, Brenda Evans, Nancy Solomons, Kathryn Miller, Cynthia
Killion, Robert MacNeal, and Noreen Ednave.
Production crew: Larry Swerdlove, Steve Snider, MarquesWilliams, Tayleor Kasch,
Susan Franzblau, Ron Felnter, Joe Boles, Johnny Avila, Paula Maxwell, Brenda Evans,
mona Killion, Shelby Maloney, and Mona Killion.
July 10-19 Fridays/Saturdays/Sundays
July 23-Aug 1 Thursday/Friday/Saturday
Thurs/Fri/Sat shows at 8:00 pm Sun shows at 4pm
Tickets $15.00 at the door, Festival seating, no reservations.
About Flying H Theatre Group
A new professional theatre company in Ventura, The Flying H Group offers a unique,
intimate black-box theatre experience unlike any other in Ventura county. In its first
twenty months it has produced some of the best and most thought-provoking plays of
our time, including Adly Gurguis’s legendary Jesus Hopped the A Train; Seth Bauer’s
Iphigenia; Marsha Norman’s iconic Night, Mother; Nicky Silver’s savagly funny, The
Lyons; The Exit Interview; The Mother F**ker; Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Wolf; Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, and Geography of a Horse Dreamer; Honky; and
Annie Baker’s Body Awareness. Flying H Theatre also offers sideshows, readings of
work in progress, acting workshops, and script-writers workshops. Founded by Artistic
Director and founder Taylor Kasch and co-owned by Cynthia [Cyn] Killion.
*Megan McCorkle Photo Credit: Larry Swerdlove
Mary-Eleanor, the Innocent