America, 1950. The nation’s men, recently immersed in the conflagration of global war, have returned to their civilian posts. Having subsisted on rations and the scraps of battle for four long years, they’re ready to be served anew, with the kitchen table once again a proud symbol of hearth, home, and female subservience. Once fed, they’re off to the bedroom, where the two twins of old sure as hell better be reimagined as a king. A roomy king, with all the perks a fighting man has any right to expect. But it’s the assembly lines and office cubicles where he’s re-establishing his ultimate supremacy; where proud men don coats and ties and hardhats alike, as they pace, sweat, and exert a firm hand, all while doting dames take notes, type, and gossip like good little hens. Masculinity is again stateside, as if the silliest of broads had any real say in the matter. Back to the great silence – discreet, dolled up, and always with an upward glance, as if awaiting instruction for that next, tentative breath.
All well and good, mind you, unless you’re Evelyn Harper. No man, no home, no reasonable plan of deference to the tougher, nobler sex. While others dreamed of demure domesticity, Evelyn openly damned a past that never was, and a future that could never be. While soldier boy pined for your Grables and your Hayworths, sleek gams with an ivory sheen, Harper’s calloused, beefy meat hooks wasted away without hope of reciprocal admiration. Not even George Halas returned her calls. The wrestling circuit, the circus caravan, always but a telegram away, remained impossibly distant. The dawn of a new decade, and women were back. From factory smock to fabulous fur; lipstick and nylon hose, pretty as a picture. But for Ms. Harper, well, God had other plans. When a woman slips from that heavenly assembly line a stout six-foot-two, 230 pounds, with an ass that threatens to break off like an iceberg in the path of a luxury liner, fate decrees that forevermore, she’ll be a lesbian. Professional, grade-fucking-A. So butch even the whitest of nurse’s whites act more like a suit of armor, albeit one hewn from hand-slaughtered bearskin. Hard, unflinching, and irredeemably hateful. For on the eve of Eisenhower, to be female and gay is to be the handmaiden of savagery.
So you get a job at a prison. A Women’s State Prison, to be exact, as if your application had any chance of being forwarded to the typing pool. From the day the boys asked you to play left tackle at recess and not the spring dance, your card was punched. Locked in place. Booked, like a non-refundable vacation. No bank VP looking downwind in your direction, even to shout the command of picking up his wife’s dry cleaning. You’d be the freak, the bearded giant, the pinhead in charge of the midget review. They could have used you in Stalingrad, a bulwark of inspiration, but your mother never left Brooklyn. Died while giving you life, because few could have stomached the daughter who dropped the dolls for dad’s shaving kit. Six brothers, and you survived every last one of them. Shipped to their doom while you cracked the hammer in that cement and steel dungeon. You’d show them all, only no one could see inside. Not through prison gates, nor the fortress of your heart. In the end, all you had were your girls. They’d pay for the sins of a thoughtless humanity, bruise for bruise. Soul to skin, the ultimate transfer.
Officially, you’re a matron, though the term, softened by images of tenderness and empathy, has been reclassified in light of the new reality. Women are disturbingly unhinged at the mid-century mark, and someone’s got to crack the whip. Maybe it’s the ennui of an atomic world gone mad, but these ladies are anything but. Armed robberies for some, a murder or two for the rest. “If it wasn’t for men, we wouldn’t be here,” one reasons, not without cause. Another blames the system. If they had put me away when I tried to kill the bastard, I wouldn’t be behind bars for eventually succeeding. For every burned dinner, a fat lip. For every fat lip, a twist of the knife. And the bodies are piling up. Those not inclined to commit the ultimate crime are still feeling the pinch. They want the good life. Need it, as if by genetic mandate. Stinkin’ bum ain’t gonna work, so I’ll fill in the gaps. Hooking if I can, shoplifting if I must. Maybe America had had it up to here with housewives. But Evelyn’s not buying the excuses. Show her a government study, and she’ll counter with a sneer. Psychiatrists? Only if they’ve added beatings and isolation to the menu. Kindness and consideration? I’ll try and remember when I’m driving the bitches to suicide.
No mere monster, Evelyn is also thunder thigh-deep in capitalism’s unholy creed. As much as she genuinely loves holding court in this institution of iniquity, there are coins to be counted; impressionable young tramps to exploit, if only for their own protection. Finding and trapping the weakest of the lot, she swoops in with unparalleled alacrity, if only to ensure she secures top dollar. But there’s an upside, even for the girls. Soap, caramels, a few extra blankets; all mean that much more in a place with little by way of creature comforts. Day after everlasting day, when the bells, early-morning alarms, and silent chow-times become too much to endure, the fixed marble of Evelyn Harper seems almost kind by comparison. With so much indifference, you’ll be glad for the attention. Even a shot to the chops is better than sleeping alone. Cruel and unrelenting, because kid gloves only bring you back. Remind them what is, so they’ll know to keep their noses clean. Far from immoral brute, she’s about the best thing to happen to incarceration since the Panopticon.
Still, despite reducing recidivism through cruelty, prison types like Evelyn have their critics. Though having a sweet deal with Kitty, the veteran thief used to a little luxury, Ms. Harper is not above striking a new bargain with Elvira, a woman so adept at the life she gets intentionally pinched to improve her balance sheet. Kitty’s not about to take this sitting down, so she fights back. Only fighting back gets you isolation. And isolation drives you mad. And when you scream, only Evelyn’s fists will break the tedium. Even the broken can be broken further. Marie, our heroine, all of nineteen and clearly the victim of a bum rap, will have the innocence bullied right out of her, too, with a shaved head to prove it. If you’re pretty, Evelyn will sniff it out and snuff it but good, much like the kitten you found in the courtyard. Yes, head bitch kills a cat. Sure, the end came during a cell block riot, but it’s just like the old dame to murder the defenseless. It was loved, so it had to be hated. Even June, so sweet and tortured, will be driven to self-slaughter. Pushed just a bit too far. Cheated out of a just parole, only to be found hanging in her cell. It is, after all, Evelyn’s way.
But Evelyn’s time is up. Reform is in the air, and the old ways are passing into history. Ruth Benton, one of the new breed, would rather see the women learn from their mistakes. Make amends, come to terms, even change for the better. Evelyn wants a broken back and a swift kick into oblivion. Tough love is still love, and she’d prefer its fanatical absence. Sensing obsolescence, Evelyn takes to the papers. Creating scandals where none exist. Stirring the pot to destroy a revolution. If they win, women built like middle linebackers have no future. Where will they go? What will they do? What have they once the prison showers are closed to their exploitation? Caged, therefore, makes its move. As if channeling the Warren Court to come, women’s prisons would be perfumed at long last. If there are to be rapes, let the prisoners make the call. The State in the shadows, forever off the front lines. Guards as guardians, never on the take. So Evelyn must die. By Kitty’s hand, since she had the most to lose. A fork to the throat, again and again, enough to ensure a date with the electric chair. The final sacrifice, to soothe a guilty nation.
In the end, with Evelyn safely dead, we begin to feel her absence. Caged, therefore, is a wrongheaded call to arms; a strike against the very compassion it professes to proclaim. What of the unloved? The unsexed, hopeless sort who had but one duty to fulfill? Evelyn Harper came to be in that most perilous of worlds – too early for the WNBA, too late for P.T. Barnum. Take this away, and she’s bereft. Stripped of direction, with no one willing to illuminate a different path. There is but one life to live for her sort, and now it’s gone. She’d be back, of course, but steeped in irony and ridicule. A stereotype. A caricature. An object of scorn. But I, for one, won’t forget her. The lesbian sadist before anyone dared use the term. A closeted cartoon, fighting against the tide. A world once young and open, where the viciously unattractive could step forth and be counted. Among us, but set apart. Forgiven their appetites, and let loose in their own private playpen. Because if you’re freakishly tall, gay, and wide as a house, and pussy is where you’ve staked your claim, shame should be the last thing you feel. Only the sting of fist to jaw, man-hand into velvet; a power unavailable anywhere else. Where a pitiless lesbianism had all of our backs. Forever and always.