Okay, so this one’s not so much a “trope”—a narrative device used so often that it becomes something of a template—as it is a personal fetish, of mine: nude or nearly nude women (and occasionally men) trapped in transparent tubes, usually in some sort of laboratory. Once a common image, mostly used as cover art on pulp science fiction or horror magazines, they were often associated around narratives, depicting an instant within a story—though they weren’t so often actually used in stories.
The glass tubes, or those of some other futuristic and high-tech, but always transparent variant, are usually just wide enough to hold a person, but allow little movement. They are quite restrictive, and perhaps airtight, if not filled with liquid. And the people within them are nearly always naked, or almost so, and are always—always—in some kind of peril. I personally adore these images, and judging by their relative ubiquity, I am not alone.
What’s not to love, with these pictures? Curvaceous, struggling flesh, entrapped in unyielding containment intended for full display. The fearful, dreading looks in their eyes. This is clearly not consensual “BDSM,” though it is sadomasochistic, yes? Ah, peril; ah, sexploitation…
This installation of My Treasured Tropes will not be a series of comparative reviews, as the others are, but rather a gallery of images for you to click on (or not), along with some not-incredibly-deep thinking about this strange but delightful phenomenon: why were these images once so common? How did they come to be in the first place? And, most importantly, why do I find them so hot?
The women in these images have much in common in their ordeals, but it’s from a visual aspect: nakedness, or thereabouts; held within the tight tube, whether cylindrical or squared off, some are open at the top. Some containers have a lid, and some are rounded into a noticeably phallic shape. But while most—shall we call them victims?—are clearly horrified, others are unconscious: possibly dead, or being… preserved? Every now and then they’re calm, apparently being purposefully transported somewhere, through space, or time, who knows, via the tubes. But those particular images aren’t especially arousing, now, are they?
The majority of them, and quite frankly my favorites, seem to depict the subjects undergoing some form of experiments, often by very evil-looking, one may suppose “mad” scientists. (I have to admit, I would love to read these guys’ grad school theses.)
Some of the women either in, or being lowered into, their awaiting tubes look justifiably angry;
most look understandably worried,
and some seem oddly passive—
while others are flat-out unconscious.
We see a few rescues,
always by men,
and some escapes, now and then. (Although I can’t seem to find such an image right now.)
Many of the women, as I said, appear to be in some kind of suspended animation, either frozen or immersed in a preserving liquid—and not all women portrayed are necessarily human. I imagine, and hope, but cannot know, that they will be revived later—but for what?—rather than being pickled dead. But it’s that unknown, that vagueness of what exactly is happening to them, that is the lurid appeal of so many of these covers and artworks.
Women-in-tubes imagery is essentially a sub-set of the more common women-in-peril pulp art that graced oh so many covers in not only science fiction magazines, but detective and horror publications as well. Women need not be inserted into a tube to be in danger from alien invaders, mad scientists, or generally evil men. And the evil ones are always men—how I would love to find a female scientist mistreating her fellow women in one of these (although, come to think of it, that’s pretty much the plot of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS). But of course, the idea of depicting female scientists in SF magazines in the 1930s and ‘40s was even more preposterous than green aliens with big brains for helmets landing in New Jersey.
One of the things that surprised me once I started thinking about all this was how rarely images of women entrapped in clear tubes are actually used in any narratives. They were almost always merely the advertising to get people (boys) to buy the magazine. In written fiction, I suspect this is partly because a still image is simply more enticing, more lurid, than a written account would be. I could be wrong.
There are exceptions. I tried to find a copy of the story “The Girl In Tube 14,” by Dick Purcell, from the August 1955 issue of Fantastic Science Fiction. It is a pretty awesome image on the issue’s cover. The robot looks menacing—but it appears it (he?) is about to set her free? She is apparently alive, in there, but what condition is she in? I would love to know. And what keeps her from floating to the top? While I found online references to the story, I could not find a digitized version, nor a print one after I consulted with friends who have access to such archives. It shall all remain a mystery, it seems. [Amended: A link to this story was provided to me by Dr. Iago Faustus at Erotic Mad Scientist (a site worth checking out). The writing is about what you’d expect, but it’s a fun glimpse into this world. Thank you, Dr. Faustus!)
I’ve often wondered just how this particular fetish got started. Imagery of exposed and restrained people, often before a crowd—usually immediately pre-martyrdom or about to be burned as a witch (an interesting historical progression, but that’s another discussion)—have been around since at least the Middle Ages (as have images of people undergoing martyrdom or burning, a separate category). These pre-torturous images share with images of encased women a sense of impending danger—one is imagining the things that will or even might be done to them. It’s all about the frightening potential.
But to get women, or in far fewer instances men, displayed within constraining vitrines, we had to have the technology of glass-making—at minimum, the ability to produce large sheets of flat glass that could be bordered and supported by metal brackets, let alone the whiz-bang science fiction production of curved glass, or complete cylinders. Women in Tubes is a 20th century development.
Looking at blogs that have considered this very question, it appears that the granddaddy of all women-in-tube-ishness is the epochal and gorgeously designed 1927 German film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang with art design by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Kurt Vollbrecht. It is also one of the few instances in which this motif is actually central to the plot, or, in fact, has anything to with narrative action at all.
In Metropolis, we see the results of the tube ordeal: a woman is transformed by an evil scientist into a robot; or rather, the robot and the live female human are merged into one entity, to do the scientist’s (and his capitalist masters’) bidding. It is only happenstance (wink, wink) that the new robot/woman’s task is to spread discord and political chaos by acting out wanton acts of exhibitionism, promiscuity, and, generally speaking, fun:
Consequences must follow.
Metropolis was the first great story about technology—its dehumanization, its ability to grind the common man (and woman) down. It is a moral, and cautionary, tale. That this technology is used to take a woman’s spirit and twist it, use it for evil ends (even if, quite frankly, her new scene looks pretty good to me) only adds to the story’s message: too much technology is a bad thing. And there she is, in the transformational scene, helpless in that glass box as the mad male zaps her until she is something new, no longer herself.
What came next for this trope, which wasn’t even a trope, yet? I haven’t the slightest idea. The pulp covers of the 1930s, I think. They followed Metropolis quickly, but exactly how much were they influenced by one film? I do not know. (Look, I’m not claiming this is my best-researched essay. I just like the pictures.) Did these illustrators all manage to see a German film so soon after its release, back when foreign movies had to be physically transported across the Atlantic in big drums? Or did just one guy see it, who then feverishly designed a cover, and others followed because the idea was pretty hot? Hell if I know.
But the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s were indeed the heyday of women in tubes. Those poor ladies were lowered into liquids, zapped, tested, brainwashed, heated and overheated, frozen, transported, and well…who knows what else.
Did the more advanced science fiction writing that began to appear in the mid-to-late 1960s signal the decline of tubed women? It certainly didn’t stop the sexpot and cheesecake depiction of them on covers. In fact, we’re still having debates about them. But as far as tubes go…
One of my favorite memories of those childhood moments of finding kink before I knew what “kink” was, was a brief scene—only seconds, really—in the 1974 film Logan’s Run, already chock full of sexualized imagery (Jenny Agutter as Jessica appearing at Logan’s whim in that transparent, sideless poncho!).
Logan and Jessica, who are on the run from the Sandmen out to kill them for escaping the City, happen upon a robot in an ice cave, charged with harvesting “Shrimp! Plankton! Protein from the sea!” and while showing them his successes, he guides them into a long tunnel lined with nude, frozen people. My little pre-teen brain glommed onto that image and my heart rate probably leapt: dozens of naked people, men (in jock straps; seriously, robot?) and women (in no clothing whatsoever) frozen and helpless, and, well, dead (but never mind that), but who were caged and naked and forever encased in glass, or, I guess, ice. And of course meanwhile Logan and Jessica were themselves naked and freezing beneath the heavy fur blankets they’d somehow found as they looked at them all, and realized they were in for some serious peril themselves—the robot had run out of fish and plankton, and had begun harvesting escapees.
I bring this up merely to give you the lone 1970s example I could think of.
We are in a different era, now, which for the most part is a good thing. As I referenced earlier, the debates about the objectification of women in science fiction covers that we have now would have been inconceivable in the (pre-)Mad Men era. What few women who wrote or worked in the industry usually had to take male pseudonyms, for crying out loud. Things are better.
But erotica works by a whole different set of rules, yes? Working in this field, I have gotten to know so many women who are quite turned on by imagery of objectification. It’s their kink. And who the hell are you to tell anyone what should turn them on? Being (consensually) objectified in the bedroom is a whoooooole different thing than it is in the boardroom. (And there are plenty of erotic stories about that!) I would not deny that women in glass tubes is a fetish that appeals to men more often than women—and has certainly been executed by them more often as product—but public display, potential use, the threat of harm: all is fair in fantasy.
What discussion there is about these images tends to center around the idea that they were drawn my men out of a desire for control of women in day to day life—a sort of silly-looking misogyny, with darker intents lurking below. This is certainly possible. But I like to think that these theories miss the eroticism, as opposed to the mere sexualization, of the situations depicted. They’re kinky. I think that those who place the cause of these images on mere sexism…just aren’t very kinky. Yes, they’re silly pictures. Did they contribute to mid-century difficulties of women in being recognized as competent individuals with agency? Again: possibly, in an odd way (and most online collections of this trope mention their oddness). But as I said, fantasies work in sometimes contrary, illogical ways. I just enjoy looking at them.
So what of encased men? Without a doubt, the pulp-era images are rarer, though not nonexistent. Do they arouse the viewer, as much? Probably not. The men are usually dressed; there’s a different dynamic at work. And male-sub (whether fem-dom or M/m) stories and images have always had a smaller audience in erotica than imperiled females, no matter what gender the reader/viewers are. But this doesn’t mean that no one is interested, even if would appear so: googling, I discovered that “men in tubes” produces a vastly different set of images than “women in tubes.” I did find this reference to a horror film, and this unfortunate image of Luke Skywalker in what must be a very wet diaper:
Your kink, maybe, but not mine.
I am surprised there are not more gay BDSM erotica illustrations of heroes trapped by manly (or not so manly) mad scientists; stripped, humiliated, vulnerable. Sounds like a lucrative market, if erotic art is at all lucrative anymore. But images of men in tubes seem mostly to be less sexualized, more super-hero-perilous, the eroticism buried deeper. But I suppose this is all in the eye of the beholder?
There have also always been images of both genders—usually lovers, or potential lovers—trapped at once. Sometimes in the same tube or bell jar (so intimate!)—and sometimes separately, unable to touch or reassure each other (so sad, and scary). Oh my—that is delightful, isn’t it? The potential of having to watch your loved one stripped and tormented, while you helplessly pound on the glass of your container? But again, these make up a small percentage of such images.
All of my Treasured Tropes essays end with a request from readers: do you happen to know of any gender-swapped instances of the tropes I’ve described? The majority of all erotica features submissive women and dominant males (and I am perfectly fine with that). But I do enjoy reading or viewing examples of men in erotic peril (and all of my favorite tropes involve peril), and since there is porn for every possible fetish, there surely must be someone out there who made or is making mad-scientist-subjecting-men-to-horrific-tests imagery. I’d love to see it, if you know of any.
Contemporary work in the vein I’m discussing (as in all veins) has become more ironic, more distanced, for the most part. Kitsch. All in fun; a winking, knowing look at the silliness and cheesiness (while admitting the eroticism) of these old pictures, these old, unenlightened ways of seeing things. Some of this new work is fantastic, I must admit, and, in the best of mad-science traditions, sometimes veers outside the tube itself, while remaining within the evil, cruel, and arbitrary laboratory. These poor women. These poor, poor, incredibly naked, bound, beautiful, fearful women.
…Where was I? Oh, yes—images of men and women both, entubed, in contemporary art. I say contemporary art because most of what I’ve seen is gallery work, commentary on the dated images rather than illustrations meant for publications’ covers. There is some gorgeous work out there—some ironic, but much of it symbolizes a tragic look at the Modern State: This is life, the human condition in the 21st century. We are trapped, and under constant surveillance. This is where we are now. It’s no longer fantasy.
Did the great pulp art covers of women in tubes try to convey some such serious message, about the condition of women’s lives in the mid-20th century? Could women have created those images of entrapment and harsh use at the hands of cruel and uncaring men, as a statement of silent protest? (Because, like the women in those transparent cylinders, they couldn’t do much to protest either; or at least no protest could be heard?) Or were the images really all just done by men, horny and probably nerdy and wishing they could keep women contained and on display for their own personal pleasure and convenience?
Despite my affinity and affection for these images, I can kinda guess which.
But I do know one thing. Since I can’t find many actual stories to confirm my suspicions, I think might just have to write my own.