Unsexed as a Means to Survive: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Tobe Hooper's inimitable The Texas Chainsaw Massacre signals the nascence of the prototypic, 1970s slasher villain. Their arrested development and fervent performativity, teemed with a desire to slaughter multiple victims, signal a shift from the undetectable villainy of their predecessors, such as the indexically 'normal' Norman Bates in Psycho. By the 1970s, monstrosity is far more legible. Villains are characterised by indeterminate masculinity and transgression, their humanity concealed beneath shapelessness, masks and phallic weaponry. Though this figure is certainly alluring subject matter to analyse in isolation, this essay will propose that the slasher genre's emasculated villain is conceived most effectively in parallel to the construction of the final girl, whose survival is not only indebted to her ambiguous gender construction, but to her unwavering ability to assimilate to masculinity.
The final girl out-survives other women partly because she is not hindered by her sexuality, but chiefly because she alone depicts a far less stereotypical and one-dimensional gender characterisation. By the same token, Texas' Leatherface and his two cannibalistic brothers are recognisably masculine, yet they are strikingly childlike or boyish. With these gender deviations in mind, and in order to grapple with the surprising complexity of this film, it is essential to investigate how the slasher villain and the final girl are constructed against conventional gender categories, in particular, against masculinity. Jack Halberstam was right to suggest that ‘masculinity becomes legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white male middle-class body’. Thus in the world of Texas, rural, pre-technological and absent of women, masculinity is re-standardised and violently deconstructed. The film's defiant sociopolitics compels us to decipher its symbols of masculinity and its rejections and embraces of gender, in an attempt to connect Leatherface to the final girl, who, unlike the straight-forward femininity of other female characters of the same genre, is assimilative to masculinity and thus able to survive the terrain of the slasher film.
In a landscape void of women, masculinity begins to fracture, its definitions loosen. In American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s, Robin Wood lays claim that ‘central to [horror as a genre] is the actual dramatisation of the dual concept of the repressed/the Other, in the figure of the Monster.’ Emasculation as a process is central to the genre’s motivation to chart the abnormal, thus monsters are constructed as deviant and untethered from normalcy and the status quo. Where slasher horror is distinguished from psychological horror, take Psycho wherein Norman Bates is legibly ‘normal’, is through its exhibition of unrelenting psychosexual fury and barbarity. The villains of the 1970s are closer to the Universal Classic Monsters such as Frankenstein's creature: othered and transgressive, and by implication, emasculated. In Dark desires: Male masochism in the horror film, Barbara Creed elaborates on this idea: ‘in the process of being constructed as monstrous the male is ‘feminized.’ This process is not simply a consequence of placing the male in a masochistic position, but rather it stems from the very nature of horror as an encounter with the feminine.’ While this proximal femininity is true of the genre as a whole, the slasher sub-genre is, in itself, gender deviant. It is limiting to suggest that slasher villains such as Leatherface and Halloween’s Michael/‘The Shape’ are emasculated simply by way of feminisation. Though their emasculation certainly begins with feminisation, they are subversive and othered by design, the slasher film’s process of emasculation does not stop there. In fact, the slasher genre ruptures the boundaries of gender entirely.
Leatherface is emasculated by semiotics, covered in baby fat and donning an apron and mask, but equally, he is not feminised. He does not retreat from one pole of gender to the other. Rather, he transmutes into that which ruptures gender binaries altogether (hence the significance of Halloween’s Michael amorphously being called ‘The Shape’). Leatherface ‘may be recognisably human, but only marginally so’, as summarised best by the peerless horror analyst Carol Clover. Therefore, it would be far more suitable to describe Leatherface as unsexed or unable to fit into either category of masculine or feminine. As Kraus Rieser aptly puts, ‘while [the Final Girl] violates behavioural rules by covering sometimes both ends of the gender ideology (being a woman but behaving "masculine") and sometimes none (being pre/a-sexual), the monster rather than merely violating a rule destabilises categorisation.’ This destabilisation is clear when Leatherface does not sexualise the torture of the final girl, though she certainly expects him to. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the final girl is not grappling with sexually violent masculinity, but repressed inarticulate fury. Even the chainsaw, which overtly symbolises phallic violence, does not masculinise Leatherface. As the phallic weapon is dismembered, it instead rather strikingly illuminates his sexlessness.
Needless to say, Leatherface is not a man, but an outlier to any recognisable community, other than his father and brothers who, like him, are wholly desensitised to violence. Not to mention their decrepit family home is significantly absented of women, except for the corpse of their grandmother who looms over the family as the immaterial matriarch. This aberration of domesticity and normalcy is, as we are expected to acknowledge, the film's spectacle of horror in all its gruesome detail.
However, although the slasher genre recognises folkloric, primal fears of the wild and abnormal, Texas presents abnormality as reactive; as a means of survival. The exhibition of hideousness and emasculation is not simply characteristic of slashers to garner shock and discomfort from its audience, but it is oftentimes contextual. This turns us towards the context of the cannibalistic family and their inhabitance of a pre-technological landscape, upon which their slaughtering business is replaced by factories and urbanisation. In amongst the gritty, unauthorised rurality, with only his slaughtering family as an influence, there is no viable option for Leatherface to develop into a socialised man. His psychological palette is limited, and killing is reflexive and deeply instilled. He is inarticulate and his development stunted, therefore he explodes with repressed, psychosexual fury when faced with outsiders. In fact, his fury and cannibalism articulates the film's analogy between the marginalised and urbanised, and the group of pleasure-seeking teenagers who infiltrate this hostile space are representative of the latter. Of course, it would be a stretch of empathy to compare this social contextualisation to Frankenstein's creature for example, for whom sympathy can be felt. Texas is certainly not a cautionary tale, nor that of a blameless creature. While the slasher genre is aware of this commentary, dipping its toes in psychologies of identification, it plays with psychoanalysis to great excess and stretches it to the unfathomable, and for many of its critics, the ridiculous.
Leatherface does not enable identification, he is a spectacle of the marginalised, the unsexed, in great, violent exaggeration. His emasculation, by way of monstrosity, is entirely hyperbolic. And although Texas veils its macabre kill-spree as a horror that is feasible, note the opening sequence and titular ‘realness’, it is only to exacerbate the nerves of the audience. Leatherface is a macabre product of a violent landscape. In other words, as protector and product of this space, Leatherface is unsexed because he is representative of the primitive, perverse genre-fabric from which he arose. He necessarily abides by the laws of the genre and its formula; he is digressive, deviant, and threatening because of his violent emasculation; he is a vehicle through which the horror can manifest, and more importantly, a constant from which the final girl can be constructed.
Compared to the villain, the final girl is far less statically anchored to the slasher setting, in fact, she is often the outsider. In other words, she does not emerge from the fabric of the genre, rather, she traverses it. Within the world of slasher violence, gender is clearly dichotomised. Here, it is worth briefly digressing to state that this essay demands exercising terminology which are now stereotypical, specifically that which constitutes ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, because within the framework of the 1970s, and more specifically in the B-movies of the 1970s, gender is sustained by archaic definitions. However, within the slasher genre, these gender categories, characterising as they may be, are distinctly unstable. Perhaps this flimsiness is due to the messiness of the genre as low-budget; with a preoccupation to frighten, slashers are, by and large, reluctant to prioritise any deliberate gender commentary other than the established formula. But nevertheless, the instability of their gender categories (feminised or unsexed men and masculine women) yields fruitful interpretation. Gender is recognised by characters and reified to the advantage of those afforded mobility: the most mobile of all, the final girl.
As coded feminine in a masculine genre, the final girl is located within a space where gender is binarised and constantly affirmed. However, because she is not the monstrous villain but the recognisable victim, she does not fiercely reject these binaries and transgress into deviance, but rather she navigates gender to her advantage. As the victim with whom the audience identifies, she is crafted to embody a multitude of recognisable characteristics which could be deemed as ‘fiercely maternal’, as Klaus Reiser suggests, or heroically masculine; she is a figure of pragmatism, perceptivity and caution, that which the villain is entirely void. Thus by the time the final girl confronts Leatherface, as compellingly put by Kyle Christensen, ‘she achieves a kind of genuine masculine strength that the killer, with his faux hyper-masculinity’, armed with a phallic chainsaw, failed to attain.
One commonplace view of the final girl is that she cannot be ostentatiously feminine or sexually active, that she must embody the repressed virgin, the masculine woman, or the mother figure; in Texas, Sally (final girl) is sartorially virginal, her skin far more concealed than Pam’s (the only other girl on screen), all the while maintaining responsibility for the welfare of her disabled brother, Franklin. Writing on 'the other girls', Rieser analyses their sexual interests for which they are punished as ‘diverging from their textual role’, that how ‘by trying to attain sexual pleasure, they depart from the horror film’s single-minded preoccupation with loss, separation, castration, expulsion, and terror…that is, they are punished for "behaving out of genre”’. While this is true, there is still undeniable misogyny in slasher horror that extends beyond cinematic functionality, and Texas is no exception. Girls in slasher films are routinely sexualised and their deaths even more so, note Halloween wherein Michael, masked beneath a blanket, duplicitously preys on Lynda in the middle of her sexual encounter with Bob who lay dead downstairs. Perhaps this incident can be explained, or at least hypothesised, with Klaus Rieser’s conviction: ‘it is not so much the girls’ sexuality per se, which is "wrong", but the fact that they have sex with other boys. In cinematic terms, these girls are useful as titillation, as teasers and are then, in a classical projective manner, taken to task for it.’ Perhaps it is feasible that slasher villains’ femicide is, to some extent, born out of envy for their victim's sexual partners, however, Leatherface acts sexually passive towards Sally, and his vengeance seems geared far more potently towards trespassers and as a product of his own programmed cannibalistic violence than any measurable envy. This does not, however, ignore the genre’s misogyny, rather, it suggests that it is not Leatherface, or slasher villains more broadly, who ‘torture’ women, but the filmmakers that narratively sexualise and punish them.
Further, it is a discernible mistake to claim the final girl is not feminine, because she certainly is. Carol Clover observes ‘where once [the victim] was female, now she is both girl and boy, though most often and most conspicuously girl.’ In Texas, Sally is interested in Jerry, she acts with maternal care towards Franklin and, from ‘simply being so much in her body (stumbling, wounded, crying, feeling) [she is marked] as feminine in diametrical opposition to the (male) killer – who is visually coded as disembodied’ (Klaus Reiser). She is not a ‘shape’, deviated from gender like her villain. She is the normal to the antithetical abnormal; the victimised body to one monstrous and unsexed. However, Sally’s femininity is able to incorporate masculine and feminine characteristics in simultaneity. In fact, her gender is far more mobile than simply navigating rigid gender constructs, an act which implies an abandonment of femininity in order to be masculine. Barbara Creed has written, ‘traditionally, the male body has been viewed as norm; the female body a deviation. One of the more popular medieval ideas of the difference between the sexes was that women were men turned inside out.’ Perhaps this ‘turning inside out’ is an appropriate way to assess the construction of the final girl. She does not simply slip in and out of masculinity or femininity, rather, she is both at all times. Thus, her construction is far more complex than the villain’s, for she is both the shifting, mobile outsider and the possessor of far richer psychology than her maniacal killer.
It is important to investigate the ease with which audiences are caught up in the final girl’s survival and see it as a feminist triumph. Though the final girl is masculinised, this does not easily equate to emancipation. Klaus Rieser points out ‘the phallic struggle between the monster and the girl may be seen to signify that she has to accept sexuality on heterosexual and phallic terms and her position within these sexual power relations – as feminine and subordinated.’ However, perhaps this subordination does not undermine the final girl's assertion of strength, rather, it illuminates her adaptation to the slasher terrain on masculine terms, a much greater feat than if the narrative shifted to a world that is recognisable, or safeguarded with structures of authority and community. Reiterated by the lifeless, uninhabited Texan desert, up until her rescue, the survival of Final Girl is entirely dependent on her own strength.
By the film's end, covered in blood and only just escaping the grasps of the killer, Sally is rescued by a pick-up truck and the camera veers to Leatherface, swinging his chainsaw in a memorable conflation of thrill and defeat. Although Sally barely, and quite simply, survives, perhaps the slasher genre’s placement of her ‘at the very centre of the narrative, by having her overcome various obstacles, by letting her rescue herself in the end,… makes her the subject of the story rather than the price’ (Klaus Reiser.) Therefore, the final girl as a ‘victim-hero', with emphasis on hero, seems an appropriate title.
If Texas proposes any methodology of surviving the slasher, it is that of adaptation and self-reliance. Sally’s survival from Leatherface and the sweaty, inhospitable landscape is indebted to the destabilisation of social convention, a rupture that manifests as a fierce expression of repressed strength and pre-socialised instinct. She is not ambiguously gendered by way of passivity, nor of a vehement rejection of femininity, but rather by an instinctive and necessary adaptation to a world of social transgression and monstrosity. As subversive and deviant by design, the slasher horror film violently fractures upheld social categories of gender, and only the final girl, the most adaptive of all, is able to gather strength from its detritus.