Fear, Sex, and Feminism: Analysis of Slasher Films and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

My second viewing of the 2003 version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre came during a movie night with friends. I have loved scary movies from a young age and was looking forward to the opportunity for entertainment, but also to catch some details that I may have missed. After the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder why so many people enjoy a good scary movie. What are the psychoanalytic desires that draw people in and keep the viewer’s gaze fixated even when in fear? In addition to this question, I want to explore the glaring objectification of women in the film and the horror genre in general. Representations of female characters appear to have hidden goals for gender and sexual identification of viewers: a hidden agenda that many feminists would find problematic.

Horror films (some may classify the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a slasher film within the horror genre) play to many emotions of its viewers. From fear, sadness, adrenaline, and sometimes happiness, viewers know they are along for an emotional ride when they view a horror film.  What they may not know, or choose to keep to themselves is the sexual aspect that is almost always included in scary movies. Psychoanalysis focuses on the underlying desires media draw on; of them most commonly being sex. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis defines psychoanalysis as a theory that, “takes as its object the mechanisms of the unconscious- resistance, repression, sexuality, and Oedipus complex”(Flitterman-Lewis 204). Horror films and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre cover just about all of these grounds: 5 teenage friends are on an unsupervised road trip to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert after driving to Mexico to buy drugs for the concert. This story set-up is part of the resistance and rebellious ideals psychoanalysis points to. Viewers are set-up to identify with rebellious teens looking to have fun on the road. Repression comes in as the mentally plagued, killing, family are forced to keep their slaughter house a secret from the outside world when they are forced to interact with others, or when they want to lure in new victims (as is the case when a hitchhiker stops the 5 teens).  There is even a sense of the Oedipal complex in many movies, but even in this one, as Leatherface (the main killer) appears to have had a rocky relationship with this mother during childhood, who protected him when other kids tormented him. There seems to be a strange sort of sexual tension between Leatherface and his mother at various points throughout the movie in addition to the fact that the mother aids the killers in finishing off some of the characters.

Sexuality is the biggest and most clear psychoanalytic desire targeted in this and other horror films. From the occasional sex or make-out scene amongst the teens, to the bouncing breasts of the female characters as they run from the killers, it is obvious that the film is playing to those desires. Laura Mulvey speaks about the subject in her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema as she discusses women as images in film, “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium”(Mulvey 751).  This is clearly the case in this film in which Jessica Biel stars as the main girl.  The audience is supposed to lust over the female victims and the killer also has sexual desires for these characters.

Furthermore, violence in horror films is often a complementary substitute for sexual activity. The villains get sexually aroused by their victims, but rarely ever have sex with them.  Their sexual frustration is taken out using various torture tactics that appear to satisfy their arousal. In the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface seems to feel some sort of sexual pleasure when he rubs his chainsaw against one of the female characters.  The audience is made to believe that he even ejaculates from this experience by his various grunts, groans, and facial expressions.

But what does this say about the suppressed desires of the viewers? For the women, it may not be sexual, but maybe the pleasure of avenging someone who may have treated you badly. Or women may not receive any sort of sexual pleasure in seeing another women tortured or slowly killed for the pleasure of a male, but may find some intellectual puzzle in figuring out how to escape.  There is also the possibility that women watching the film are intended to implore a lesbian gaze, an idea discussed by Reina Lewis in her piece Looking Good: The Lesbian Gaze and Fashion Imagery. Lewis describes this gaze as narcissistic in that the female viewer is not just admiring the female actress but imagines being desired like her as well, “As I gaze at the model, I may simultaneously at a fantasy level desire to be like her, and desire to have her, and, moreover, desire to be, as she is, the recipient of another woman’s desiring gaze”(Lewis 95), she says describing the experience of looking at a female model. Interestingly enough, many heterosexual women admittedly attend movies for the pleasure of seeing a female actress that they find attractive. Lewis additionally points out that in a society where media texts predominately objectify women, women of any sexual preference will take part in some sort of lesbian gaze, “Further, in the ‘all female’ world of the fashion magazine, the logic of a female desiring gaze produces… a paradigmatically lesbian viewing position for any woman, whether or not she is consciously lesbian identified”(95).

Despite these possibilities, knowing that slasher films typically consist of an audience of teen males puts the intentions of filmmakers and the desires of these viewers in question. Scopophilia quickly comes to mind as a psychoanalytic desire being played to. Many scenes involve Biel looking at the killer from a hiding place as she tries to figure out how to escape or learn more about the disturbed creature that is after her.  This idea relates to Lutz & Collins’ discussion of gazes in The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes. Although her article discusses why photographs attract many looks and gazes from viewers, her ideas can apply to film as well. “There are certain taboos on certain kinds of looking, for example, black men looking at white women”(Lutz & Collins 189), Lutz and Collins say about the cultural and social constructs in which we are forced to operate.  More specifically, Lutz and Collins are discussing the photos in the National Geographic Magazine. Psychoanalysis says, however, that we are forced to repress many, if not all of our natural desires to function “properly” in society.  In the case of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, men are not supposed to openly receive pleasure from viewing violence towards women or any sort of intersection between violence, dominance, and sex.  Horror films allow this to be fulfilled in a socially acceptable way.

In addition to this, the fact that the viewership of horror films is mostly males presents a clear problem for feminists when looking more closely at the psychoanalytic desires presented and the portrayals of women. The early victims of the killer are a great place to start a feminist textual analysis of the film genre, as they are often beautiful teen girls. Blonde hair, bouncing breasts, stupid and promiscuous is the prototype for the early female victims of the killer: a representation that not only stereotypes female spectators, but places sexual activeness as a reason for death. Feminists would argue that society in general encourages feminine sexuality, but then condemns women when they actually engage with it. This idea transfers to the slasher genre and the Texas Chainsaw massacre as Pepper, one of the female characters that dies is not only blonde, but scantily clad from the beginning of the movie until her death.

Female victims in horror films also tend to die with slow, detailed and torturous deaths as the killer enacts some of his sexual fantasies with the victim. Although Pepper’s death in this version of the film is relatively quick, she does have a more physical interaction with the killer than the male victims. At one point, Pepper is even pitifully crawling on the ground away from her killer in a last attempt to escape, as Leatherface walks slowly toward her chainsaw activated and ready to saw away. It is this moment where the camera angle switches to the eye of the killer as he looks down on Pepper and begins to kill her. It is these kinds of images that pose problems for feminists that disagree with representations.

In addition to these poor portrayals of female characters, the fact that the final victim or character that often escapes is female is problematic when wearing feminist lenses. The “final girl”, as I will call her, opposes all of the negative female portrayals aforementioned: she is smart and more aware, brunette, non-sexual and usually a virgin, and less feminine (but still attractive and girl next door) in appearance; meaning less curves, tomboyish in physical appearance and disposition. Jessica Biel, who plays Erin, easily fits this description and also is able to escape.

This juxtaposition does not oppose the prior feminist critique, however, as it points out a more serious identification and message issue with this and other horror films. Erin’s intelligence, along with her more athletic physique and stable mental state are what allow her to escape from the killer’s wrath. She is able to physically fight him off, something that none of the female characters were able to do. Her masculine features are what propel her to safety.

Laura Portwood-Stacer talks about the way the media places female consumer choices as a source of control and empowerment in her article “Me, Only Better!”: Reality Makeover Television and Post-Feminist Gender Ideology, “…the site of women’s empowerment is often the commercial sphere- through decisions about what and how to consume, women take charge of defining themselves and shaping their immediate environment”(Portwood-Stacer 196). This idea clearly applies to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the horror film’s final girl, as Erin’s consumer choice to identify as a tomboy and be different than her blonde counterpart is what allows her to survive. This and other films make the statement that choosing to be more masculine is what helps her, a strong contrast to shows like Sex and the City or the Real Housewives where typical female consumption of shoes and handbags leaves the women characters extremely unhappy.

But it appears that these jumbled representations of females in these films returns back to the male audience. Mostly teen males who may or may not be going through a time of puberty and longing for gender identification view horror films. Having the hero of the movie be a female when the audience is mostly male gives us a clue as to whom they are supposed to identify with. Looking simply at the names of the three main characters gives us another hint: Morgan is the name of the main male character, while Erin and Pepper are the names of the female characters. Generally ambiguous names but with clear possibilities for male identification with Erin, this film positions teen boys as Erin. Along with an acceptable venue to experience fear in a society that does not let males feel this way, this film and other slasher films aid in the male gender identification process at the cost of women. While on the one hand, male viewers can indulge in sexual fantasies, violence, and experience fear, they can also learn that being a strong man is what get’s you out of a bad situation; all while enjoying the view of beautiful women.

These agendas for films present a large issue for those who do not identify with the societal based genders of male and female. In addition to this, women should not be objectified and capitally punished for their sexuality. While it is wildly entertaining to watch and enjoy the journey of ignorant teens in a dangerous situation, the genre has a lot of work to do in order to make the theatre a more comfortable place for it’s audience.

 

Works Cited

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. 1992. “Psychoanalysis, Film, and Television.” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Robert Allen. London: Routledge. pp. 203–246.

Lewis, Reina. 1997. “Looking Good: The Lesbian Gaze and the Fashion Imagery.” Feminist Review 55: 92–109.

Lutz, Catherine, and Jane L. Collins. 1993. “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes,” in Reading National Geographic. pp. 187-216.

Mulvey, Laura. 1975. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6–18.

Portwood-Stacer, Laura. 2010. “‘Me, Only Better!’: Reality Makeover Television and PostFeminist Gender Ideology.” Race/Gender/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers. Ed. Rebecca Ann Lind. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. pp. 195–201.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dir. Marcus Nispel. Perf. Jessica Biel and Eric Balfour. New Line Productions, 2003. DVD.

 

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