Slaughterhouse Sexuality: Queering the Sawyer Family in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is undoubtedly one of the best horror films ever made, and certainly the most hotly debated and analysed film of the 70’s exploitation boom. Here, I put Tobe Hooper’s shocking masterpiece in line with Judith Butler, Marxist feminism and John Waters to discuss its queer ramifications.
Looking back retroactively at popular in the early 1970’s, it’s clear to see that something was in the water. The stage was set in large part at the end of the 1960’s, still reeling from the assassination of Kennedy, the start of the Vietnam war and the general withering of the ‘Free Love’ 60’s ethos. But nothing so succinctly encapsulated the feelings of the time more than the exploitation horror boom. Starting with late 60’s splatters such as Blood Feast and Night of the Living Dead, horror in the 70’s was very different from what came before it — unflinching, sleazy, and worryingly close to our own reality. The crowing jewel of this cultural movement was undoubtedly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — a brutal film about a group of teens being mercilessly chased, tortured and butchered by a family of cannibals living in the arid Texas outback. It is also simply the best horror film ever made.
Texas Chainsaw… is a deceptively complex film. Its grimy, snuff like aesthetic belies a wealth of social and political commentary, ranging from a critique of social disintegration in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam war, to oedipal/feminist readings and even pro-vegetarian messages. But I want to consider what relevance the film may hold for a queer audience — particulalry in how it depcits its central anatgonists, the Sawyer’s. To start, we need to understand a little more about political discussions around the family at the turn of the 1970’s.
Queer and Feminist Discourses on the Nuclear Family
The Sawyer’s dysfunctionally functional take on the nuclear family unit could not exist without falling back on tried and tired gender roles and stereotypes — the functional family unit is, above all, a heteronormative one. At the dawn of the 1970’s the nuclear family, established as the sturdy foundation of American society during its golden age, was a primary target for both second wave feminism and the burgeoning gay liberation movement, both movements drawing on the theories of Marx and Marcuse to illustrate how the family functioned as a repressive force explicitly established along the lines of gender. Marxist feminism worked through the theory of social reproduction, unveiling how patriarchy and consumer capitalism become intertwined in the divisions between man and woman in the family home. Whilst the man existed primarily within the sphere of public or manual labour, forced to work ‘in alienation’ (in the words of Marcuse) from his handiwork, the woman undertakes the unpaid labour that happens exclusively within the domestic sphere — housework, childbirth etc.
Not only did this narrative of biological determinism serve as a means of ensuring economic inequality between men and women, it also subordinated women by removing their access to paid labour, and forcing them into the role of ‘releasing’ the tension accumulated through a man’s ‘productive’ (perceived necessary) labour through sex. But the theory of social reproduction speaks not only to our relationship to the consumer capitalist state. The term ‘reproduction’ is elicited literally, as in to create a direct replica or copy — or, to put it simply, childbirth. The breeding of a new generation of children, one that can be socialized to join a continuously depleting workforce and internalise the heteropatriarchal capitalist hegemony of their parents, is the most foundational concerns of late stage capitalism. For this reason, relationships between men and women are not only explicitly informed by notions of production and gender, but also morality. Given that childbirth is a fundamental part of the process that upholds consumer capitalism, the moralistic discourse that has surrounded sexual freedom — one that only accepts monogamy and, yes, heterosexuality — finds new purpose when implicated within modes of production and capital. David Alderson has referred to this phenomenon as ‘heterosacramentalism’ — the idea that sex is only permitted, and indeed somehow redeemed, when it happens within rigidly normative homes between a man and woman, who intend to procreate. This moralistic clearance is granted because it is assumed that sexual release in this way helps to advance the birth of a new generation who will inherit the sociological beliefs on the household in which they were raised. Therefore, the man is granted the physical relief he requires after selling his labour in the industrial sphere, and the woman fulfils her duty of motherhood.
This moralistic parameter to the question of sexual autonomy and social reproduction is key when considering what all of this may have to do with Texas Chainsaw. It is significant because the gay liberation also perceived how this very specific construction of the dynamic between man and woman within the home fed into issues of class and exploitation, and therefore served as a necessary foundation for the whole consumer capitalist culture. Specifically, the early gay liberation movement perceived how this familial ideal necessitated that queer people — those who were unable to be assimilated into a man/woman binary— needed to be supressed in order for the system to function. In fact, as argued by Judith Butler, the whole system of social reproduction in many ways hinged on making homosexuality abject. Homosexuality in particular signposted that there was another way of forming tight bonds of familial support, where unpaid labour such as the dissemination of knowledge and emotional support, need not be delineated along lines of gender. Therefore, the nuclear family is not passively heteronormative but actively queer-exclusive.
The Sawyer Family
So what does this have to do with the Sawyer family? Well, the Sawyer family in many ways reflected a multitude of deep seated anxieties that dominated discussions around the nuclear family, and its place within Western social disintegration, at the turn of the 1970’s. As a muddied and bloodied prism refracting different domicile anxieties in a variety of ways, it’s inevitable that the cannibal family would in turn say something about the intersections of class and gender that characterised feminist and queer viewpoints. The Sawyer family do not represent total anarchy — they are a perverted parable for the normal, respectable American family, but this parable is only so grotesque because circumstance assures this will never happen. The horror in many ways arises from the families twisted attempts to play the part. The Sawyer family is defined by two domicile limitations: right off the bat, the Sawyer family are all men, and represent a patriarchal family structure but without a woman’s presence. They are also displaced working class, the slaughterhouse in which they worked closed and the family members made redundant. The latter is positioned as one of the key reasons why this family has turned to murder — partly for profit, but more so as a release for their violent urges that was at one time sanctioned by their occupations. This is established when the group of teens pick up The Hitchhiker (Leatherface’s brother), who gleefully shows them pictures of his work at the Slaughterhouse, and expounds upon the benefits of using a hammer to slaughter livestock.
These two factors are more intertwined than is often credited. Critics have rightly pointed out how the film comments on how the Sawyer’s class position reflects the betrayal middle America — the ‘silent majority’ — suffered at the hands of the Republican administration at the turn of the decade. Having overwhelmingly voted in Nixon — surprising the national press, tied up as they were with the liberal hubs either side of the country along the coasts — the working class of middle America were then subjected disproportionately to the fallout of industrial capitalism, and driven in greater numbers to fight in the Vietnam war, itself revealed to be an embarrassment to American patriotism. The Sawyer family are stand ins for the regular blue collar American worker, cut adrift from the social and financial support work was perceived to secure. They are essentially pushed out of the American dream, an extreme metaphor for a society which is forced to admit that its allegiance to late stage consumer capitalism is temperamental and one-sided. If capitalism is to be seen as one of the cornerstones of functioning society, to be excluded from it is to be driven into barbarism.
But the families descent into murder is emblematic of one the key tenets of Marxist thought, and one that was picked up heavily in queer theory as well. Labour in a capitalist society requires one to work ‘in alienation’ — in order to be sustained, it needs some form of release. This release, for the predominantly male workforce, comes in the form of physical release derived from sex with a woman. This is where the all-male state of the Sawyer family plays a pivotal role. A simplistic notion may be that it is the removal of work and labour that draws the Sawyer family into depravity, but in fact this is but one element. Another crucial and complementary element is that the family is all men, and therefore there is an inherent imbalance that disallows this family from operating within the capitalist hegemony. My logic works as follows: once upon a time, the Sawyer family was a semi-regular domestic unit, with a woman who presumably fulfilled the necessary social quota of undertaking the families domestic labour. The men of the family worked in the local slaughterhouse. As financially disadvantaged, working class workers at the local abattoir, the family found primary release in the inherently violent nature of their work. At some point, the only woman in the house becomes incapable of fulfilling her end of the social contract (it’s impossible to say whether she is dead or not, given how emaciated Grandpa is, but we can assume that the Grandma is at the least unable to cook, clean or conceive a child) and no more women enter the picture. Now, the families only release comes in the form of slaughter — once that is removed through redundancy, they are now completely destabilised. Cut adrift from the world of industry and labour, the family barely has a reason to exist, and without sexual release or at the least the alleviation of domestic labour that a woman is otherwise supposed to provide, they instead are driven to acts of extreme violence for release.
This imagined string of events is speculative, I grant you, but its given legitimacy by the tools Hooper uses to depict the Sawyer’s as a parody of normative domesticity. In particular, I am thinking of the ways Hooper portrays the families gender dynamics and relation to the world of consumer capitalism. The families faithful adherence to gender norms means that they are ludicrously patriarchal, heaping adoration upon ‘Grandpa’ (who is emaciated to the point of looking like a corpse) and insisting he be the one who bludgeons Sally (“Grandpa’s the best at killing”) despite his obvious inability. Leatherface’s role within the family is the most revealing of all. There is something of a running joke to the efect that, from Leatherface’s perspective, Texas Chainsaw… is a home invasion movie. Their is a single scene in which Leatherface is suggested to be more than just a cold blooded killer. After killing a third teenager that has broken into his house, he shrieks and grunts not with anger, but with obvious distress. A close up on his worried face shades Leatherface’s character in more than is somethimes credited. This one simple scene proves the twisted gender dynamics within the Sawyer household. In Texas Chainsaw…, Leatherface is the stand in for the families domestic goddess. He is, literally, coded as woman throughout the film, right down to being forced to wear a wig and makeup during the dinner scene. His brutal murders are, within the context of the families twisted logic, his domestic duty- his brutalisation and dismemberment of the teenagers comparable to any housewife preparing dinner. He is chastised for letting his younger brother run amok, suggesting that whilst his father is at work, he also provides as the families moral guidance when the father is at work. Leatherface’s domestic workload is contrasted against his almost total silence (he only speaks in grunts and howls), suggesting that though he takes on the lions share of the house’s domestic duty, he is very much subordinate to his father, not allowed a voice or opinion of his own. For Leatherface, the domestic sphere is the only one he knows. Therefore, this asexual, almost childlike man has become the family’s necerssary feminine presence, and his commitment to such a role shows how absurd the limitations of gender are within the traditional family.
A Short, Comparative Study of the Family in Two Exploitation Classics
Tobe Hooper was not the only autuer of transgression presenting a radical image of the nuclear family during the early 70’s exploitation boom. Pink Flamingos came out just 2 years before Texas Chainsaw…, and like Chainsaw its power to shock and disgust has not dimmed in the several decades since. The film follows Divine, the proclaimed ‘Filthiest Person Alive’, engaging in an escalating turf war with a couple who are trying to claim her title. Along with her vagabond family unit, Divine engages in acts of filth ranging from incest, to coprophagia — that’s eating shit — and, yes, cannibalism. The film is a bona fide queer classic, that put both director John Waters and it’s star on the cultural map. But despite its comedic tone it feels most at home in the context of 1970’s exploitation cinema. It somehow manages to fall slap bang in the middle between the scuzzy and nasty horror films of the day such as Texas Chainsaw… and The Last House on the Left, and the high-camp melodrama of Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest.
I have always believed that Pink Flamingos and Texas Chainsaw… would make a fabulous double bill, in many ways being two sides of the same coin. Both are heavy with subtext that is roundly critical of then contemporary American society and western degradation, and both push this narrative by depicting or insinuating extremely taboo acts. But it goes deeper than the shared presence of cannibalism. At the centre of both of these films, we find bizarre family units with a host of revealing similarities. Both have been pushed to the edges of society, shunned by a culture unable to accommodate their taste for violence and non-normative sexuality. It is in the way that these two films frame these families that we can see that John Waters and Tobe Hooper were taking aim at the institution of the traditional American nuclear family, albeit from different angles. The central family of Divine, Cotton, Crackers, and Edie the Egg Lady are blissfully at peace with their chosen path in life, happy to be ostracised from a society that is unable to contain their radical behaviour. By contrast, the Sawyers in Texas Chainsaw are completely debased by their position, victims of an uncaring and unsupportive society and driven to acts of barbarism after being disconnected from the broader social contract. Consider how Divine’s troupe only turn to violence when their family unit is under direct threat, whereas members of the Sawyer family seek out violence and in fact, literally, make money out of it at Papa Sawyer’s gas station, which serves human meat. The only contradiction to this is Leatherface, specifically the single shot we see of him in a worried panic as teenagers keep breaking into his home. This is where the films subtle use of parody helps make a broader statement about the family unit as a whole.
The family in Texas Chainsaw are not just a family unit, but they are a grotesque parody of the nuclear family, depicted as striving to attain something that mirrors traditional family values even when they will always fall short of the mark. Papa Sawyer runs a business that casts him as the breadwinner or ‘masculine’ father figure. Drayton Sawyer is the difficult teenager, and Leatherface, most crucially of all, is the matriarch — the homeowner, the cook, the domestic goddess. The pivotal dinner scene in the film resembles a monstrous recreation of the well known painting by Norman Rockwell, depicting an idyllic thanksgiving dinner. Though it is indeed hilarious to consider that, from Leatherface’s perspective, Texas Chainsaw… is a home invasion movie, the joke does reveal something crucial about the film’s political commentary. By parodying these trappings of the conventional American family, Tobe Hooper is not only jabbing in the ribs of mid-20th century American patriotism, but is also perhaps inadvertently revealing the façade that is heteronormative domesticity. The Sawyers desperately want to be a normal American family, and they are houseproud and self-sufficient as the American dream would stipulate. But in attempting to cling to some semblance of respectability, the Sawyers in fact drive themselves deeper into social abjection. Compare this to the central family in Pink Flamingos — who make no such attempt to adhere to the rules, by sporting a proud matriarch and stealing what the need rather than working for it — and we can see just how pessimistic views had become of the honest, hard-working, capitalistic American family in the early 1970’s. The Pink Flamingos clan are a thoroughly queer family — not just in terms of their varying degrees of non-normative sexuality, but in their relation to the consumer and capital driven society that has excluded them. By comparison, and rather surprisingly, the Sawyers are a family desperately trying to stay on the ‘straight’ path, though their attempts are akin to staying on a straight road without a steering wheel in a snowstorm.
A comparison between Pink Flamingos and Texas Chainsaw… is vital to show just how in sync the latter film is with radical queer thought at the time. Perhaps the films most transgressive act is not in its brutal murders or grimy aestehtic, but in its unflicnhing portryal of a social disintergration that results from adhering to a hegemony, rather than rejecting it. If queer means to turn away from the expected path, then yes, in many ways, the Sawyer’s are very straight. Perhaps they are trying to adhere to some sort of normalcy, and geneuinley believe that they have found some sort of twisted morality. Perhaps, they are bucking against the system in their own conformist sort of way. Cannibalism is, after all, the natural endpoint of a consumer capital culture that possesses and destroys bodies for self-sustainability. In any case, the Sawyer’s position is sealed because they are unable to make a realisation that Divine’s family have already accepted — that being, if the system pushes you out, you can find a greater sense of freedom from breaking from it entirely. And you can do it without eating teenagers.
In this deep-dive exploration I have attempted to put The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in alignment with queer and feminist theory, as well as contemporameous queer culture. Though I am not the first person to attempt this, by any stretch (Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws uses both Texas Chainsaw… and its sequel as a cornerstone), bringing the film into contact with previously unexplored avenues of theory have expanded my love for this film tenfold. Again, it is a deceptively simple film — on the surface, a film that is concerned with raw brutality and atmosphere above critical insight. But much like a cleaver splitting through flesh and muscle, Texas Chainsaw… cuts to the heart of societies disconnects with tremendous force. Horror, at its best, says something fundamental about our collective fears. By considering what the film may say about that foundational aspect of western civilisation — the family — we can say with confidence that Tobe Hooper managed to reflect something that is embodied knowledge for queer people, and something that the rest of the world desperately needs to realise before it is too late.
Men, Women and Chainsaws — Carol Clover (1992)
Sex, Needs and Queer Culture — David Alderson (2016)
Merely Cultural — Judith Butler (1997)
Come Together: The Early Years of the Gay LIberation Movement 1970–1973 (1980)
Dead Meat Podcast, episode #53 ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (2019)