‘The law of the fucking jungle’1: the objectification of women and animals in Michel Faber’s Under the skin and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas chain saw massacre
Exhibiting the patriarchal linguistic displacement through which women and nonhuman animals are objectified, Carol Adams’ notion of the ‘absent referent’, central to her work The sexual politics of meat, serves to exemplify the inextricable link between speciesism and gender inequality. Adams’ feminist-vegetarian critical theory articulates that animals, like women, are made absent through gastronomic language that ‘renames dead bodies before consumers participate in eating them’: within this process, the slaughter of the dead animal is dissociated from the idea of meat.2 Drawing upon the misogynistic animalisation and brutalisation of women inherent within the history of the horror film and its ‘slasher’ subgenre, I will apply Adams’ structure to Hooper’s The Texas chain saw massacre to expose how this shared female-animal ‘logic of domination’ converges literally in the cannibalistic procurement and consumption of Pam.3 Complicating Adams’ theory, however, an interrogation of protagonist Isserley, an extraterrestrial ‘woman’ who is paradoxically both sexual predator and sexualised prey in Faber’s Under the skin, will demonstrate that ‘woman’ and ‘animal’ are not dichotomous states of being: Adams insists upon an ‘essentialist variety of radical feminism’ which fails to recognise the irreducible differences between these beings.4 While Adams’ theory offers a useful framework for tracing patterns of animal and female subjugation in Western culture then, it is the androcentric assumption inherent within Adams’ theory, that woman and animal can be ontologised, that is responsible for their mutual oppressions. Blurring the boundaries between woman and animal, Hooper insists upon the eroticised victimisation of women that has become ‘synonymous with the slasher film’, in a physical representation of the mystification of meat inherent within Adams’ theory.5 For Adams, the physical process of butchering an animal is metaphorised verbally through language of objectification and fragmentation, and it is precisely this metaphor that is literalised in The Texas chain saw massacre, through the slaughtering process of Pam. On approaching the Texan family home of cannibals ‘the Sawyers’, Hooper invites his viewer to participate in the voyeuristic male gaze of barely-clothed Pam: the camera pans up her exposed body before zooming out and stalking her from behind; the low-angle shot transfixing predatorily on her naked flesh.6 Drawing attention to the meatiness of her form, this immediate fetishisation of Pam’s flesh as both sexual and edible, coerces the viewer into assuming the place of the masculinised omniscient narrator, perpetuating the active male gaze which ‘sees not the fragmented flesh of dead animals but appetizing food’.7 John Berger, in his work About looking, asserts that ‘animals are always observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance’.8 In this, Berger demonstrates the way in which animals, like women, are repeatedly subjected to the oppressive virile gaze enacted by Hooper, which regards them as meat and denies them perspective. Stumbling into the lair of her sadomasochistic torturer, Pam falls through a door to find herself in a bed of decomposing animal bones and bird feathers; the non-diegetic sound of a chicken clucking infiltrating the scene. Before looking up from the floor to reveal the skeletal remains of both humans and animals (now transformed into furniture), Hooper juxtaposes close-up shots of Pam’s nauseated expression with that of a caged chicken hanging from the ceiling.9 The significance of the chicken, intensified by its clucking, the feathers and its constant intercuts, is made unavoidable as the camera shot zooms in and its entrapped form fills the frame, serving as a condemning reminder of the incessant dissociative language that effaces the reality of slaughter: in forcing images of skeleton, woman and animal into proximity, Hooper emphasises the linkage between live animal and dead corpse. Likewise, the interspersed close-ups of Pam’s face in this sequence demonstrate the way in which women are implicated in this dissociative process: women are objectified sexually through absenting language of consumption. The way this linguistic relationship between woman and meat manifests in patriarchal culture is examined by Alleen Pace Nilsen, who articulates how chickens have become intrinsic signifiers for the various stages of female livelihood: ‘a young girl is a chick. […] Eventually she has her brood, begins to henpeck her husband, and finally turns into an old biddy.’10 In this, Nilsen depicts the sexist absenting of women integral to the absent referent, and the fact that the chicken sharing the room with Pam in the film is not the source of the clucking when she enters the scene, indicates that this making-absent is universal: the sound denotes that of the collective animal who is, like the chicken in the room, imprisoned, de-feathered or skinned, murdered and renamed. Hooper’s recurrent motif of the entrapped chicken also provides an explicit critique of the intensification of industrialised animal farming from the nineteen-sixties, particularly within the predominantly agricultural state of Texas. In this way, the chicken’s barred cage, barely large enough to contain it and hung up in physical objectification, not only is illustrative of its entrapment within this linguistic system of oppression, but of Hooper’s contempt for such maltreatment also. Forcing Pam and viewer alike to confront the murder and suffering of animals, Hooper continues his feminist-vegetarian strand through the image of Pam-as-animal, making present the transmuted fate of the animal within the concept of meat. Failing to escape the Sawyers’ home, Pam is carried by Leatherface into a processing room; the camera shifting in perspective to observe the scene from behind a bloody meat hook, bringing slaughter, as that which is obscured in the absent referent, to the forefront.11 Zooming out to reveal the bloody reality of animal slaughter, Hooper’s camera jumps again to reveal the slaughterhouse apparatus in full: blood splatters the walls, evoking the murder of those before Pam. Finally, after lifting Pam onto the meat hook, Leatherface tosses a fork into the sink and starts his chainsaw, the camera honing in on the bucket collecting her blood before panning up her writhing body.12 Refusing to censor the reality of the slaughter process this way, Hooper reverses the absent referent, making explicit the cruel hanging of animals, sometimes still conscious and left to die in severe distress. In her essay ‘Gender in the slasher film’, Carol J. Clover states that ‘the slasher evinces a fascination with flesh or meat itself as that which is hidden from view’, and it is the concealment of meat as emblematic of the workings of the absent referent, that Hooper works to expose throughout the film.13 The indifference with which Leatherface impales Pam on the hook before walking away, evident within the juxtaposed shots of her tormented cries and Leatherface’s fork, reflects the ignorance inherent within the absent referent process: as consumers of the ‘meat’ of the animal Pam substitutes, we dissociate from the animal and deny acknowledgement of its painful death to extricate moral obligation for their murder. As Derrida states, ‘carnivorous sacrifice is essential to the structure of subjectivity’ and so shapes the ‘basis of our culture and law’, and this law is made tangible in the image of Pam as sexualised meat:14 Pam conforms to Adams’ notion that ‘the object’s own intrinsic subjectivity is irrelevant’.15 While Pam is objectified as a piece of meat in the most extreme sense, she is equally made into a sexual object: penetrated by the phallic hook, she is held up on display to be looked at, rendered helpless. In this sexual objectification, Pam undergoes a metaphorical consumption, identified by Adams as ‘the fulfilment of oppression, the annihilation of will, of separate identity’.16 Like the imprisoned chicken, Pam is physically restrained at the mercy of her killer and at the expense of her subjectivity, the close-up shots of her gasping face not only depicting her pain and vulnerability but, disturbingly, resembling orgasmic release. In this way, the secretion of blood trickling down her bare legs into the bucket beneath not only is expressive of the way in which the blood of animals is left to drain from their bodies, but also emulates a post-intercoursal state, particularly in parallel with Pam’s agonised convulsions.17 This sexualised torturing of Pam, objectifying her as both edible and sexual, is symptomatic of the slasher’s propagation of prolonged and extreme graphic violence against women: the males in the film are murdered quickly and without sustained suffering, while the females endure the most sadistic deaths. Such ultimate interpenetration of butchering and sexual violence then exerts the ‘extremely specific, assaultive ways in which “meat” is used to refer to women’ through language.18 In adherence with the basic premise of Adams’ theory, that women and nonhuman animals are indeed objectified through patriarchal language displacement, Faber exposes the misogynistic objectification of Isserley’s body through the lens of her male hitchhikers in the first half of Under the skin. Initially establishing a reversed animal-human binary, Faber facilitates a linguistic inversion with which new meaning is ascribed to the human; intensively farmed ‘vodsels’ taking the place of animals. Without exception, Isserley’s breasts are appraised by every vodsel who enters her car, expressing her body in terms of its utility as an object for sexual consumption: ‘Her tits would dangle between his legs. He’d give them a bit of a squeeze if she did a good job. She’d do her best, he could tell. Breathing hard already she was, like a bitch in heat’.19 Before raping Isserley, this hitcher ontologises her solely as an instrument, valuable only as a means to sexual gratification. The use of ‘tits’ reduces Isserley to an object and negates her selfhood, while in referring to her as a ‘bitch’ he both elicits the kind of abusive language used against women and pertains to Isserley as equally-brutalised animal. This ‘law’ of the jungle then, the ‘force of nature’ authorising the hitcher to objectify Isserley without moral consideration, discerns the patriarchal law with which women and animals are rendered absent as subjects.20 Not only is Isserley figuratively dismembered this way, but the gruesome reality of her body modification, transforming her from human (animal) to vodsel (woman), signifies her physical mutilation. Modelled on a glamour model from a pornographic magazine, Isserley is disfigured so that she can be objectified by male vodsels and lure them into her predatory snare. Akin to the physical dismemberment of animals in the farming industry, Isserley endures the removal of her tail and sixth finger, the insertion of a metal rod in her spine, and the replacement of her teats: ‘Her real teats, budding naturally from her abdomen, had been surgically removed [...] The surgeons had used pictures from a magazine sent by Esswis as a guide’.21 Through the painful destruction of Isserley’s former anatomy and subsequent disintegration of her identity, Faber simulates the butchering of animals eclipsed in the linguistic invention and consumption of ‘meat’. Bringing Isserley’s now ‘puffy’ breasts into focus, Faber emphasises the incongruence between her former teats, as emblems of fertility, and her now bulging ‘tumours’.22 The fact that Isserley’s breasts are so painfully and artificially inflated serves to condemn the patriarchal fetishisation of women’s bodies, their synthetic quality rendering them empty signifiers, reduced to objects for sexual gratification: her breasts, which have no biological function, signify both her sexual and reproductive marginalisation. This total marginalisation of Isserley is further realised as we learn of her removed genitals, which deny her fulfilment of instinctual sexual compulsions and an inherent procreative purpose: ‘Only when she realised that some of her fingers had strayed between her legs, searching blindly for what was no longer to be found there, did she come back to her senses and rinse herself with businesslike efficiency.’23 The disparity between Isserley’s ‘blind’ attempt to retrieve her sexuality and the ‘businesslike efficiency’ with which she manages the trauma of her marginalisation emphasises her irreversible transition into object status: stripped of humanity, she is the literal embodiment of male fantasy, surgically constructed to be objectified by another male species. Drawing a comparison between Isserley and Medusa, Ara Osterweil states that while Isserley is predator in Under the skin, like Medusa, her power is ‘stolen and used to annihilate her’.24 Corresponding with Freud’s notion that ‘anatomy is destiny’ then, this annihilation of Isserley’s subjectivity is made inevitable within the novel by the male vodsels who view her as inherently usable for sex.25 Reproducing this predatory male gaze onto her hitchers however, the male vodsels become the recipient of Isserley’s sexual objectification in a subversion of conventional patriarchal power relations, exposing the internal workings of the absent referent. From the novel’s sexualised opening, Isserley replicates the dominant patriarchal gaze which views ‘the sexually desired object as consumable’26: ‘She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were of no use to her’.27 Evoking sexual and carnivorous appetites through Isserley’s explicit language of objectification, Faber evinces the linkage between sex and violence symptomatic of the absent referent. This imbrication of the discourse of predation and seduction, of the erotic and the predatory, verbally converges the consumption of sex and that of meat, absenting the vodsels from their living bodies. As the unanticipated female source of such a gaze, Dillon writes that we ‘interpret Isserley’s intentions towards her targets as sexual, rather than sinister’, yet Faber exploits and redirects this attention upon sexuality toward the vodsels as an edible species, making blatant that she is concerned only with males of a particular, meaty, calibre.28 That said, Faber’s use of ‘hunk’ refers not only to the muscular body of a sexually attractive man, but to an actual piece of meat, just as Isserley’s disinterest in ‘Puny, scrawny specimens’ not only implies a sexual desire for a man who is physically well-endowed, but according to zoological terminology, is used to appraise the body of the animal. In this, Faber depicts the language displacement that, while functioning through the objectification of male vodsels here, is enacted against women and animals. Adams contends that animals are ‘rendered being-less […] by innocuous phrases such as “food-producing unit”’, and Faber’s detailing of ‘vodissin’, which is ‘neatly parcelled into portions, swathed in transparent viscose, packed into plastic pallets’ deploys such phrases to exemplify this displacement.29 Here, Faber addresses meat as a separate entity to the living vodsels themselves, substituting the dead vodsel for mystified vodissin, while references to synthetic materials ‘viscose’ and ‘plastic’ demonstrate the laboured displacement process, mirroring that of transforming animals into edible commodities, the use of ‘swathed’ marking an attempt to make meat unrecognisable. The incessancy of Faber’s plosive alliteration likewise exposes the perpetual ignorance with which we package dead animals without daring to conceive of their deaths. Corresponding with Adams’ claim that ‘we opt for less disquieting referent points not only by changing names from animals to meat, but by cooking, seasoning, and covering the animals with sauces, disguising their original nature’ then, demonstrates that by wrapping the meat up, we conceal the ugly truth of its death, absenting the blood and torture of the slaughter made explicit by Hooper.30 However, Faber problematizes Adams’ structure in the latter half of his novel, through the gradual breaking down of speciesist assumptions which determine Isserley’s selfhood, as that which is separate from the vodsels she hunts. After watching, ‘disturbed’, as a desperate vodsel engraves ‘M E R C Y’ into the soil of his pen, Isserley becomes obsessed with exerting herself in opposition with the vodsels to prevent the ethical problematics of being more closely associated with their species than she realised.31 In an attempt to convince herself of their precarious division, she protests that vodsels ‘couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t menishtil, they had no concept of slan’.32 Condemning the ‘no language, no subjectivity’ formula identified by Wolfe, Faber establishes the arbitrary nature of Isserley’s species exceptionalism, via the importance she places upon the possession of fictional concepts.33 In justifying her superiority through a mastery of a language rendered incomprehensible to the reader then, Isserley inadvertently violates this linguistic barrier she so desperately erects. Referring to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Dillon insists that in this frenzied attempt to define herself in opposition with vodsels, Isserley undergoes a ‘becoming-animal’ transformation so that her identity is defined ‘in relationality with the other and not in opposition to it’.34 This becoming-animal through language marks the dismantling of Isserley’s humanness, and determines her eventual suicide, as she realises she no longer fits within her self-ontologised view of herself as ‘human’ or, indeed, ‘woman’. That said, following her car accident at the close of the novel, Isserley refers to the female vodsel who comes to her aid as ‘the other woman’, who wraps her up ‘in the anorak, gently tucking it around her shoulders’.35 Here, Isserley overtly evidences her becoming-animal, as she not only affords this female vodsel human status in acknowledgement of her personhood, but in bearing the anorak used previously to disguise incapacitated hitchers, aligns herself with those vodsels she hunted. Implicit in Adams’ methodology is a prototyped model of woman, a ‘categorically conceived and universalized woman’, yet through Isserley’s becoming-animal Faber articulates that woman and vodsel, like human and nonhuman animal, are not dichotomous conditions.36 As Malatino writes, the absent referent works ‘within a logic of presence and absence, a dialectic of full being and mere matter that ties a categorically conceived and universalized ‘woman’ to the non-human animal’.37 In other words, it is precisely because woman and animal are conceived of as general singulars that they are oppressed in Western culture. As Judith Butler writes, ‘it seems crucial to resist the model of power that would set up racism and misogyny and homophobia as parallel or analogous relations’ because such a model ‘delays the important work of thinking through the ways in which these vectors of power require and deploy each other for the purpose of their own articulation’.38 Speciesism, like sexism, can be assimilated neither to notions of ‘the woman’ nor of ‘the animal’, as this understanding of being is reductive: in order to apprehend and respond to the objectification of woman and animal, any theory necessarily has to problematize the division between these subjects. Adams’ formula, then, is ultimately one of simplicity. As demonstrated through Hooper’s slasher and the beginnings of Faber’s discourse of species, woman and animal equally succumb to a similar patriarchal objectification through language. Yet, as Faber validates through Isserley’s inevitable suicide, this acknowledgement is not enough to radically alter the othering of woman and animal, because it refuses to challenge the ontological assumptions which inherently deny these beings’ subjectivity. Prescribing a reconstitution of the language underpinning the ‘binary opposition between the human and the infra-human’ in his interview ‘Eating Well’, Derrida states: ‘These possibilities or necessities, without which there would be no language, are themselves not only human.’39 In order for animals, like women, to be conceived of as subjects then, we must re-inscribe language as Faber does in Under the skin: rather than assigning woman and animal stable ontologies, we must consider ‘scientific knowledge about the complexity of “animal languages”’ to avert their dual subjugations.40
1 Michel Faber, Under the skin (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2000), 35. 2 Carol Adams, The sexual politics of meat: a feminist-vegetarian critical theory (New York: Continuum, 2004), 51. 3 Karen Warren, ‘The power and promise of ecological feminism’, Environmental Ethics 12 (1990), 123. 4 Hilary Malatino, ‘ Carnophallogocentrism and The sexual politics of meat: review of the twentieth anniversary reissue of Carol J Adams’ The sexual politics of meat ’, Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9, 3 (2011), 129. 5 Andrew Welsh, ‘On the perils of living dangerously in the slasher horror film: gender differences in the association between sexual activity and survival’, Sex Roles 62, 11 (2010), 732. 6 Tobe Hooper, The Texas chain saw massacre, ed. by Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson (Vortex, 1974), 38–40. 7 Adams, Sexual politics of meat, 178. 8 John Berger, About looking (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), 14. 9 Hooper. 10 Carol Adams, Animals and women: feminist theoretical explanations, ed. by Carol J Adams and Josephine Donovan (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995), 12. 11 Hooper. 12 Ibid . 13 Carol J Clover, ‘Her body, himself: gender in the slasher film’, Representations 20 (1987), 198. 14 Cary Wolfe, ‘Subject to sacrifice: ideology, psychoanalysis, and the discourse of species in Jonathan Demme’s The silence of the lambs’, animal rites: American culture, the discourse of species and posthumanist theory (London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 100. 15 Carol Adams, Neither man nor beast: feminism and the defence of animals (New York: Continuum, 1995), 41. 16 Adams, Sexual politics of meat, 58. 17 Hooper, The Texas chain saw massacre . 18 Adams, 70. 19 Faber, 35. 20 Ibid . 21 Ibid., 178. 22 Ibid., 177. 23 Ibid., 148. 24 Ara Osterweil, ‘Under the skin: the perils of becoming female’, Female Quarterly 67, 4 (2014), 48. 25 Wolfe, ‘Subject to sacrifice’, 46. 26 Adams, Sexual politics of meat, 60. 27 Faber, 35. 28 Sarah Dillon, ‘“It’s a question of words, therefore”: becominganimal in Michel Faber’s Under the skin’, Science Fiction Studies 38 No. 1 (2011), 151. 29 Adams, Sexual politics of meat, 27. 30 Ibid., 59. 31 Faber, 171. 32 Ibid., 174. 33 Cary Wolfe, Zoontologies: the question of the animal (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), xvi. 34 Dillon, ‘It’s a question of words, therefore’, 146. 35 Faber, 294–5. 36 Malatino, ‘Review of The sexual politics of meat’, 133. 37 Ibid., 133. 38 Judith Butler, quoted in ‘Subject to sacrifice’, 99. 39 Jacques Derrida, ‘Eating well’, Points…interviews, 1974–1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber (Standford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 285. 40 Ibid ., 285.