Trans (mis)representation in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

2016 marks 25 years since the release of Jonathan Demme’s horror classic, The Silence of the Lambs. The film follows FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), on the hunt for a dangerous murderer with the help of psychiatrist-turned-convicted serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), famously offering his expertise from behind glass. At the 1992 Academy Awards, Silence became only the third film in history to win in the five ‘biggest’ categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Leading Actress, Leading Actor, and Best (Adapted) Screenplay. Only It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) can boast the same impressive CV, which shows the significance of Silence’s critical success. I loved the film for lots of reasons: it stars an endearing but formidable leading female, it was released the year I was born, and, most importantly, I’m a big fan of both horror films and statistics, so a scary record breaker was bound to grab my attention. However, since my university studies are especially interested in gender (and more specifically, transgender) representations on screen, my love for Silence has changed.

With Lecter’s guidance, Clarice tracks down Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb (Ted Levine) who, *spoiler alert*, has chosen their victims in order to make a ‘woman suit’ out of their skin. Jame’s gender-crossing becomes linked to their sociopathic and murderous tendencies, and despite many attempts to downplay the transgender issue in Silence, quite frankly I think it’s important to discuss. In a 2014 interview, Demme was asked to respond to the criticisms that his film was both anti-gay (Bill is revealed to have a male lover in the film) and transphobic. He explained: “My directorial failing in making The Silence of the Lambs [was that] I didn’t find ways to emphasise the fact that Gumb wasn’t gay.” He continued to say that years of abuse resulted in Bill’s self-loathing, and “[t]he idea is that by turning himself into a female, then surely Gumb can feel like he has escaped himself.”

To me, this explanation is problematic, because to the majority of contemporary (and indeed modern) viewers who are used to a binary system of gender and sexuality, Bill is a queer character, one who suffers the classic queer fate of a violent death. As well as this, whether or not Demme believes Bill is transgender, a gender crossing still takes place, but instead of being treated respectfully or insightfully, setting a positive precedent for the future of trans representation in film, Bill’s ‘condition’ is pathologised. Lecter himself tells Clarice that “Billy is not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is, he tries to be,” but surely believing you are transgender means that you are. Surely a regulatory system, one which is referenced in Silence, and with which Lecter was formally involved, sorting the ‘real’ transgender people from the sexually motivated deviants is as outdated as it is dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that transgender visibility has come a long way since 1991, and trans representation on film is slowly improving (Tangerine, anyone?). My point is that we must interrogate the way films have contributed to a transphobic discourse in the past, accidentally or otherwise. Many people justify the characterisation of Bill in Silence by mentioning Ed Gein, the real life body snatcher who served as inspiration. My response would be that Gein also inspired Norman Bates in Psycho, and 31 years later, Silence didn’t add an awful lot to the equation. Instead, arguably the second most famous screen gender crossing was equally as horrifying as the first.

Lecter is renowned as one of the most disturbing characters to be on our screens. For me, he speaks his most disturbing words to Clarice, in saying: “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him transsexual but his pathology is a thousand times more savage, more terrifying.” After all, what could possibly be more terrifying than a transsexual?!

My answer: ignorance.

2 thoughts on “Trans (mis)representation in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

  1. “but surely believing you are transgender means that you are” is much a much more ignorant sentence than anything in Silence. being transgender doesn’t mean you want to be a woman, it means you *are* a woman on the inside. i agree that this movie could easily be misunderstood and have a negative impact on societal views of trans women, but the movie itself is not a problem. if anything, the problem lies in the lack of actual trans representation in movies that could counteract harmful views.

    could buffalo bill be trans? some could view the character as having dysphoric traits, however the author has clearly stated that that was not his intention, and what better source than the creator of the story? the intention of the book and movie wasn’t trying to say that all trans people weren’t legitimate, but rather to point out the disturbing effects of abuse on the psyche as well as how the human brain is a complicated artifact that we can barely begin to crack the surface of. in reality, some people are trans, while some people think they are as a way to cope with some form of trauma or repressed self hatred. issues like that aren’t really tied to the trans community at all, and are completely different psychological scenarios. it is not transphobic to say that it is possible to be misdiagnosed as transgender , just like anything else. the movie is not trying to say that trans women are men, but rather that Hannibal Lecter was such a sadistic therapist that he purposefully made a man think that he was meant to be a woman.

  2. I quote from the article: “Bill is a queer character, one who suffers the classic queer fate of a violent death. As well as this, whether or not Demme believes Bill is transgender, a gender crossing still takes place, but instead of being treated respectfully or insightfully, setting a positive precedent for the future of trans representation in film”
    First, I do believe that Demme did not have to justify anything. “The Silence of the Lambs” is a great film not because it advances X, Y, or Z agenda, but because its cinematography, plot, performances, use of suspense, narrative, etc.
    Secondly, it seems to me that some people want to impose an agenda on filmmakers. Buffalo Bill is represented as the criminal that he is. He is not a criminal because he is a transgender person, but he is a criminal; he is a very complex mind. Also Clarice and Lecter are very complex characters. This is something that really matters in a good film: the creation of characters that are not flat.
    If I strongly oppose ultra conservative censorship, I also oppose ultra liberal censorship that urges filmmakers to follow a new pattern: “to set a positive precedent for the future trans representation in film.” Films are not pamphlets. Creators need freedom. Otherwise we’ll end up having censorship committees like the ones we saw in Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain or Joseph Stalin’s communist URSS. Marc Chagall and Igor Stravinsky left the Soviet Union because they were obliged to produce pieces of art aligned with an agenda. Luis Buñuel left Spain and moved to Mexico in order to have the freedom he needed to be the filmmaker that he was. Censorship impose a sort of exile whether artists physically leave their countries or not. If a filmmaker wants to make a movie depicting trans characters in a positive light within a happy-ending story, that director should do it based on freedom and, hopefully, thinking of the artistic instead of merely an specific agenda. This is what differentiates a work of art from a pamphlet, what ever idea the pamphlet is about.

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