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.

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