Friday, April 14, 2017

Silence of the Lambs: A Transgender Girl's Thoughts

Silence of the Lambs won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Picture. It became that oddest of commodities; a pop-culture phenomenon that featured kidnapping, cannibalism, sexual taboos and serial killers. It was parodied on Rosanne, The Simpsons and Animaniacs. It was the movie that made X-Files possible and launched a thousand procedural shows like NCIS, CSI and Bones. I remember being twelve or thirteen and joking with my parents about the fact that there was a kitchen wares store in the mall called Lecter's.

Because it was R-rated and featured so much content that was not for kids, I didn't see the movie until probably 11th or 12th grade. It was a great film; creepy, violent and with lots of suspense and surprises. It became one of my favorite movies. I love watching as Agent FBI Clarice Starling unravels the clues surrounding the identity of notorious serial killer Buffalo Bill with the help of the terrifying and enigmatic Hannibal Lecter.

But this movie is in a lot of peoples favorite movie lists. What is it like watching this movie as a transgender woman? Is the serial killer Buffalo Bill transgender? Does this movie imply that there is something inherently creepy and weird about transgender people, transgender women in particular? Does it paint us as freaks, mentally ill or even killers?

Gender is one of the major themes of Silence of the Lambs. This is established in one of the earliest scenes when we see our protagonist, FBI agent-in-training Clarise Starling sharply contrasted with her male peers. Here and throughout the film she is shown from a high angle designed to show her diminutive size as well as her vulnerability and powerlessness.

This deliberate choice continues throughout the film. We constantly see Clarice as she is treated as an object, as less than her male counterparts. Even the "nice" guys like her friends at the Smithsonian entomology department hit on her. Clarice can't walk through the airport without getting checked out as a object. Hannibal Lecter's presents her with a creepy niceness. In their discussions he alternately abuses her by talking about her sexually in an uncomfortable way or treats her nicely.

We, the audience, are meant to notice how sexism impacts every part of her life, as it does for most women in our society. It's the rare film that puts this on display and invites us to feel uncomfortable along with a female character.

As the film deepens the sexism is taken to the point of extreme vulgarity. In the prison, Multiple Miggs makes degrading comments about Clarice's genitals. Later Clarice is shown to be the object of Multiple Migg's masturbatory fantasies. He even goes so far as to assault her by throwing his semen on her in a humiliating and dehumanizing attack. We see Buffalo Bill's complete misogyny in the way he strips the humanity from his victims. He even uses the object-pronoun "it" to refer to them. To him they are nothing but objects to be used in the way that he sees fit  the ultimate misogyny.

Professionally, Clarice is not treated fairly and she encounters a great deal of sexism within her workplace. Her male boss chooses her to interview Lecter, putting her in a difficult and dangerous situation, specifically because of her naivety and vulnerability. They send her in blind, using her as a tool. Her naivety and vulnerability then ultimately don't belong to her. Her emotional state is something to be used by her employer when her male superior deems it necessary.

Throughout the film, Clarice is not taken seriously by her male counterparts. Her coworkers joke about female murder victims in a dehumanizing way. When visiting a crime scene in a rural area her FBI supervisor deliberately leaves her out of key discussions, justifying this by saying the local sheriffs wouldn't take her seriously. As a woman, Clarice must struggle to be seen as a competent professional.

As a transgender woman, I deal with institutionalized sexism just like any other woman in our society. I've dealt with having sixteen year old store clerks manspain things and talk down to me like I'm naive and ignorant. I've had many guys deliver their "niceness" with a good dollop of creepiness and a threatening undercurrent. Even in my own short five months working as a woman I've encountered new situations like men attempting to take credit for my work, my ideas being questioned - things that I didn't encounter when I presented male. Every day I deal with stares in public, with being an other, and you don't have to look any further than the editorial page or a comment section to know that trans women are quite often dehumanized in our society.

But I have lived with male privilege for a great deal of my life. While I've dealt with sexism, I've also been on the giving end of sexism, both intentionally and unintentionally. Upon repeated watchings of Silence of the Lambs I really started to notice how large a role gender and sexism played throughout the movie. It helped open my male privileged eyes to the pervasiveness of sexism and how it can effect people. As a transgender woman I've had the opportunity to watch and learn what not to do, but also to watch and relate with Clarice more as a character.

Now, the greater questions is, can I, as a transgender woman relate to the character of Buffalo Bill? Otherwise known as Jame Gumb. He uses a fake cast to make himself appear weak and lures women into his van. There he incapacitates them, takes them back to his basement and keeps them in a deep well. We come to learn that he is actually killing women in order to harvest their skin so that he can sew himself a "woman suit." He longs to put on this suit so he can become a woman. Certainly he is a horrible individual, but is this person presented as transgender?

While the above plot line is developing, we watch Gumb in his free time. He's shown putting on makeup and dancing naked with his genitals tucked between his legs. Though it looks less like he's attempting to present female and more like he's doing David Lee Roth cosplay. A similar scene with a character doing naked tucking was used in the little known film Different for Girls, It seems to be a sort of visual shorthand for a character's internal transgender thoughts. I know as a trans woman I've never danced in front of the mirror with a naked tuck, but maybe I'm abnormal (let me know in the comments).

Clarice and Lecter have a conversation about Gumb's pathology and potential transgender nature. Of course this was filmed in 1990 or 1991 so the word transsexual is used rather than transgender. Transsexual was more commonly in use at that time. Below are two Hannibal Lecter quotes from that conversation:

"Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn't born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying."

"Billy's not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He's tried a lot of things I expect...I wouldn't surprised if Billy has applied for sex reassignment surgery at one or all of them, and been rejected." 

Okay, so the movie doesn't quite say that Jame Gumb is transgender, but it also leaves us with a potentially non-existent condition of "thinking you're transgender." In 1992 the current psychiatric bible was the DSM III R, which identified Gender Identity Disorder as a psycho-pathological condition with three subgroups; transsexualism, non-transexualism and other. Now, I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist but then again neither is Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris. Is this character in the 'other' category?

What exactly does it mean that Jame Gumb only "thinks he is transsexual." It's hard to say, but I think it's implied that he is an individual who is deeply broken psychologically and has decided that becoming a woman will fix his problems. You could argue that, in the movie's world, Jame Gumb is a fake transsexual, but what does a real-life audience take away from that? I would worry that someone who already thinks transgender people are freaks may find it easy to ignore the "fake transgender" diagnosis and thus allow the character to reinforce their negative attitudes of trans people.

As a transgender woman, on my first viewing of this movie, my ears of course perked up at the mention of anything having to do with gender change. In a way that sort of made the notion of changing one's gender more real. It was in a movie. Big Hollywood actors were sitting around talking about it like it was a thing that was normal and existed and was spoken about by adults. As I've aged more, come out and embraced my trans identity, my attitude has shifted sort of more toward embarrassment. Now I cringe when I see Buffalo do his little dance and I sort of shrug at the diagnoses scene and wonder if the script really needed any mention of transgender topics at all.

Does this movie need transgender topics? That's something the author and script writer didn't necessarily have to include. This isn't the real world and both Jame Gumb and the psychiatrist-cum-murder diagnosing him are fictional characters in a fictional world. Though Jame Gumb is a fictional character, he is based on real individuals like serial killers Ted Bundy and Ed Gein.

Ed Gein was a killer active in Wisconsin ("America's Serial Killer Basket") in the 1950s. He was a product killer rather than a process killer, ie, he was obsessed with human body parts rather than the act of killing. More often a grave robber than a murderer, Gein was obsessed with human body parts and kept a grim collection in his house including women's head, vulvas, nipples, face and heads. Often human remains were fashioned into wearable items; leggings and corsets made from human skin or a mask made from a woman's face.

There has been conjecture, mostly on the internet and almost if not wholly by people who neither interviewed Ed Gein nor have psychiatric degrees, that Ed Gein was transgender. For the most part this is based on his obsession with his mother "he could become his mother—to literally crawl into her skin" and the fact that he appeared to have been crafting a female skin suit for himself.

Of course, these are not things that transgender people tend to do. Ever. So, it is quite conceivable that an author or script writer could write a story about a hunt for a serial killer, even basing said serial killer on Ed Gein, without needing to involve transgender topics in any way. Pyscho is based on the same killer and avoids discussions of transgender topics, focusing instead of its own dubious psychological diagnosis of multiple personality disorder. House of 1000 Corpses is another movie based on Ed Gein that also managed to leave out any reference to transgender people.

Silence of the Lambs's authors decided to include the topic. What does the movie say about transgender people? For one, transsexualism is only discussed in the context of diagnosing serial killers. It's presented as a psychiatric condition, one that is perhaps motivated by self hatred. Yes, it does try to say that Jame Gumb is not transgender but it muddles that explanation with pseudo-psychiatry that is designed less to provide realistic information on transgender identities and more to simply drive the plot along. Now, Clarice does say one thing that sounds positive "There's no correlation in the literature between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive."

See? Trans people aren't serial killers! Honestly, I think this line must have been included late in the game after someone said "trans people might be mad if we say they're all serial killers. Let's include a line about how they're not." Yeah, so it now lumps all transgender people together and says we're "very passive." Very passive. What does that mean? Yes, it is true that transgender people are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than to perpetrate it, but that doesn't mean that no transgender people are violent lawbreakers. I'm sure some are. We are a diverse group and the only thing we really share is our gender dysphoria. 

Ultimately the reason I think that transgender topics are present in Silence of the Lambs is that they're freaky and fringe, at least to mainstream audiences in the early Nineties. They make audiences uncomfortable. In 1991 this was certainly the case. Silence of the Lambs hit a lot of taboo subjects; cannibalism, murder, dismemberment, torture, insanity. These were designed to make audiences squirm, to frighten them, to take them out of their comfort zones. And unfortunately, they lumped transgender people and gay people in there with those subjects. I'm sure it made mainstream audiences back then squirm and think they were going to a dark psychological place, but in the end it just demonizes LGBTQ people, lumps them into the weirdo category with cannibals and murders, and reinforces the idea that LGBTQ people are part of the Other.

At the beginning I said that this is one of my favorite movies. And it still is. Movies are a product of their time and in the early Nineties transgender people were barely talked about, not taken seriously and often thought up as weirdos, perverts, or worse. Sadly, the societal view bled into what is otherwise a perfectly entertaining movie with some of cinema's most compelling characters. Silence of the Lambs is a great film but I do wish they could have made a couple quick edits to excise the transgender discussions that could have been left out without affecting the plot or the characters.


  1. I personally can't take the pathologization of us in this movie. As much as I love Jodie Foster, I've grown to hate it. It even fouled my enjoyment of the excellent teevee series, Monk, through absolutely no fault of Ted Levine.

    1. Ah well, they can't all be good I guess. :)

    2. Well, it WAS a pathology then, so it makes sense. I personally love this movie. There is not a trace of transphobia in it if you pay attention to it. I've read some people complaining about the stereotype of trans people as passive whilst complaining about the portrayal of trans people as psychos, but the movie doesn't do neither of these things: Bill is not trans; Clarice says "there is no correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive...", that is not the same as saying all trans people are passive or nice. She's saying that "transsexualism" as a condition is not one that causes psychopatic or violent behavior, which in my opinion works for our benefit for breaking this misconception. As for what does that leave Bill with, as a character, what pathology does he have? I'm not sure, but as far as being transgender, he's not. Gender expression is nuanced. Today with so many new genders coming foward, we have non-binary, gender-fluid, bigender etc., it is not far-fetched that back then someone would have thought they were transgender, but were instead something else. Even today that happens. I love, love, love the film. I absolutely think it deserved the 5 Oscar wins and I know at least another trans woman that loves it too. Jodie Foster rocks.

  2. The reference to reassignment surgery and transsexualism isn't entirely redundant plot-wise. I haven't read that far in the book yet, but one of the scenes left out of the final cut (can be seen in the bonus features) had Crawford going to a hospital Lecter mentioned and inquiring the doctor about Gumb's identity. It had a similar tone to Clarice and Lecter's short discussion on the subject, so I don't think it's all that last-minute avoidance of controversy. True, the scene was deleted, but dr. John Hopkins is still referenced in the theatrical cut.

    On the other hand, I am a cis guy so I admit I might not be the best to give a verdict on whether the story really did end up relying on trans panic as a cheap shock.