The Lambs Still Scream: Reanalyzing SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Thirty years have passed since moviegoers experienced the thrilling story of rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling’s triumph over the murderous Buffalo Bill. With the pearl anniversary of Silence of the Lambs, the new crime show Clarice will continue following Agent Starling’s career but with it comes a lot of baggage, both new and old. Buffalo Bill (real name Jame Gumb) has been prominently seen lurking in the promotion for the series and exhuming that corpse has released all of the rot and stink to the open air where it is just as foul as it was in 1991.
Make no misunderstanding: Clarice herself is a very strong, important character and Silence of the Lambs itself is masterfully made. However, a lot has changed since the early ‘90s and we as a society need to graduate past characters like her. Yes, she followed her intuition and succeeded, in spite of all of her condescending, sexualizing male colleagues. She even proved to be better than them by solving the case before graduating from the FBI academy— but that is exactly why we should not be rooting for a character like her in this day and age. Clarice is a cog in a very destructive machine and even if she is a queer coded woman, she is still a bastard because ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS.
I realize how instantly incendiary it is to call a strong, generation-defining female lead like Clarice Starling a “bastard,” but I will not be humoring any variation of the “not all cops are bad” hot take.
The Black Lives Matter protests demanding police reform picked up steam once again throughout 2020 and though the Silence of the Lambs/Clarice continuity is set 30 years prior, this is not a new problem. For context “Fuck The Police” by N.W.A. came out in 1988. Marginalized people have never had a good relationship with law enforcement, myself included, so I can’t say that it thrills me to see the continued championing of a cop whose reputation was made by killing a trans woman.
“bUt bUfFALo bIll iSn’T tRans! hAnnIbal leCtoR sAId so!”
I won’t spend time arguing why Jame Gumb is, in fact, trans because a gloves-off brawl against a brick wall will only hurt me. When looking at the immeasurable damage done to the trans community by the reputation of this character, it quite frankly, does not matter if Buffalo Bill is trans. Quid pro quo. If it is possible to entertain that the trans panic this character was written to capitalize on is able to be casually dismissed as “poorly aged” then we also must acknowledge that the psychological analysis of said character, by rulings and methods for who is actually considered trans, is also poorly aged, even for 1991.
Absolving this film of its negative impact by defending an outdated diagnosis – made by the cis Dr. Lecter, a character written by cis people, who is a habitual liar and operatesd largely off of assumptions – is ignorant at best and malicious at worst. In the court of public opinion, Jame Gumb is trans and that has shaped how many in the general public perceive those who wish to transition. It might be unintentional from the writers, director, and actors involved, but their narrative had real-world consequences that I don’t feel are matched by any other single example of trans representation— real or fiction.
I was first exposed to the infamy of Buffalo Bill by my parents and our neighbors as they made jokes about a trans woman who lived down the street when I was little. I never met or even saw her, but there was never a shortage of jokes and references made towards “shim” (as she was referred to) that I only fully understood after seeing Silence of the Lambs in my teens. I do not know what it is like to live in a world without this movie and it casts a long shadow; even more as someone who is intimately familiar with many small Ohio towns, like where Bill’s house of horrors resides.
At its base level, this is a story of Clarice Starling vs. Buffalo Bill. But long before the start of this film and all the way through its final confrontation, this is about Jame Gumb against the world. Short of the climax of the film, Jame is completely removed from the rest of the characters and story. They live in their dilapidated house carrying out their demented tasks while being completely unaware of the characters we follow for the rest of the movie. They exist, removed from character interactions and society, because they were put there.
In most circles, trans people are social pariahs. I have personally seen and experienced this, even within the LGBTQ+ community as gay men and lesbians have made claims that they could get more rights and acceptance from straight people if trans people weren’t included. Sentiments like “It’s not even a sexuality. Why are they here?” echoing before and in the decades since Silence of the Lambs was released.
I can’t help but see the irony of Clarice and Lecter, two characters that are heavily implied to be queer themselves, being set against Jame. Lecter selfishly wants better, classier accommodations and Clarice is trying to fit in with straight, male cops.
Dr. Lecter might be wrong about Bill not being trans but he is definitely right about them being made. Severely traumatized as a child, failed by the medical community, and left to fend for themself for their entire life, Jame Gumb is a product of a system that has punished and discarded them to the point where even their community wants nothing to do with them. Honestly, I hate that I have to defend their inclusion in the trans community because of who they are and the fear-mongering scapegoat they have been used as.
One of the saddest things about this though is that in a better system, and under different circumstances, Clarice Starling would have been the perfect person to help Jame. Clarice has proven that she is intuitive, empathetic, smart, and in a reformed police force with social-emotional training, she could have actually helped Jame without killing them. But that isn’t the kind of agent she was trained to be and that wasn’t the story being told here. I can’t imagine yet another prestige, crime drama show is going to do that either.
Now that these huge moral barriers have arisen over the decades and stand in the way of rooting for our hero and against vilifying our killer, how am I supposed to be emotionally invested in this story? Silence of the Lambs isn’t intentionally writing characters to be complex like this, it is just an archaic mess. If you are able to put on your They Live sunglasses and still enjoy Clarice’s journey in the context it was created, then you do your thing, but I can’t do the same.
My wife and I just moved from Ohio to California. Much of this article has been written from roadside hotels throughout a huge section of the country still defiantly putting up signs and flying flags proclaiming Trump as president. We had to drive through thousands of miles of people who were either directly or tangentially influenced by what they saw in Silence of the Lambs. Maybe I’m projecting my expectations because I have no way of proving this specific statement about these very Republican states, but what I have been taught by Silence of the Lambs is to be cynical.
Being a very out and vocal individual within the trans community, I am regularly asked for my opinion on all sorts of trans depictions in media. I get it. Fans need to have the go-ahead to help quell their moral struggles with liking any film, show, etc., so they can keep enjoying the thing they love. There are definitely fans, especially in the horror community, that appreciate how skillfully put together Silence of the Lambs is as a film first while still accepting the damage that comes. As a film analyst, I can rationally understand that but on a purely emotional level…fuck this movie. Fuck it for every single time I have personally been fucked over by it.
Recently, I was asked to guest on a high-profile horror podcast to discuss this film. For several days before and after recording the episode, I was left in an emotional wasteland. I underestimated how emotionally raw this film and my experiences around it would leave me that I mentally disassociated less than halfway into the two-hour episode and had to ask the hosts not to air it. There is no film that leaves me feeling worse than Silence of the Lambs and it is elevated because of how I have been treated as a result of it.
Jonathan Demme’s directing, the performance of the cast, and the widespread introduction to a character as fascinating as Hannibal Lecter all shine, even after 30 years. But the real dark figure that I’m trapped in a pitch-black basement with is every experience I’ve had where people compare me to Buffalo Bill, snicker as they’ve asked me if “I’d fuck me so hard”, or generally see me as some sort of threat directly because of this film.
Unlike similarly complicated films with troubled trans representation, this can’t be relegated to niche, schlock status. Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards, went on to be one of the most critically praised films of the decade, and has transcendental status even outside of film. It is not ignorable and what makes it so compelling doesn’t work in 2021. If we are going to look back at this film, then we need to really look at it and accept that the true horror of Silence of the Lambs is what lingers after the credits roll.
Harmony M. Colangelo is here to do some kickass writing and bartending, and she’s not done a lot of bartending this year. You can see those worlds collide in the recipe book A Year of Queer Cocktails. She has been published in Bloody Disgusting, Certified Forgotten, We Are Horror, and The Bite.