Why “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) Is Powerful

Warning: this article contains mild spoilers regarding The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve done my best to talk about the film in general and avoid discussing specific plot points, but some may have slipped through the net.

I don’t say this lightly, but I think The Silence of the Lambs is the greatest film ever made. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it’s the only Best Picture winner, as of 2018, considered a horror film). It’s also one of the most iconic films of Western culture, quoted and parodied so often that many people recognise its dialogue instantly without having watched it themselves.

Loving it as I do, I can’t help but question: just why did it resonate so strongly with me? Why has it endured? And has it really aged as well as we might like to believe?

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I believe Silence is still as chilling today as it was 27 years ago. Much of this is owed to the cinematography: it is, above all else, a highly intelligent piece of film-making. More than that, it’s a very empathetic film which is a difficult thing to achieve with a crime thriller. There’s the potential for lurid fetishisation of femicide and, while I’m not suggesting Silence doesn’t occasionally fall into that trap, it’s a much more sensitive film than you might expect. If you’ve seen Silence before, I challenge you to watch it again and take note of every close-up on Clarice’s face throughout the film. You might be surprised by how often it occurs if you keep a tally. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend watching it and trying the same exercise. Really look at her expression and think about how it makes you feel. Something else to watch out for is the focus on how male characters treat Clarice. Another active-watching exercise to try is to make a note of every time a male character flirts with, harasses, dismisses or ogles Clarice. The film makes it clear that the manner in which “ordinary” “good” men talk about and treat women directly enables acts of violence against women, linking them thematically. All the men in the film – even the “good” men like Jack Crawford – reinforce sexist stereotypes in some way and they have ulterior (often sexual) motives. One of the things I love about this film is that we are encouraged, if not forced, to engage with misogyny and the objectification of women. You’re never allowed to see the murdered women as simply bodies; you’re never allowed to see Clarice or any other women as eye-candy. Every time you slip, Silence reminds you. This is what you’re enabling. This is the progression of your attitudes about women. I think it’s ingenious that the film-makers managed to weave this analysis of the male gaze – first posited by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s – into the narrative and makes us aware of the voyeurism inherent across cinema.

Although Lecter is superficially the star of the show – and I don’t wish to take away from Anthony Hopkins’ performance here, because it is stellar on every level – it’s Clarice who is the more interesting character. For all that Lecter is hyped up, a creature of monstrous intellect and appetites, he has the same base sexual motivations as every other man in the film. Writing for BBC Culture in 2017, Nicholas Barber argued that “… Lecter is so electrifying, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook what a preening, immature bore he soon reveals himself to be. He is, of course, a snob who wants everyone to know about his taste in fine wines and expensive shoes, but he also has the grubby one-track mind of an adolescent schoolboy… He may not have seen a women in his eight years of incarceration, but that’s no excuse for his behaving like a tabloid gossip columnist.” The film doesn’t present Lecter’s harassment of Agent Starling as titillating; she’s evidently disgusted but she doesn’t let it faze her. Silence manages to trick the audience effectively. It’s not just a crime thriller revolving around the mind of a genius psychopath and using women as sexy, lifeless props. It deals with what it’s like to be the sexy, lifeless prop. It’s a reflection on what it’s like to be stared at, every day of your life, from the moment you start maturing into a woman.

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Despite being a triumphant work of cinema in terms of its representation of women, the film was not without its detractors upon release. Much of the controversy hinges on the film’s portrayal of its antagonist, Jame Gumb, a serial killer known by the moniker Buffalo Bill. Some have argued that Buffalo Bill is a homophobic caricature, although I don’t think this was deliberate and, as with anything, gay men will have their personal opinion on whether it’s offensive or not. It’s worth noting, though, that Jonathan Demme went on to direct Philadelphia (1993) which deals with the AIDS crisis and homophobia. He took the criticism of the film by organisations like ACT-UP and Queer Nation personally and very seriously: “At first, Demme was defiant of the protests. In 1991, he told Film Comment, “We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people.” He described the killer as “someone who is so completely, completely horrified by who he is that his desperation to become someone completely other is manifested in his ill-guided attempts at transvestism[…]” To be fair, Demme is correct—in the movie, Hannibal Lecter posits that Gumb apes qu**r and trans people because they’re the most outré, far-off identities he can imagine—the ultimate escape.” (Bloomer, Slate: 2017) One could argue the film makes use of homophobic stereotypes and tropes, but only insofar that Bill is making use of those cliches in order to cultivate this “other” identity. Dennis Stone wrote an interesting article for New Millenial Gay Experience and I thought this was a particularly incisive quote: “I did not see a gay character. Rather, I saw a psychopath, someone whose entire being was warped by his past, someone who was so outside the realm of decency and “humanity” that every action and attribute were beyond conventional interpretation. Even in 1991 I was aware of fluidity and context in relation to sexuality. Bill may have had one or more male lovers, but for me that did not make him gay in any meaningful sense.

Many modern analyses of the film criticise its “dated” perspective on trans issues, something I’ve always found a bit baffling. It is established during a conversation between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter that Bill is not a “transsexual” (this was the 90s, remember) but only believes he is. Instead, he has been pathologised to hate himself and is uncomfortable with his own identity, whatever that may truly be. I’ve always interpreted the idea of Buffalo Bill being trans as something of a red herring when, in fact, the issue at hand is male violence and male entitlement to the use of women’s bodies. I see Bill’s skinning of women as an extension of other men’s sexist attitudes in the film, taken right to the extreme – not just using women’s bodies for sex or for visual pleasure but physically making use of their body parts. Bill doesn’t see women as fully human – he’s not cutting up men in order to try on their skins and be someone different – and nor do men in general. If anything, I think it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the film as a whole if you consider Buffalo Bill to be a comment on or a reflection of gay men or the trans community. I find the accusations of transphobia especially bizarre when it’s explicitly stated that Gumb isn’t transgender. Stone went on to argue in his review that we are only concerned about how gay and trans people are represented in the film because we have not progressed into full acceptance of LGBT people: We are still too sensitive and too insecure and too reactive for what I would consider a “correct” understanding of the movie.I don’t think we should let our own knee-jerk reactions to a film made almost 30 years ago get in the way of its important message about sex-based oppression.

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Despite the emphasis on the impact of misogyny on women, Clarice Starling has so much agency in Silence and that’s what makes it brilliant. She’s no rebel, sticking to the protocol she’s been taught, but she speaks up and she fights back in every way she can. In “The Silence of the Lambs” and the Intuitive Feminism of Jonathan Demme, Willow McClay states: “The Silence of the Lambs is essentially about one woman trying to save another woman and the lengths she will go to push herself along the way to be the best FBI agent she can possibly be even with society at large pressing down on her at all times due to her gender.” (McClay, The Film Stage: 2017) Clarice is a feminist heroine, an ordinary working-class woman who battles her way into a man’s world and yet never loses her compassion. In an environment in which she’s treated like shit for being female, Clarice’s existence as a woman is her greatest strength. And that’s what thrilled me most about The Silence of the Lambs.

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Further reading

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