SHRIEK Women of Horror: Silence of the Lambs

silence of the lambs

by Evan J Peterson

Tuesday will be the third night of SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film and Discussion Class, located in the Scarecrow Video screening room. This week, we’ll watch The Silence of the Lambs, a classic police procedural thriller with an amazing final girl—but is it a slasher film, or something else?
Stats on The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Body count: six on screen, more off screen

Nudity: Yes, male and female

Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes.

Major protagonist: female

Villains/Antagonists: mostly male, with one genderqueer villain

Major actors: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine

Director: Jonathan Demme

Writers: Ted Tally (screenplay), Thomas Harris (novel)

Does it stick to the book: closely

Awards: Best Picture Oscar, Best Director Oscar to Jonathan Demme, Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe to Jodie Foster, Best Actor Oscar to Anthony Hopkins, Best Adapted Screenplay to Ted Tally

Jodie Foster is a flawless Final Girl as Clarice Starling. She’s resilient and clever under pressure, yet she’s vulnerable, much like the ever-lauded Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, which we’ll watch at SHRIEK on the Tuesday after Halloween. This vulnerability is a key to her believability and likability. She’s not a superhero like Xena or Buffy—she’s very human.

The term “Final Girl” was coined by Dr. Carol J. Clover in her 1992 opus Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This book shook up academic film, literature, and gender studies, and the pop culture effects of it can be seen soon after in Wes Craven’s self-aware, postmodern slasher masterpiece Scream (1996). Even the current Ryan Murphy series American Horror Story and his horror-sex-comedy-college-soap-opera-whatever-it-is Scream Queens riff on Clover’s insights.

There are several criteria for being a final girl—for one thing, she’s almost always either a virgin (or at least less interested in guys and sex than she is in her hobbies and studies) or a tomboy or both. Clarice fulfills this to a fault. She’s not boyish, but she’s completely dedicated to her training as an FBI agent. Clarice is altogether asexual in the film. She’s frequently hit on by men, especially men in positions of power, and she has zero interest in them. Her most tender relationships are with her friend/roommate Ardelia (played by Kasi Lemmons, who we’ll also discuss in November in her role in Candyman, and who is a film director as well), her dead father, and her perverse new father figure Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). She certainly doesn’t have a tender or fatherly relationship with Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the FBI mentor who uses her as bait to get Lecter talking. It would be relatively easy to argue that Clarice is gay, or at least on the LGBT-queer spectrum, which would make her the first gay final girl played by a gay actress (see also Sarah Paulson in the second season of American Horror Story: Asylum).

Her relationship to the men in the film is curious. Like many thrillers and horror films, the female character is surrounded by creepy, manipulative, dickish men—all of them. Few men in the film show much respect for Clarice. Ironically, it’s the bon vivant genius and cannibal murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter who has the most respect for her of any man in the film, even though he also manipulates her and verbally abuses her at times, saying some particularly ugly things about her sex life. I’ll repeat that with italics for emphasis: the cannibal murderer who enjoys asking Clarice if she was sodomized as a child is the one man in the film who shows the most respect for her. Crawford, on the other hand, talks over her in front of other law enforcement officers as a show of male dominance, eroding Clarice’s authority so that he can serve the ultimate goals of the investigation, and later shrugs it off. Clarice, to her credit, boldly tells her superior officer that he undermined her without checking in with her first.

Another major final girl criterion, and I believe the most necessary, is that she must apprehend, kill, or otherwise stop the killer/monster herself, without being rescued by a man. Clarice Starling fulfills this criterion, even though she discovers the killer accidentally while looking for someone else. Her cleverness and dedication not only lead her to discover the killer, but she also keeps her cool when confronting several human monsters. These aren’t just murderers; they’re torturers, cannibals, and whatever the hell Multiple Miggs is—a “secretor,” I believe they’re called in police procedurals.

Multi-film spoiler alert! I’m about to name several horror films in which the murderer turns out to be transgender in some stripe.

The Silence of the Lambs, while giving us a kickass female protagonist, also reinforces but finally buries the unfortunate trope in horror films of a transgender murderer. This overused and insulting trope began with Hitchcock’s Psycho, popping up again in William Castle’s Homicidal, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, Sleepaway Camp, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and even the original Friday the 13th, which reverses the trope and has Mrs. Voorhees convinced at times that she’s her own dead son.

The film even goes out of its way to have Clarice state during conversation with Lecter that she doubts Buffalo Bill is transgender because “transsexuals are very passive.” Lecter reveals that this very insight into the killer’s nature could lead her to catch Bill. While the film makes this cursory nod to unravel the overused and ultimately harmful trope of the cross-dressing killer, the film riffs off the book and makes Buffalo Bill’s gender disorientation part of his mental illness. In fact, many of the films above do not feature a serial killer who is trans, but a crazy killer who either believes they are a certain specific person of another gender, or else they’ve been gaslighted by others to believe they are the opposite sex. What this trope does is more than suggest that trans people are dangerously crazy. It actually implies that trans identity is actually a secondary characteristic of various mental illnesses (schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, etc.), undermining the very experience of being simply transgender.

The Silence of the Lambs is no different. It makes efforts to distinguish Buffalo Bill, the wacky torturer who wishes he were female because he hates himself and wants to be anyone else, from “legitimate” transgender people. These efforts backfire and only serve to reinforce a lack of trans people on screen; there are no actual trans characters in the film. Instead, we have yet another bat-shit-crazy murderer who likes to wear, ahem, garments of the opposite sex. It would be good to see some heroic and unquestioned trans characters in the horror genre, other than in the troublingly named and plotted rape-revenge film, Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (available here at Scarecrow Video).

Looking back a quarter century later, the film has its issues. Nonetheless, The Silence of the Lambs is so well made and well acted, with Buffalo Bill portrayed so intensely by Ted Levine, that it effectively killed off the trope of the trans murderer. No one else has used such a trope to any commercial or critical success in the last twenty-five years, and this is a testament to what this film does right. The killers are extraordinarily chilling, while the hero is powerful, unstoppable, and still fully human.

Join us this Tuesday for SHRIEK: The Silence of the Lambs!

You can reserve your space in the class here.

Stay tuned for next week’s session on The Hunger!

The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies while enjoying kick-ass heroines in some of the best horror films ever made. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in film making, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.

Check the Scarecrow calendars for the Tuesday night horror flicks during October and November.

Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.


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