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Author: Megan Lance

Silence of the Lambs: Power and Vulnerability

Silence of the Lambs: Power and Vulnerability

I was recently speaking with some other radical feminist friends when Silence of the Lambs came up in conversation. The discussion reminded me of a blog post I had read some time ago in which the author criticized the film as being transmisogynistic. The author argued that the film’s transmisogyny was rooted in portraying Buffalo Bill as an autogynephile, i.e. a man sexually aroused at the thought of being a woman. Portraying Bill as an autogynephile rather than as a transwoman was argued to perpetuate biases against transwomen as wrong, monstrous, and so forth. The author referred to Bill as “she” throughout the article, even posting a picture of how they have the same tattoo that Bill had in the film. However, this interpretation misses the point of the film entirely. While Bill desires a sex change, the film is ultimately not the story of a crazed transwoman. Rather, the film’s horror comes from how men terrorize women for our biology and from the everyday power dynamics between men and women.

Harris, the author of Silence of the Lambs, was careful and insistent that Bill was not transgender. He did not argue that trans people “did not exist”, but rather, that Bill was not one of them. Bill is based off of a real figure, Ed Gein, who made a skin suit (among other things) and had an incestuous relationship with his mother. It’s believed that Gein’s skin suit was an attempt to recreate his dead mother. Gein loved his mother and empathized with her, but he was also abused by her. In turn, he watched her be abused by his father, creating an unhealthy attachment in which he both empathized and identified with yet feared and hated her. In parallel, Bill is described as both hating and loving his mother. Motherhood is one of the motifs of the film. The moth motif, featured prominently on the cover, is tied to motherhood. Bill raises moths from eggs and nurtures them. The entomologist studying one of the moths remarks “somebody loved him”, describing how the moth was nurtured and cared for by Bill, who attempted to fill the role of mother.

The author of the blog post focuses on the famous “mirror scene” in which Bill tucks his penis, looks at himself in the mirror and asks “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me” as an example of the transmisogyny of the film and discourse around it. The author is insistent that this scene is used to discount Bill as an autogynephile rather than trans, but when Bill is read in context, this is precisely an example of autogynephilia. Bill is based on someone who had a sexual relationship with his mother and loved his mother, and Bill wants to become his mother. He doesn’t want to become a woman, but he wants to become his mother. He is turned on by seeing himself this way because his sexuality is based around his mother.
If one is to examine Silence of the Lambs through a critical lens, it should be viewed as a study of the imbalance of power between men and women, and the story is about Clarice Starling above anything else. Her superiors at the FBI leer at her, the prison warden leers at her, and the first time she enters the cell block, one of the prisoners ejaculates onto her. Even in that same scene, in her first meeting with Hannibal, he alludes to her sexual history. Hannibal spends the film trying to get into Clarice’s head through a mixture of making her vulnerable, offering himself as a helper, and sexually unnerving her. He “defends” her by causing the prisoner who assaulted her to commit suicide, and he brings out her childhood vulnerability and trauma by having her discuss her father’s murder and her witnessing the lambs being killed and hearing them scream. He also acts sexually towards her, but in a more subtle, non-violent way, such as drawing pictures of her and telling her things like “people will say we’re in love.”

Clarice is not the only target of Hannibal’s terrorism against women. He intimidates and manipulates the senator (whose daughter has been kidnapped by Bill) by using her role as a mother against her. When he is tied up in his “protective gear” (his notorious face mask) he asks the senator if she breastfed her daughter. When she responds affirmatively, he pounces, using the bond between mother and child as an opportunity to terrorize her: “Amputate a man’s leg and he can still feel it tickling. Tell me, mum, when your little girl is on the slab, where will it tickle you?” All the women in the film experience violence or intimidation from men, but let us return our focus to Clarice.

Silence of the Lambs has masterful cinematography; the shots are carefully framed in order to induce certain emotions. The most unnerving scene in the film is one in which Clarice is in a room full of male police officers who are surrounding her and staring at her. It is filmed in a way that makes you, the viewer, feel their stares and her vulnerability. It is that vulnerability that all women feel due to how men can overpower them. In a movie about a serial killer who skins women and another who eats people, the most unnerving scene is one featuring a group of average men.

The film is a study of the immense power difference between men and women, and it is shown through sexual power dynamics, physical power dynamics, and the combination of the two. Clarice Starling is a hero who is vulnerable, complex, and realistic. To even interpret the film as a story about Bill rather than Clarice is a disservice which fails to grasp the film’s intentions.

Why we need to stop calling homophobes ‘secretly gay’

Why we need to stop calling homophobes ‘secretly gay’

       In October 2017, Donald Trump joked that Mike Pence wanted to hang all gay people. The reactions were typical yet disappointing. Rather than mass outrage at casual jokes about genocide, people on the internet were quick to turn to the tired, overused joke that Mike Pence only feels this way because he himself is secretly gay and represses these feelings or only acts on them in secret.

       This is a common trope with respect to homophobia. Homophobes are assumed to be repressing internalized homophobia and squashing down their own secret gay feelings. Sometimes this is meant as a joke, and other times this is intended as a serious sociological statement. They are often said by those who believe themselves to be allies to gay people. However, these jokes or statements are ultimately homophobic.

       Mocking a disliked figure for their supposed gay identity turns being gay into the butt of the joke and something worth being ashamed of. On the most basic level, it is a homophobic joke for assuming homosexuality is something worthy of shame and mockery. Further, the belief that homophobes are secretly gay turns the attention away from how homophobia is systemic, detracting attention from how heterosexuals oppress homosexuals. Joking that Mike Pence is secretly gay turns the villain of the story into another gay person. Suddenly, it is not a heterosexual as the oppressor. It becomes easier for heterosexuals to stomach a situation if they are not painted as the oppressor and if those that they hold implicit biases against are painted in a negative light. Even allies hold implicit biases and will be more comfortable with associating gay with villain than straight with villain. It is difficult to stand seeing oneself reflected in the oppressor.

       Believing that Mike Pence wants to kill gay people because he is secretly gay turns the acts of oppression he has committed into “gay on gay” crime. Suddenly this becomes an issue that gay people must deal with among themselves rather than an issue that requires collective action from heterosexuals. It becomes an issue among a minority group, i.e. a “small issue” rather than a large-scale issue of a dominant group enacting violence against a minority group. Making the villain into another gay person implies that heterosexuals are not responsible for the oppression. It distracts from discussion of how heterosexuals systemically oppress gay people.

       These sorts of jokes are often made by allies who mean well and don’t have ill intent- so how can they be homophobic? One does not need to have explicitly homophobic motivations in order for their actions to be prejudiced. Downplaying the systemic issue that needs addressing, e.g. Mike Pence’s alleged desire to hang gay people, and painting gay people as the source of their own oppression, is a homophobic act.

Misogyny in breast cancer awareness campaigns

Misogyny in breast cancer awareness campaigns

       Breast cancer awareness campaigns often rely on a culture of misogyny and objectification in order to get their funding. They use slogans such as “save the tatas”, “I  boobies”, or “save second base” to grab attention and get male sponsorship. I will see men walking hand in hand with their girlfriends on the street wearing t-shirts bearing slogans like “I  boobies”, and presumably the guise of raising cancer awareness gives him the free-pass to wear a shirt that normally would not be received well by his partner due to its crudeness.

       The slogan is “save the tatas” when it should be “save the women.” The campaigns focus on breasts as objects of value that need saving, that cancer is bad because it destroys these pleasure-giving objects, when really the focus should be on how women themselves are worth saving. Women are people with value; women should not be valued as “the things that carry breasts.”

       The focus on “save the tatas” instead of “save the women” is also disrespectful towards those women who have experienced breast cancer. Women who have life-saving mastectomies do not need to be told that they have lost what gives them value in the eyes of men. When a woman’s life was saved because she removed her breasts, she does not need to be told that she has lost the thing men felt that she was worth saving for.

       This is textbook objectification, in which breasts are a stand-in for women’s lives and are prioritized before them. This is reminiscent of other campaigns such as “slutwalks”, which purport to be about putting and end to rape culture, but truly are about objectifying women further. Campaigns which should be about the rights and welfare of women are twisted into campaigns focused on pleasing the male gaze. Isn’t saving women’s lives enough of a cause to get behind? Do we really need to reduce the message to a tacky, sexist one in order to get public support?  

Lesbophobia in Evolutionary Psychology

Lesbophobia in Evolutionary Psychology

       Evolutionary psychology explores an interesting question- how did we evolve the cognitive and behavioral mechanisms which govern our lives, from developing religion to forming languages to developing the family structure? But while the question of “how did we evolve this way” is appealing, one must be careful not to engage in the naturalistic fallacy when answering it. The naturalistic fallacy states that what is is what ought to be. When seeking to address how we evolved a certain way, it is tempting to slip into explaining what one finds in the natural world, e.g. a cultural practice, as existing because it is in some way beneficial and must have evolved to serve a purpose. In reality, natural selection allows for spandrels, bi-products of the evolutionary process; many things exist in nature which are not selected for.

       We are particularly susceptible to faulty claims about what ought to be in when addressing the dynamics between men and women in contemporary society. The role of patriarchy and the pressures it places on us are often ignored. The particular dynamics that exist between men and women are taken at face value as something that evolved because they were the most adaptive. Take for example how women in most cultures around the world report that they prefer their mates to have money more than they prefer their mate to be attractive. Men, however, prefer the attractive mate. This leads to assumptions about how evolutionary pressures due to the cost of reproduction lead women to desire security for themselves and their offspring, whereas men desire signs of health and fertility in a mate. This ignores the culturally-bound pressures in which women are more likely to be constrained in their access to resources.

       If women wanted to maximize resources for themselves and for their offspring, their best strategy would be to have multiple mates and have the father of their child be unknown, so that each of the men are investing as if the child is his. Indeed, children who are born into cultures which practice partible paternity (where it is believed that multiple men can be the father of a child) have multiple men investing in them and are more likely to live past childhood than children with only a single father.

       Polygynous societies are worse for offspring’s wellness than traditional societies; there is a higher rate of childhood death among polygynous societies. However, while partible paternity is the most adaptive mating strategy in terms of securing resources and investing in offspring, it is the least common compared to a parental dyad or polygyny. The norm is a system in which women’s mating strategies are controlled by men, and this is rarely questioned as the best way for which a woman could secure a future for her offspring. The assumption is made that the current structure developed because of the pressures of natural selection rather than any pressures of human culture such as patriarchy.

       The assumptions made about the evolution of female sexuality have negative consequences for women. One research article released in May of 2017 suggested that female same-sex attraction evolved because men find it sexually arousing. The lead researcher told Pink News “My argument in the paper is this: A considerable proportion of men desire same-sex attractions in women, and this is one possible reason why many women have such attractions.”

       Almost twice as many women report same sex attraction as men (cultural pressures that may make men more reticent to report same-sex attraction are ignored), so the assumption is that same-sex attraction in women must have been selected for in some way. The researchers propose that a man serves to gain by his partner having occasional same-sex attraction because it would reduce the risk of cuckholdry and may allow him access to additional mates. It potentially reduces the risk of cuckholdry because a man can be assured if his partner is sleeping with another woman, that she will not get pregnant and have a child that is not his own. Therefore, it does not carry the same stress as if she were cheating with other men. His partner’s attraction may also allow him to gain access to other women because she may bring home other mates, or he can be assured that they will be satisfied with one another and not stray if he acquires more mates in a polygynous arrangement. This alone is quite the assumption that relies on “gay genes” that are selected for, but the methodology itself does not lend support for such an assumption.

       As can be surmised by the heteronormative language used thus far, the study surveyed heterosexuals, regardless of their partnered status. Participants were asked a series of questions about how they would feel if their partner was interested in the same sex or found to be cheating with the same sex. Over 34% of the sample was single, thus they were answering about how they would feel in a hypothetical relationship. People are generally poor at emotional forecasting, but ask a single man what he would do if he caught his girlfriend cheating on him with another woman, and I’ll place a bet that his response will be influenced by his amount of pornography consumed due to the vast number of pornographic scenarios which start with precisely that premise. While women did not desire their partner to be attracted to the same sex, about 15% of men desired such a thing in a long-term relationship and 30% desired it if the hypothetical was a short-term relationship. The participants were not asked if they were imagining this attraction would lead into the possibility of a three-way. It was concluded that women’s experience of same-sex attraction may be selected for because men find it to be sexually arousing.

       It’s striking that the researchers make note of culture in order to say that their data is limited to the culture in which it was tested (Cyprus) and might be influenced by how the sample is largely Christian, yet they don’t acknowledge the role of culture in other ways. For instance, the use of pornography could influence men’s forecast of how they believe they would feel in the particular scenario or would influence their desire for a three-way. However, the lead researcher told Pink News “I can’t really see how cultural factors would make some men be turned on when their partners tell them I want to have sex with another woman.”

       The study fails in multiple respects, from the assumptions it makes to the design itself. Western men are also attracted to breasts, but no one is supposing that the mammary glands evolved in order to attract mates rather than to feed young. Many men report that choking during sex is a turn-on, but we would not report that violence evolved for the sake of procreation. There’s a failure to examine evolutionary history itself, the behaviors of other animals, failure to account for cultural effects, and a failure to study the direct experiences of the individual. The men surveyed were asked their feelings about a hypothetical same-sex attraction, but the reality is that men react poorly when their female partner comes out to them as attracted to other women. In studies of how men have reacted in real scenarios, it has not been received well, leading to feelings of sadness, pain, and anger rather than being turned on.

       Lesbians struggle enough as it is to be taken seriously. Lesbian existence is met with violence since men are threatened by women who do not need men. The sort of story presented by this research gives “evidence” to comfort men that lesbians do, after all, exist for and were created by them. It’s lesbophobia and a porn-soaked narrative disguised as science.