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.