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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Updated: Aug 13



My first girlfriend’s favourite film was The Silence of the Lambs; at the time, I did not think too much about this fact—other than not caring for the film myself—for I still thought women wanted to be loved and cherished, per some semi-romantic Victorian novel for respectable persons. Of course, Lambs is much closer to what women want—on the psycho-sexual level, anyway—than anything in the soppy romantic line. They want to be gobbled up by a psychopath; and probably tied up, choked, and spanked before their very flesh is consumed—gruesome! This was never what I thought it was about when I mooned around a Borders bookstore for my first date, with my Starbucks latte and a copy of Pablo Neruda in hand.


I mean, in fairness, this desire to be literally consumed by Hannibal the Cannibal (ssssepp, ssseep, sseeep, Clareeessse) is combined with an affection for fluffy dogs and anything baby-like; so it is not all rape, murder, and torture when it comes to women. But I suppose this feminine desire to be prey—even unto death—explains what really drives the horror film market. Indeed, it is probably a good bet to take a girl to a horror film and not some soppy romance, if you want to knife your victim later. A friend’s brother in some distinguished university town said that horror film popularity, in both sexes, was all down to an evolutionary need to experience the hunt again, to experience the beast on the savannah—the sensation that there is something “out there” that we need to fight. Well, maybe…I still think the evolutionary truth is that the horror market is driven by the psycho-sexual needs of women, and the attendant hope that the girl will squirm into your lap in terror—or at least squeeze your hand hard, anyway.


Lambs is not a great film; it has, perhaps, one memorable scene: a moment when a policeman is eviscerated and pinned up above a cell as if he is an angel—otherwise the film’s aesthetic is forgettable. It does well enough in its plot points and in suspense, but it is just a journeyman’s job. However, Hannibal Lecter himself seemed to speak to the public, so much so that subsequent sequels have been major hits; but the psychiatrist-cannibal—a Baltimore man, as with Edgar Allan Poe—does not concern me too much here. Overall, Lambs was a successful film that has become—or been declared—a landmark in popular culture. It should also interest us because the main antagonist in the film is putatively transsexual, and transsexualism has become increasingly important to the West’s hegemonic ideology over the past decade.


Lambs is quite a feminist film, a bit like Alien in that way. Now, all films in the West—all cultural products, in fact—are feminist to some degree or another; feminism is inherent to our state ideology, so it runs through every cultural product. It has done so for sometime, flick back to the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes B movies in the 1940s and you will find girl pilots flying Holmes on dangerous missions into occupied Europe; a few seconds on screen at the time, but this unrealistic behaviour eventually blossomed into the “kick ass” girl heroes we see on our screens today.


Lambs is significant because it marks a moment when the ideology kicked up to a new level; and it features many scenes throughout the film that establish the heroine, FBI trainee agent Clarice Starling, as “the woman to come”—or what the ideology expects from women, anyway. The underlying conceit in Lambs is that Starling is the up and coming girl in the FBI, a very masculine world indeed. At this stage in the ideology, everything is an “uphill struggle” for a career girl who wants to make headway; whereas contemporary films would marginalise any white male characters, with those who are not villains dying so as to hand the torch to their female apprentice, Lambs still presents a world where the white males are in charge; but they are about to be surprised by the undiscovered capabilities that lie in the new female agent—it is residually classical liberalism, if you will; we have overlooked this hidden source of talent, women, and now we will see what these individuals can do...


Throughout the film, Starling works through an occult female power network that underpins the criminal justice system. So, for example, when she wishes to interview Lecter in his temporary holding cell the old-fashioned desk sergeant is reluctant to let her in for the crucial interview; but the female cop at his side gives Starling a confidential glance—the knowing glance of sisterhood, I suppose—and lets her in to see Lecter, so the case advances over male intransigence thanks to the secret sisterhood that really gets things done.


This is all conveyed in about ten seconds or so, and there are other similar scenes in the film. These are usually counterposed with men drooling over Starling—somewhat incongruously, since Foster is not very attractive—and generally holding up the investigation by trying to ineptly seduce her. This perhaps once again reiterates that Lambs is aimed at women, towards the fantasy of occupying a powerful male role (FBI agent, y’all) and yet to also be desirable.


Of course, the only man who does seduce Clarrrissssee is Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal Letcher?) who also salivates over her, but whose indirect vulgarity—as evinced when he first meets her and draws a reference to the smell of her cunt—seems to cut more ice than invitations to the sights and sounds of Baltimore, or burgers and french fries (The Lecter Method: America’s most notable psychiatrist reveals his love secrets). Later, he tells her that she has “stopped bleeding”, a reference to a wound incurred in the field but also obviously an allusion to menstruation. Finally, he briefly gently massages one of her fingers with his finger through the cell’s bars, and so seals their bond.


As an aside, Lecter’s name probably alludes to the Latin “lector”, a reader or teacher—he is a scholarly psychiatrist. His role in the film is to serve as “lector” to Starling; he teaches her how a serial killer’s mind works. Through French, the word “delectable” is related to “lector”; and Lecter appreciates the finer and more delectable things in life; he served one of his victims as a gourmet meal to Baltimore’s leading lights—and famously gobbled up a human liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Lecter not only finds humans delectable to eat, he has also consumed various psychiatric treatises to become an authority on psychopathology. The delectable charms and delights, and Lecter is himself quite a charmer—when he wants to be. As Hannibal, he is an imperial and bold character; if ultimately defeated in the end.


The main serial killer Starling must capture—“Buffalo Bull”, so named because he skins his victims after he kills them—demonstrates transsexual characteristics. Now, even in 1991, transsexualism was a sensitive ideological topic; so the film is careful to feature an extensive section where it is explained by the experts that Buffalo Bill is not a true transsexual; he merely mimics transsexual characteristics for other psychopathological reasons. It is even stated that transsexuals are “very gentle”, so everything is fenced here as much as possible.


His main goal is to make a skin suit from women, to become a woman by wearing female flesh—hence his killing spree. However, I think it is almost inconceivable—or would be difficult—to make a similar film today. Even at the time, Jodie Foster—who was widely known to be lesbian—faced criticism from LGBT activists who saw her participation in a film where “transsexualism” was portrayed in association with serial killings as a betrayal of her sexual team, so to speak. So we can see in the way this issue was anchored that the ground for transsexualism to become a mainstream topic was already being laid; it was already a quasi-taboo topic for mainstream filmmakers to portray negatively, and this space would grow from taboo on criticism to positive affirmation over the next two decades.


With a tinge of the changes in racial ideology to come, Starling’s most able assistant is her fellow black female FBI trainee. This somewhat foreshadows a reconfiguration in American racial ideology, already evident in the more radical politically conscious comics of the 1980s, that would see black women put forward in the most “kick ass” positions possible. For the moment, the black woman is the most able assistant and confidant to Starling; in current American racial ideology, this configuration would be unacceptably subordinate and represent white supremacy. At the time, it represented a mildly transgressive move in foregrounding a black female character in this way. Foster’s character is herself disprivileged, so to speak; she is an orphan from a white trash background, something that Lecter detects in her slightly disguised accent and torments her for—keen to suggest that she will atavistically return to type as a trailer trash slut; not FBI material, Claarrisssee.


Given that everyone “knew” Foster was lesbian—an open secret, as they say—her relationship with the black female character should be read as somewhat sexual. I certainly read in that way, from the visual cues, but perhaps I am a drooling pervert myself. Lambs has a leftist dynamic: working-class orphaned lesbian in a mixed-race relationship rescues girls from a misogynist killer and does so in opposition to the white male power establishment that is more interested in ogling Starling than saving the girls Buffalo Bill kidnaps.


The theme is carried through with the girl Starling must rescue from Buffalo Bill, a senator’s daughter. “My mom is a very powerful woman,” screams the victim from the pit into which the serial killer has cast her; again, surely a calculated reversal of sex roles. “My father is a very powerful man,” sounds more normal—even now, given that little has changed fundamentally. Indeed, the girl’s mother makes an appearance and confronts Lecter in an attempt to wheedle information about Bill out of him. Lecter mocks her throughout the encounter, finally praising her clothes in a sarcastic way. Yet the senator and her daughter—successfully rescued by Clarice while all her male superiors are on a wild goose chase—represents the ideal: the female senator is the woman Clarice could become in the future, perhaps an FBI chief. The future is female, as the slogan ran a few years ago; and yet here in 1991 everything was set up in mass entertainment for this to be the case. My mom is a powerful woman, indeed.


The entire scenario smacks of “power dressing”—a woman’s idea if ever there was one, as if dress changes your capacity for achievement—in a more down to earth 1990s garb; the 1980s were about dynamic business, but the 1990s throttled back to a more earthy and neo-1960s friendliness: primary colours and Friends ruled the decade—Starling fits into that early 1990s moment, shared with Kurt Cobain (PBUH), when the grungy and proletarian sensibility was given the spotlight rather than business-induced hedonism; although this quickly softened to an almost nursery-like security in the middle of the decade.


Lambs is a socialist-feminist film; but this is not to say much, almost all films in the West have some progressive aspect to the plot—or simply the way characters are filmed. I suspect its true market was always relatively dowdy girls—Clarice Starlings, the starling is a modest bird—who feel, to use the early ‘90s slang, a bit grungy and can, at best, aspire to an awkward pass from some lecherous technical support person at the office. Certainly, the victims of Buffalo Bill are all fat women—he seeks to construct a skin suit from women and needs excess flesh to work with—and so there is an element of female spite in the film against their chunky sisters. When Starling rescues the senator’s daughter, she brattishly spits vituperations at Starling because, unlike the working-class hero, she is spoilt. Lesbian proletarian feminist FBI agents have no time for bourgeois fatties, even if they have been kidnapped to make a flesh suit for a perv. Ultimately, the villain is a man who thinks he wants to be a woman; he wants to make a costume from women; and this is what Western ideology directs us to do: men should become women—except, at the same time, we are despised for it and hunted by agent Starling.


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