Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from Thomas Harris’ book of the same name, turned 30 this year. The third film to ever receive Academy Awards in each of the top five categories, and the only horror film to have ever won best picture, its impacts both within the genre and on the wider landscape of film cannot be stressed enough. The legacy of the film lives on to this day – NBC’s highly successful and deeply homoerotic Hannibal series ran for three seasons, and this year sees the release of CBS’s Lecter-less Clarice. It is clear that our society still values the ideas, characters, and visuals brought forth by Demme three decades ago. However, the film’s plethora of awards and cultural relevance overshadow a much larger, more insidious element – Jame Gumb, better known to audiences as Buffalo Bill.
Bill, played by Ted Levine, is not textually transgender, although the film’s attempts to state this are surface level at best and insidious at worst. Lecter purports that Bill’s condition is the result of years of abuse, and states,
Bill is not a real transsexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be… (he) hates his own identity, you see, and thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and terrifying. (Demme, 1991)
The film frames gender nonconformity as a diversion from the norm, a “schtick” for a killer to have that makes them inherently strange and different, a tool to invoke a fear of the unknown. The key line that highlights the failure to eliminate transphobic themes is the final one – Bill is ‘… a thousand times more savage and terrifying’ than his transgender counterparts. The implication here is, of course, that any and all transness is still savage and terrifying to some degree. Jo Moses describes the issues with this explanation succinctly in her 2020 article ‘Should we still be protesting “The Silence of the Lambs”?’:
“The Silence of the Lambs” is gracious enough not to compare the supposed savageness and terror of trans people to that of serial killers, but not enough to admit that there isn’t anything savage or terrifying about trans people at all. (Moses, 2020)
In a similar way to the racism inherent in H.P. Lovecraft’s work within cosmic horror (which draws on a fear of the unknown informed by Lovecraft’s own notable xenophobia), Silence of the Lambs’s exploitation of transformation as an element of horror is inseparable from the undercurrents of transphobia. Bill, unable to get a professional recommendation for gender reassignment surgery due to the severity of his other psychological issues, spends the film’s runtime building himself a “woman suit” made from the skin of the various women whom he has murdered. His transformation (only separated in the film from a medical transition by his inability to attain a formal diagnosis) is built on the concept that Bill is truly a predatory man, preying on innocent women to fulfil his own erotic desires (see the films second most famous line: ‘Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me hard.’ [Demme, 1991]). The idea of a transition (framed in the film as a transformation through the motif of the Death’s-head hawkmoth) being informed by a man’s violent and erotic thoughts reads like a Breitbart headline, perpetuating decades of transphobic narratives and leaning into the killer-in-a-dress trope.
The killer-in-a-dress trope, as we’ll call it here, has long existed throughout fiction. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho features a young man obsessed with his dead mother, committing atrocities in her clothing in an attempt to become her. Sleepaway Camp features teenage girl Angela Baker killing her fellow campers, with the film’s most notable feature being its “twist” ending in which it is revealed that Angela, born Peter, was forced into becoming a woman by her Aunt Martha as a replacement for her dead sister. Outside of horror, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective contains the least sensitive representation of these examples, with the film’s killer reveal being a bitter ex-footballer taking a dead woman’s identity, undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and kidnapping both the footballer she blames for her firing as well as the team mascot that inherited her jersey number. Fiction likes to treat trans identities, or gender nonconformity in general, as a shocking twist – an inconceivable act of attempting to become the “other” binary gender, out of either erotic perversion or as a manifestation of deeply rooted psychological issues. And as with most things, fictional narratives inform those used in reality. These understandings of transness pervade current society, with the conversation of trans women’s presence in sports as well as which bathroom they should be able to enter being inundated with claims that trans women are secretly men attempting to assault or violate “real women”. Demme’s separation of transgender and transvestite are ultimately unimportant, as the narrative that is perpetuated doesn’t discriminate between who it affects – any and all who were assigned male at birth but present otherwise still feel the repercussions of Buffalo Bill.
Autogynephilia is a word that gets thrown around a lot in Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) spaces to describe trans women, acting as a medicalised way to refer to the idea of someone assigned male at birth being sexually aroused by the idea of being female. This concept continues the trend of confusing gender identity with sexual identity, and even further with sexual proclivities or kinks – as in so many parts of their lives, trans women are not permitted to be sexually active without being perceived as participating in a kink. A trans woman experiencing sexual attraction is not autogynephilia, due to the fact that she is not aroused by the idea of being a woman – she is simply a woman who is aroused. This idea of the autogynephilic trans woman was popularised by The Silence of the Lambs – Bill’s mission to “become” a woman is entirely informed by his sexual perversions, as mentioned earlier. Much of the disgust levelled at Bill throughout the film is informed by this, with Lecter’s accusation of Bill and other gender non-conforming (GNC) people being ‘… savage and terrifying’ being at least partially influenced by a disdain for Bill’s autogynephilia.
Despite Demme’s attempts to separate Bill from the trans community, the damages caused by these attitudes still echo today. Most arguments against trans people revolve around using bathrooms that match their gender identity with the unsupported idea that they will either participate in a fetish the entire time or sexually assault women and children. Cisgender men holding the intention to assault women will not have their lives made easier if trans women are able to use the women’s bathroom. A rapist will always be a rapist, and assaults on women are not reduced by refusing to let trans women use the bathroom in peace. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey showed that 47% of trans people have been sexually assaulted at some point in their life (James et al., 2015) – I am one of these people. The real, tangible threat of sexual assault against women in this bathroom debate is trans women being forced to share bathrooms with cisgender men.
All media is a product of its time – this is just a fact of life. To be able to consume media made in a more conservative time is to have the ability to kill your darlings. But when media with outdated and problematic content is still circulated regularly and spoken about highly, its attitudes are normalised. If the narrative presented about a group of people frames them as sexual deviants and perverted killers, their ability to exist passively in public spaces is taken from them. Most of the trans women I know have been victims to the attitudes presented in and perpetuated by The Silence of the Lambs, either in public or within their family structure. I don’t believe that Demme’s intention was to create a work that would be referenced in transphobic think-pieces thirty years later – his attempts to avoid this were significant given the time period. But, ultimately, he did, and no amount of separating the levels of ‘savagery and terror’ between a fictional serial killer and trans women could have prevented that.
Demme, J. (Director). (1991). The Silence of the Lambs [Film]. Strong Heart Productions.
James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
Moses, J. (8 December, 2020). Should we still be protesting “The Silence of the Lambs?”. The Campanil. http://www.thecampanil.com/should-we-still-be-protesting-the-silence-of-the-lambs/
Stephanie Markwell is a writer, actor, and creative currently in her final year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in drama. She can be found on most socials under the tag @assnailant