The Silence of the Lambs (1991) has been a remarkably tenacious movie that has never really managed to leave pop cultural consciousness. You can whip out “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” with zero context and someone will inevitably respond with that staccato aerating-wine-in-your-mouth sound. The quote is currently ranked 21st on AFI’s top 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of all time, sandwiched between such quotable heavyweights as “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” from Casablanca (1942) and “Bond. James Bond.” from Dr. No (1963).
With the 30th anniversary upon us, along with the premiere of the television procedural Clarice bringing Agent Starling back to our screens (albeit in serialized, basic network procedural form), a lot of us — myself included — have been feeling reflective about The Silence of the Lambs. The film is rightly remembered for how it swept the Oscars, for how Anthony Hopkins created the most memorable depiction of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, despite only having about 16 minutes of screen time (or 25 minutes, depending on the source you access — I’ll admit I am not patient enough to watch the film with a stopwatch in hand), and for Jodie Foster’s iconic portrayal of heroine Clarice, which patterned the strong-willed and analytical fictional women of the 90s, most notably The X-Files’s Dana Scully (played, of course, by Gillian Anderson), who in her own right has been heralded for her influence on women pursuing STEM careers.
“The Silence of the Lambs itself is a story of reinvention […] as escape and the desire to steer our own metamorphoses.”
What we aren’t doing in 2021 is watching The Silence of the Lambs for shock value. I’m referring, of course, to the depiction of the film’s central villain: Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine) a serial killer who is also trans (or at the very least trans-coded). Discourse about this character has ebbed and flowed since The Silence of the Lambs debuted in the early 90s, and the film’s anniversary has returned it to sharp focus on social media. I welcome the conversation about how depictions of fictional characters can have real and lasting impacts on real people. What continues to be baffling is how people rush to defend these depictions and refuse to acknowledge the impacts.
I’ll admit that I’m not the best-equipped person to articulate these arguments. For this reason, I highly recommend reading Harmony M. Colangelo’s re-analysis of the film for The Bite. As Harmony poignantly states in her piece, as viewers we dismiss Jame Gumb‘s trans perspective because a cis character (Lecter), written by cis men, tells us that their perspective is invalid. I’m using my voice in this moment to support Harmony’s, but don’t let mine be a substitute for hers. When trans voices tell us that a film has done harm (a statement that is abundantly clear, but yet one that people choose to push back against), listen to them.
Ads are Scary
Nightmare on Film Street is independently owned and operated. We rely on your donations to cover our operating expenses and to compensate our team of 30+ Contributors.
If you enjoy Nightmare on Film Street, consider Buying us a coffee!
Which brings us to our point of reflection: Can we continue to hold a movie locked within our hearts as a favourite when it has shown itself to be harmful? Should we?
The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favourite films and has been for about as long as I can remember — I saw it for the first time when I was much too young to be watching it, evidenced by the fact that there was a point in my life where if you asked me what my two favourite movies were I would answer The Silence of the Lambs and My Little Pony: The Movie (1986). Since I was a kid, I only had a barely-formed idea of what as going on in the narrative. I didn’t consume it with any critical thought (nor did any adults discuss it with me). I mostly just cared that Clarice was pretty and smart, that she went on scary adventures, like finding a head in a jar inside a storage unit, and that she saved the day. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it unconsciously reinforced (and likely introduced) harmful biases that I had to unlearn on my own when I was older.
I’ve revisited this movie more times than any other in my life (and certainly more often than My Little Pony: The Movie, which eventually fell out of my favour), and my relationship to the film has changed over time. Just as we can’t expect people to be monoliths, we can’t expect our relationships to media to be static and unchanging. After all, The Silence of the Lambs itself is a story of reinvention. Specifically, I see it as a story of reinvention as escape and the desire to steer our own metamorphoses. This at least should be obvious: the movie is rife with images of chrysalises and moths.
“I watch Silence of The Lambs because I’m still a sucker for characters like Clarice, who show pluck and determination while they strive to carve out a space for themselves”
Although their desire for reinvention is the most overt, Jame is far from the only person who is seeking transformation. To oversimplify, their desire is to transcend a body that causes them dysphoria. Clarice is a clever and ambitious trainee, but she is ultimately a rookie who makes rookie mistakes, trusting her gut to behave in ways that ultimately put herself and others at risk. She puts on makeup, blurs her accent, and refuses to speak using contractions in her desire to shed her image as a rookie agent and small-town girl. She believes that these practices will factor into whether she will be taken seriously by her peers (who, yes, are mostly men). Hannibal Lecter literally wears another person’s face on top of his own to secure freedom from a literal, physical cage.
Each of these characters commits their own transgressions as means to their individual ends. Jame is killed for their transgressions. Clarice graduates with honours and accolades for shooting them. Lecter walks freely through crowded streets, unimpeded as he pursues his next kill. Setting aside the scale of their various transgressions (although all of them put lives at risk), and considering the background histories of each of the characters, the movie sends a clear message about who it thinks deserves to have control over their own identity — and that’s a message that the movie has never had any business to assert.
When I watch The Silence of the Lambs, I watch it for the familiarity of a VHS rewatched so many times that the tape is worn out in patches and the corners of its cardboard case are worn velvety-soft with handling. I watch it for the clever direction that paints a dynamic picture of the power shifts between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter through gazes that pierce the lens or drift off-target, the bold close-ups that defy being called “face-framing” because full faces cannot be crammed into the frame. You’re forced to engage with characters by looking them dead in the eye because otherwise you’re focusing on the skin slightly below that eye, or maybe a crease adjacent to it. I watch it because I’m still a sucker for characters like Clarice, who show pluck and determination while they strive to carve out a space for themselves where they aren’t exactly welcome. But I don’t kid myself that it’s an untouchable movie. I sit in the discomfort of acknowledging what it has done poorly, and when I’m watching it with someone else, we acknowledge it out loud. We discuss it. The people who have been harmed by the film’s content deserve much more than that.
“Such a sad, strange anniversary,” Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) says within the first minute of the new series’ pilot episode. She is, of course, referring to the day that she killed Jame Gumb, but the sentiment accurately captures my feelings about celebrating The Silence of the Lambs‘ 30th anniversary. You can continue to count The Silence of the Lambs among your all-time faves if you want to. I still do. But if you don’t have a problem with its impact or if you refuse to acknowledge it, then you have some serious reflecting to do.
Are the lambs still screaming? Share your thoughts with us over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Want horror delivered right to your inbox? Check out the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.